by Thad Mumau | Photography by Diana Matthews
Tom Suiter is a true giant when it comes to television sports in North Carolina. He would never say so himself, and that is one of his most endearing qualities.
Despite being one of the most recognizable personalities and one of the best at what he does, he is always down to earth, friendly and humble. The WRAL broadcaster, who recently became totally retired after 45 years with the station, is kind to everyone; his smile has become a state treasure.
Suiter has made “Football Friday” and the Extra Effort Award landmarks of high school athletics. He has kept sports fun, while becoming friends with the folks watching him on screen. The word icon is perhaps used too frequently, but in Suiter’s case, it is appropriate.
It really is hard to think of TV sports and not think of Tom Suiter.
ONC: How did you decide to work in television?
TS: It all started when I was in high school. It was the summer before my senior year, and I was thinking, “What in the heck am I going to do when I grow up?” I was really only interested in sports, and I decided I needed to do something with that. When school started back, I joined the school paper and did the same when I went off to Erskine College.
My freshman year, I played for the basketball team as a walk-on. After realizing I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, I worked in the sports information office. During the summer of 1969, I had my first broadcasting experience, working as the public address announcer for the Rocky Mount Leafs of the Carolina League. In the spring of 1971, I was getting ready to graduate college, and it’s then I thought about television.
You were with WRAL from the start. How did that happen?
I applied to every TV station in North and South Carolina, and the only letter I got back was from WRAL, the station I grew up watching. It came from Jesse Helms, who at that time was the executive vice-president. Later, of course, he was a six-term U.S. Senator. Anyway, he wrote that there might be an opportunity for me. I interviewed with the legendary Ray Reeve, whom I grew up watching and listening to, and started work June 2, 1971. WRAL is the only place I ever worked.
Did you grow up loving sports?
I sure did. Sports was my entire life when I was young. I played football, basketball and baseball. I loved reading about sports, especially baseball. I read every book or magazine story I could that was about sports. I loved the old Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Celtics. I can still tell you the starting lineup for the 1927 New York Yankees. I would go out in the back yard by myself, and I was the announcer and also all 10 players—Duke against Carolina in basketball. My broadcasting hero was Ray Reeve. Little did I dream that one day I would work with him.
Some people in television consider themselves celebrities. You have always been the same guy. How did you avoid having a big ego?
The great broadcaster, David Brinkley, once said if you put a chimpanzee on television for seven years, everybody would know who he was. Just because I was on television didn’t mean I was anything special. There were many nights I believed I probably shouldn’t have been on television. I always did —and still do to this day—know my limitations. I tried to stay out of situations I knew I might not do well. I used to marvel at some of the people I worked with, like Charlie Gaddy and Bob Debardalaben. They were so good and natural. I wasn’t in their class and I knew it. I considered myself someone doing a job that happened to be visible. A job maybe I wasn’t cut out for, but trying to do the very best I could. To this day, I remember the mistakes more than the successes.
You have always been so friendly and kind. Does that come from your parents?
Both of them were extraordinary people. My dad died in 2001; my mom is still going strong at 92. From my dad, I learned kindness and never to brag, and to be grateful. My mother has such a love for life and people, and luckily, I picked up some of those traits from her. I am very proud of them. I have always believed you should treat people with respect and kindness. I love when people come up and want to talk. I relish those moments and am flattered they would want to do that. I love those conversations.
Is there an interview that stands out for you?
I’ve been kind of like Forrest Gump—an average person who has gotten to meet a lot of big-time people and have seen plenty of North Carolina sports history. My very first interview for WRAL was with John Wooden, and my last was with Mike Krzyzewski.
I guess the one that stands out is John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach. He was an instructor at the Campbell Basketball School, and I was there fresh out of college. I wore the only tie and dress shirt that I owned. I had never been on camera my entire life. I had stayed up most of the night before, thinking of questions I could ask Coach Wooden. It was a really hot day and I was so nervous. When the time came, I forgot everything I had memorized. So I started to read my questions off my notes. About halfway through, Coach Wooden asked our photographer to stop the camera. He looked at me and said, “Son, talk to me like we’re having a conversation, and if you do that, you will do pretty well in this business.” It’s something I will never forget.
What sport did you enjoy covering the most?
Growing up, my favorite sport was baseball, but that changed to basketball as we moved into the 1960s. The first game I ever saw on TV was UNC’s triple-overtime win over Kansas for the 1957 national title. You don’t grow up in North Carolina without loving ACC basketball. Then, to go to WRAL and be able to cover Tobacco Road was a dream come true.
“Jamburger” (describing a dunk) is the Suiterism that comes to mind. How did that come to be?
Jamburger is one of those phrases I wish I could forget. My style was to try and take people to the game and make them feel like they were there. Most of my good stuff was stolen from the great Warner Wolf, the most famous local sportscaster in history.
“Football Friday” is synonymous with Tom Suiter. How did that happen?
It was a result of our trying to have more coverage of high school athletics. So we would send photographers out and get highlights of as many games as we could. We packed them into our late sportscast on Friday night. In 1989, we started doing the 30-minute show that turned into Football Friday. The response has been wonderful.
How did the Extra Effort Award come about?
It came from Steve Grissom, our news director at the time. It was 1981, and he thought it would get me out in front of people since I had always been pretty low-key. At the start, we would land our helicopter on the school’s football field on Thursday and shoot the presentation to be shown that night. It was based solely on athletics. Now, academics and community involvement are also criteria. We look for people who do lots of things. I am very proud of the Extra Effort Award.
What was your relationship like with your WRAL colleagues?
I have worked at the station almost 45 years. It was like a family. So many talented people. So many nice people. When I started at WRAL, I didn’t have the slightest idea about television. They put me on the air right away and helped me learn.
What sports icons are at the top of your list?
There are so many. Among them is Muhammad Ali, whom I got to interview in 1977. When I introduced myself, I said, “Champ, I am … ” And he said, “Tramp? Did you just call me tramp?” He saw the look on my face and laughed, telling me he was just kidding. He was great.
You love to read … who are some authors whose next work you always eagerly await?
I just finished “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah, and it put tears in my eyes. I read a lot of fiction—Dan Silva, Stuart Woods, John Sandford, John Grisham, David Baldacci, Jack Higgins, Den Follett, Nelson DeMille.
What’s your secret to staying fit?
I walk three to three and a half miles almost every day. I get some form of exercise each day. My wife, Julie, has really helped me with my diet. She was a gymnast at Duke and is in excellent condition. She tells me how eating healthy will keep me living longer. I’m a vegan and haven’t had meat since June of 2001. I weigh what I weighed in high school: 152 pounds. I can’t do the same things or do them in the same ways. It’s tough sometimes, but I enjoy life.
How do you sum up your career?
I got to work in the golden age of television, was paid to be a part of North Carolina history. I have been very fortunate and very blessed.