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The voice of Rowan County sports: Howard Platt heads for retirement

SALISBURY — It’s difficult to remember a time when the rich, enthusiastic voice of Howard Platt wasn’t filling the airwaves in Rowan County.

For the past 37 years, he called virtually every pitch of American Legion baseball. Rowan County’s highly successful program usually played deep into the summers and sometimes took Platt to press boxes in places such as Florida, Alabama, Oregon and North Dakota.

That’s not going to be happening any longer.

Thousands of times, Platt has walked up the bleachers of some high school gymnasium or stadium, made the necessary line connections, settled behind a table and put on his headphones to do the play-by-play for another high school football, basketball or baseball game.

Those days, too, are coming to an end.

There also was a time when Platt served as sidekick, sounding board and foil for Kent Bernhardt. Their popular morning show revealed not only Platt’s unrivaled allegiances for the Washington Redskins and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, but it also showed his liberal, politically opinionated side, for which he was unapologetic.

The “Kent and Howard” morning show ended as their longtime home, WSTP 1490, struggled and slipped off the dial.

“We’ve been off the air over two years,” Bernhardt says, “and people still tell me how much they miss that show.”

The morning of May 12, Howard Platt will record his last sports report for WSAT, where he has been working briefly in the mornings and calling games when assignments come his way.

Platt plans to retire, bringing to an end a Hall of Fame sportscasting career that has touched five different decades.

“Howard Platt has been Rowan County sports on radio,” says Doug Rice, president and lead anchor for Performance Racing Network and a former colleague of Platt’s.

“It didn’t matter if it was American Legion baseball, Salisbury High football or following county teams to the championship, Howard Platt was there. He was the voice on the radio that transported generations of Rowan County sports fans to the games.”

Several days after his retirement, Platt no doubt will head to Gary’s Barbecue in China Grove to eat lunch and talk about local sports with a bunch of buddies. They have met on Wednesdays for decades, and on that day Platt will be celebrating his 66th birthday.

In retirement, Platt will have time to address a couple of physical problems that have made climbing the stairs to press boxes more difficult.

He also plans to start enjoying games as a fan, not a voice. Overall, he says, it will be nice to have the freedom to do things that were impossible because he was forever tied to the broadcast booth.

Since 1979, “I never had a summer free, basically,” he says.

“I think Howard is an iconic Rowan County character,” says WBTV senior reporter David Whisenant, who served as Platt’s color analyst on Legion baseball for more than 20 years.

“I wish there was a way to know just how many innings, quarters and halves of local sports he broadcast over his time here. He made sure that every player got attention, downplayed the mistakes that were made by young players and was able to always be positive without resorting to boosterism.”

Platt had one overriding rule for Whisenant as his young partner in the booth: “He would never refer to any team he was covering as ‘we,'” Whisenant says. “He was really strict about that and told me not to do it.”

•••

Platt leaves a void. He already is an inductee in the Rowan County Sports Hall of Fame, and he is a former N.C. Sportscaster of the Year, as voted on by members of the National Sports Media Association.

But for all the games he has called, all the local, state and nationally known athletes he has interviewed, all the advertisers he has plugged and all the records he once played as a disc jockey, Platt says he probably enjoyed his work on WSTP’s morning shows the best.

He considers Bernhardt the most talented person in radio he has ever worked with, and as for the different takes they had on various issues, “that’s what made it good,” Platt says.

Bernhardt says people often told him they sounded like a bickering married couple on the air.

“Some of our exchanges could get heated at times,” says Bernhardt, who is production coordinator for PRN, “but whenever we would go to commercial, it was like, ‘Hey, wanna grab some lunch after this?’

“It rarely got personal.”

As unlikely a pairing as it seemed, Bernhardt said he loved doing the morning show with Platt. The pair have been friends and colleagues since they were young, on-air talents at WSTP, and the Bernhardt family always invites Platt to Thanksgiving dinner.

“We would just open the mics and let ourselves go on any topic, local or national,” Bernhardt says of the old show. “We were like two guys at the water cooler spouting off on the issues of the day, almost like we didn’t realize we were on the air.

“We were so different, and neither of us held back. People loved it.”

Platt was a Jewish, liberal voice in the heart of a conservative, Christian, mostly Republican county. He also wore his love for the Redskins and Tar Heels on his sleeve.

Steve Phillips, a former Salisbury Post sportswriter and now an associate director in communications for the Atlantic Coast Conference, recalls when Tar Heel arch rival Duke University lost to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas by 30 points in the 1990 NCAA basketball championship game.

When Bernhardt threw it to Platt for the sports report the next morning, listeners heard the beginning of the old Surfaris’ song that opens with a wild, maniacal laugh and the shout “Wipe Out!”

“Then Howard gleefully did his sportscast over the ensuing instrumentals,” Phillips says. “I think he got a few phone calls from PO’d listeners — and loved every second.”

Likewise, listeners had fun at Platt’s expense when the Tar Heels or Redskins came up short. But the gregarious Platt has a knack for keeping friends, no matter what their sports or political allegiances.

“As someone with such a deep, passionate feeling for his teams,” Phillips says, “he empathizes and celebrates with you when your own teams do well — provided it isn’t Duke or the Cowboys.”

•••

Howard Alan Platt grew up in Strasburg, Va. His father ran and owned 50 percent of a textile mill in the small Southern town, where the Platts were one of the few Jewish families.

Platt’s older brother, Steve, would go to undergraduate school at the University of Virginia and later earn a law degree at American University. Steve became a judge and today often serves as a mediator in difficult lawsuits.

Both brothers attended Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock, Va. Platt was a day student from eighth grade until he graduated in 1969. It was a school of parades, inspections, short haircuts, uniforms, ties, shined shoes and brass.

Platt didn’t feel as though he was always fitting in with this structured environment and says he was assigned a “desk job” for his last year-and-a-half, out of the administration’s fear his attitude would rub off on other students.

Platt says you have to remember the times, filled with civil rights protests and the unpopular Vietnam War.

“1969 was an amazing year,” he says.

Platt did well academically and was named valedictorian of his class. At graduation, as the faculty held its collective breath, he gave without incident a speech promoting peaceful protests of the war.

•••

As a kid, Platt became a long-suffering Washington Senators fan in baseball.

On the pro football side, Platt’s father bought season tickets to Redskins games in 1963, and the family would keep those tickets well into the 21st century. So Platt grew up going to every Redskins home game, back in the days when Sonny Jurgenson was the Washington quarterback.

“They were mediocre,” Platt says, “but they were exciting mediocre.”

The seed for Platt’s becoming a broadcaster was probably planted listening to Frank Herzog, the Redskins’ play-by-play man. Other sports announcers he tuned into were the Senators’ John MacLean and Dan Daniels and the Baltimore Orioles’ Chuck Thompson and Bill O’Donnell.

He also enjoyed Warner Wolf’s sports talk show.

An English teacher first talked to Platt as a sophomore about possibly attending the University of North Carolina. Platt visited the UNC campus in Chapel Hill as a junior.

“I got enthralled with Carolina, I really did,” he says. “I fell in love with the town and the atmosphere.”

A psychology major at UNC, Platt lived in Granville Towers and befriended the Tar Heel basketball team. During his sophomore year, he lived on the same floor as the team, in the days of George Karl, Bob McAdoo and Bobby Jones.

Platt often tells the story of how he beat Karl badly in a game of his choosing — badminton.

Platt’s first radio work came in 1972 during UNC football games for WRBX in Chapel Hill. He gave “progress reports” from Kenan Stadium on Saturday afternoons, and also did some stringing work for the Chapel Hill newspaper.

•••

Platt stayed in Chapel Hill for a year after graduating in 1973, working an assortment of jobs and trying to figure out his career path. He knew he wanted to get into sports broadcasting, even though he had applied to the graduate program in psychology at James Madison University.

He opted for radio, obtained his FCC license in Salem, Va., and went to work for three-and-a-half years at WCVA/WCUL in Culpepper, Va.

Platt worked shifts as a disc jockey and was a color analyst for high school basketball and football games. His first work in play-by-play came in calling junior varsity basketball.

Meanwhile, Platt kept practicing on his own. He took a correspondence course through the Columbia School of Broadcasting, which he says helped him with inflections and how to phrase things.

He taught himself baseball broadcasting by playing an APBA board game, which dictated player movements by the roll of dice. “I would announce those games to myself,” he says. “I could actually picture the baseball game in my head and describe the action.”

Through a trade publication, Platt learned about an opening for a sports announcer at WSTP/WRDX in Salisbury. Station Manager Phil Kehr hired Platt to replace Bob Rathbun.

During the day, Platt filed sports reports and had a shift as a deejay. His first play-by-play assignment was a Salisbury High football game in 1978 with Rice.

“And we were both absolutely awful,” Platt says.

Rice says Platt listened to their first tape over and over.

“And the next time, we were much better,” Rice says. “From that rough start, you spin ahead 39 years and he’s created his own special brand in Rowan County.”

•••

In the summer of 1979, Platt was calling his first Rowan County American Legion games, and over the first two summers, the team reached the state championship finals each year.

“What Harry Carey was to the Cubs, Howard Platt is to Rowan County American Legion baseball,” Rice says. “His passion for Legion ball is second to none.”

Whisenant says Platt had another passion at Newman Park: “He could eat two Pinky’s hot dogs within a one-minute commercial window between innings and never miss a beat.”

During college football seasons, before the days of the internet, Platt was radio host for the Schlitz Scoreboard Show on Saturdays, when people would call in asking him for scores of their favorite teams.

Rice and Platt did Catawba College football and basketball games together for several seasons and traveled with the team one year to the NAIA basketball championship in Kansas City.

“I think those games were being listened to in every gas station and barbecue joint in Rowan,” Rice says.

Because WRDX had such a strong signal, Platt also was the play-by-play voice one season for Davidson College basketball. His color analyst was former Tar Heel basketball player and future head coach Matt Doherty.

In another season, Platt was the color man for University of North Carolina at Charlotte basketball games.

•••

Through the years, Platt followed many Rowan County high school teams on their runs to state championships, and he is leery of signaling out favorite teams or coaches.

He liked them all.

The same goes for the many color analysts who have sat beside him — and there have been plenty — though Whisenant and Wilson Cherry stand out. Platt and Cherry became synonymous with weekly high school football broadcasts for some 25 years.

Thanks to the old Bing Crosby celebrity golf event at Bermuda Run and Salisbury’s being home to the National Sports Media Association, Platt was able to interview many of the great sports figures and sports announcers of his time.

They are too numerous to name — from Jim Nantz and John Wooden, to Mickey Mantle and Bob Costas.

The late Joe Garagiola presented Platt his N.C. Sportscaster of the Year Award, and at past NSMA gatherings, Platt met and became friends with Herzog, his beloved voice of the Redskins.

“Howard and I once got caught in a surprise snowstorm coming back from doing a High Point-Catawba basketball game,” Rice says. “It took us three hours to get back to Salisbury. I’m pretty sure I got a position-by-position rundown of the Redskins during the ride home.”

Platt still goes to a Redskins home game once a year with his brother and nephew. It’s always a great weekend.

“I often tell people Howard is like that beat-up teddy bear you had as a kid,” Bernhardt says. “Maybe it wasn’t your newest, coolest possession, but if you ever lost it or someone took it away from you, you came unglued.

“… That’s Howard. He’s not your standard issue sports guy. He has some rough edges, but he grew on this community in such a unique way that he’ll be greatly missed.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

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