O'Donnell: Question will always linger -- Did Chet Coppock love Chet Coppock?
For Chet Coppock, it was easy being CHET COPPOCK!
It was much more complex being Chet Coppock.
He was born to live in the limelight. He died so far away from it.
News of his death Wednesday from injuries suffered in a car accident in South Carolina reached Chicago Thursday morning.
The reaction was as big as CHET COPPOCK! once had been.
He would have loved it.
He would have loved it even if it was partially littered with parasites and hypocrites who haven't returned his phone calls in years.
He would have loved it because he once again was commanding front-page, top-of-the-heap attention.
He would have loved it because it was a neon reminder of the incredible broadcast sports life force he once had been and still felt he could be.
All along the way, the word "paradox" doesn't completely cover either side of Chet Coppock. "Pagliacciesque" -- derived from Leoncavallo's 19th-century Italian opera about the clown who tries to keep his sadness hidden -- comes much closer.
Up or down, he loved summoning a weak Marlon Brando to quote the anguished longshoreman pug Terry Malloy from the "On the Waterfront":
"I coulda been a contenda. I coulda been somebody!"
At his peaks, Coppock was far beyond being a mere contenda. Within the realm of Chicago sportscasting, he was as big a somebody as they come.
He was capable of overwhelming generosity, both in deed and direction.
He was capable of astounding implosiveness, both on stage and off.
His greatest broadcast peak came during a 35-month run as lead sports anchor at WMAQ-Channel 5.
Coppock arrived back in his hometown in January 1981, after a five-year turn working alongside a young Jane Pauley in Indianapolis. A few streets away, the local NBC affiliate briefly had an ambitious weatherman named David Letterman.
He was 32 years old, bold and brash with a gorgeous bride named Anna. He was to be a vital cog in an amped-up news operation at the NBC o-and-o.
WBBM-Channel 2 News, with Johnny Morris manning sports, was the market leader.
WLS-Channel 7 flailed, so much so that it would take a desperation shot later that year by moving sports ace Tim Weigel over to become news lead.
Against the NFL-toughened Morris and the Yale-educated Weigel, Coppock proved he could compete. He competed from the start and the battle royales continued when Weigel was moved back to sports by the wizardly Dennis Swanson in September, 1983.
Coppock scored the greatest scoop of his career on Halloween night, 1983.
All knew George Halas, 88, was in failing health. By prearrangement, Coppock had it set up with Bears legend Sid Luckman, who was keeping bedside vigil at Halas's North Sheridan Road condo, that if the Papa Bear were to pass, Luckman would call him immediately.
Shortly after 8 p.m., Halas died. Luckman called. Coppock was on air within minutes, infuriating Morris and Weigel.
But less than three weeks later, an odd land mine of his own making suddenly ended Coppock's nights at Channel 5.
For weeks, he had been disregarding set times for sports windows. Too many nights, his reports ran long. Particularly nettlesome was his callousness toward stipulated times on the 10 o'clock news, which meant some bleed-over into the Chicago start of the tremendously profitable "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."
Rather than heel, Coppock wrote a 23-point memo to station management blasting news management. Before he sent the memo, he showed copies to sports second Warner Saunders, producer Jeff Davis and a sports media columnist at The Daily Herald.
All three told him not to send the memo.
But, Coppock did. And on Nov. 16, 1983, in a move that shocked the market, Channel 5 management fired him.
"My life was never the same again," Coppock said last year. "It still haunts me. I still thank God for Anna and for the fact that eventually we'd have (daughter) Lyndsey and (son) Tyler."
Some facile work by attorney Jeff Jacobs -- who would later represent Oprah Winfrey as she conquered the world -- saved Coppock's paycheck.
Because NBC still owed him a significant amount of money, Coppock was moved to WMAQ-AM (670) -- now WSCR-AM -- for a nightly "Coppock on Sports." In tandem with the brilliant producer Cheryl Raye (now Cheryl Raye-Stout), the show laid the foundation for much of what sports talk radio in Chicago has become.
That gig ended in 1988. Coppock moved to what became WMVP-AM (1000) for a while and supplemented his income with "WrestleMania" work for Vince McMahon and assorted commercial accounts including Wheaties and Chicagoland Chevrolet spots involving Walter Payton and Michael Jordan.
In 1994, he uprooted his family and moved to New York to host a talk show on Cablevision. That initiative ended in 1997.
Back in Chicago, Coppock remained "a name" but one with increasingly diminished positions.
He had secondary gigs at WMAQ-AM and AM-1000 but both flamed out. Weigel briefly considered hiring him at Channel 2 in 1997. He maintained a steady stream of commercial and voice-over clients, but none with the standing of his Payton-Jordan years.
"I am a 'has been,' " he told a friend in 2009. "And it slays me to see the response I get now from guys who used to be all over me to get them somewhere."
Thanks to foxholers like Blackhawks chieftains John McDonough and Jay Blunk, Coppock retained some public profile by working alumni and corporate events for the team. He and Anna divorced in 2007 but remained on cordial terms. He walked daughter Lyndsey down the aisle at her wedding last month.
His grandest professional valedictory came in 2013 when he was given the Jack Brickhouse Award -- named for his broadcast idol -- and inducted into the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame.
Away from the marquee, Coppock freely admitted to fighting lifelong residuals from being the only child of parents he termed "alcoholic." His father Chuck also sustained an enormous business setback just as Coppock was entering New Trier High School. The family was forced to sell its Northfield home and move into an apartment within the high school district.
"I was a big, chubby kid who was no good at sports," Coppock said. "That's when I figured the only way I was going to be around anything was to try and become a sportscaster. And even then, after I did a few football games on the high school station, my father told me I stunk."
Tens of thousands of broadcast hours later, anyone who heard Chet Coppock in his prime would vigorously dispute that.
As he said in the dedication of his fifth and final book -- "Your Dime My Dance Floor: Chet Coppock In Pursuit of Chet Coppock" -- published last summer (Eckhartz Press, $25):
"I owe a debt to so many people who elevated my level of curiosity, tweaked my interest in sports and broadcasting and heightened my passion for the underdog.
"I can't name every name but you know who you are … and you know how much I love you."
In the end, the question that will linger is: Did CHET COPPOCK! ever really love Chet Coppock?