Mon, 15 Aug 2022

"He invested in me"

Carolina Panthers
30 Jun 2022, 05:44 GMT+10

CHARLOTTE - South Carolina State sports information director Bill Hamilton had known Charlie Dayton since the early 1970s, when he was young in his job, and Dayton was in his at Furman.

So when Dayton became the first head of public relations for the expansion Panthers in 1994, Hamilton thought he might be able to use an old connection for some of his young students at the HBCU in Orangeburg, S.C.

"I thought maybe Charlie could help me get a few of my student assistants in to see a game," Hamilton said.

Dayton did far more than that, for far more people than Hamilton, creating a legacy of opportunities for so many future leaders in his profession. That's part of the reason he's being honored this week at the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the Award of Excellence, which recognizes five pioneers in the fields of NFL public relations, along with assistant coaches, athletic trainers, and equipment managers.

It's a rare group - effectively the first class of the public relations Hall of Fame - and there's a reason Dayton is in it. His list of accomplishments in the NFL is long (he was the first PR person named to the All-Madden team, for goodness sakes). But his list of people he hired working in the NFL is even longer, with former assistants leading their own departments and working in the league office now (and one of them also happens to be an NFL general manager).

Dayton led by actions, not just opening a door but providing a map and showing them how to use a compass so they could read it, and then teaching them how to pass those skills to others. And he did it with a caring, understated style that often obscured the fiery competitor beneath.

But being good at his job is only the beginning of why Dayton holds a special place in so many hearts across the NFL. He created opportunities for so many people, who are carrying the lessons they learned inside Bank of America Stadium from one of the masters.

And they've all got a story to tell.

One of Hamilton's students at South Carolina State - though as Hamilton admits with a laugh, not necessarily one of his best ones - was a wide-eyed kid named Ted Crews. "He was a little bit lazy at first," Hamilton said with a laugh. "I thought at first he was just doing it for a little pocket money so he could go out on the weekends."

"Oh, it was absolutely just a hustle then," Crews said with a laugh.

Now that he's the executive vice president of communications for the Kansas City Chiefs, it's far more than a hustle for Crews. Although rearranging his family vacation plans so he could make the 12-hour drive from KC to Canton with his son TJ this week took some hustling, it was also a pilgrimage of devotion.

"There's no way this man's going into the Hall, and I'm not going to be there to see it," Crews said, choking up on the other end of the phone, because that's how Crews rolls, and how Dayton has impacted him. "Every meal my family eats, it's because of him."

And Crews remembers exactly when it all began.

On Nov. 2, 1997, Hamilton got up at 6 a.m. in Orangeburg and dragged Crews along to Charlotte. Dayton had in fact, gotten one of Hamilton's students in to see a game. And it left a mark. It's fair to say Crews gushes about the details, from sitting on a stool in the press box directly behind legendary Raiders owner Al Davis, to the sideline fight that broke out between the teams that day.

And then he met the man who'd change his life.

"This short, gray-haired guy walks up, and he introduces himself to me," Crews said. "Here's this 20-year-old, with terrible grades, and this mountain in his profession, and he walks up and says 'It's nice to meet you, I've heard a lot about you.'"

That introduction led to internships with the Panthers in 1998 and 1999, giving Crews a chance to learn, to push himself, and to be pushed. Crews is one of those natural PR guys, with an easy charm, and a gift for making connections and making people comfortable. But he was still a late-round pick from a small school who could use a year on the practice squad. He was good at big-picture stuff, but he lacked polish, and details sometimes got away from him. And it almost ended up with him walking away from a job he loved, because he was afraid he wasn't pulling his weight.

But at that moment, Dayton offered more than just encouragement, he offered tangible help. Because he saw something in Crews that deserved more than just a key to the pool and a chance to sink or swim.

Crews was good. But his written copy still had too many grammatical issues. So at Crews' annual review, they talked about his progress, and Dayton arranged for an English tutor to help Crews after hours with the mechanics of writing, to strengthen his off-hand so to speak, so all his other natural skills could shine.

"I walked in that day thinking I was going to quit, thinking I couldn't do it, because I was terrible and I was holding everybody back," Crews recalled. "He saved my professional life that day, because he said, 'You can do things naturally that I can't teach, but you've got to believe in it because I believe in it.' So he sends me to a tutor. Who does that? He could have chosen a million people to replace me.

"But he invested in me, and he changed the course of my life. That's who he is, he loves you, and he's all in if you're in. He just has this beautiful, cultivating spirit."

Phil Skinner/AP

Of course, it's not all sunshine and rainbows, and Crews learned that the cover charge for that kind of care was that you had to care as much as Dayton did. And that's a lot. So when there was a slip-up in Houston in 2004, on the first day of the Panthers' first Super Bowl week, Dayton lit into him.

"'This is the Super Bowl; you've got to pick it up,'" Crews recalled Dayton barking, and there may have been an adjective before Super Bowl, one of the big adjectives you don't get to print. "Charlie raised us old school."

That's why, when Crews got his own job leading a PR department in Kansas City, and the Chiefs went to the Super Bowl in Miami after the 2019 season, Crews did something he usually does anyway - he called his old mentor. What Dayton didn't realize at first was that he was on speakerphone, and the staff Crews had built with the Chiefs was awaiting tips on how to get through the most stressful week of their professional lives.

"He went right into Charlie mode, started offering real advice and knowledge, practical stuff for the week," Crews said, welling up as he told the story. "But mostly, I wanted him here with me in that moment, since I wouldn't be there without him, and I wanted my staff to hear it from the best to ever do it.

"And I prayed that he'd be proud of the job we did."

Steven Drummond's no different than any of Dayton's other proteges, in terms of his affection.

But as the man who replaced him atop the Panthers PR department when Dayton largely retired after the 2014 season (Dayton stayed as a team historian and alumni affairs director until 2017), Drummond had his own unique journey to that chair.

Since Drummond's father Mike was the assistant AD at Winthrop when the Panthers were based out of the Coliseum there in 1995, a 15-year-old got to hang around an NFL team when he wasn't in school. If you see the old pictures, Drummond's the one pulling head coach Dom Capers' microphone cords on the sideline (coaches still needed cords to communicate then).

So he too grew up old school, and at Dayton's side. After serving his internships and graduating from the University of South Carolina, Drummond spent three years working for the Jaguars before coming home in 2005.

Drummond has since stepped away from public relations, expanding his portfolio as the Panthers' vice president of football operations. But the lessons he learned from Dayton come back to him every day.

"He taught me personally how to be accountable and respectful," Drummond said. "When you're working as a communications professional, you know you get put into situations where you have to take a tough stance, but base it on the right thing.

"When you're dealing with owners, coaches, players, and some of the most popular players in the team's history, you're not always going to agree because everyone has conflicting values. If you try to make everyone happy, you'll make no one happy."

And Drummond was there to see Dayton take such a stance, and take a bit of a risk in the process.

Former Panthers wideout Steve Smith Sr. blew hot and cold with the media, to say the least. As insightful and engaging as he could be when he wanted to be, he went through some stints that could charitably be described as difficult.

Smith thought it would be funny to mark the end of the open locker room period (when reporters are allowed in to do interviews for 45 minutes twice a week) by blowing an air horn. It made the always-on-edge receiver happy to remind everyone he was there and watching the clock.

Others weren't always as amused, depending on their profession and proximity to the horn (and it wasn't just reporters who were annoyed by it).

Dayton knew it was a counterproductive fight, and one that didn't need to be picked. But the list of people who were willing to confront the 5-foot-9-ish receiver wasn't a long one. But Dayton went to him, pleading at first, lay off the horn, it's only making people mad at all of us.

Next open locker room, the horn was back.

Again, Dayton went to Smith, and explained why instigating reporters wasn't particularly helping anyone.

Next open locker room, the horn was back.

Again, Dayton talked to Smith, a little more forcefully explaining why this gag had gone on long enough.

Next open locker room, the horn was back.

"Charlie lost his mind," Drummond recalled. "He ran into the training room, and just started ripping Steve in half. The whole room went silent, because here's this 5-foot-9, a-buck-nothing Charlie Dayton going nose-to-nose with one of the toughest players in NFL history.

"And when Charlie walked out of that training room, the whole place burst into laughter. Players were rolling."

It was absolutely out of character. It was perhaps ill-advised.

"I remember going back upstairs to his office, and Charlie was still steaming, and he said 'Steven, this might be my last day," Drummond recalled.

It was not Dayton's last day, not by a long shot. The horn, on the other hand, went silent for a while. There was a lesson in there, and it wasn't lost on Drummond.

"This man is a warrior; he is courageous," Drummond said.

Drummond can go on and on the way they all can, and he comes back to a central theme. Dayton didn't just tell you how to do a job, he showed you, and he helped you become better at yours.

"He taught me how to trust my gut," Drummond said. "He had this insight, this perspective, that you don't always follow data or the norm. It's one thing to be right in theory, but in practice, it's often more difficult.

"And at the end of the day, the business is about people; attracting, training, and developing people and setting them up in a position to succeed. Charlie is a man of the people, and he will empower you and get out of the way. And then he trusts you to do the right things."

Of the lot of his assistants with the Panthers who have gone on to become leaders, none of them have been around longer than Bruce Speight.

Speight first met Dayton in 1990, when Dayton was running PR in Washington. Speight, then a senior at Howard working on a term paper, had arranged to talk to Bobby Mitchell, one of the first Black players in franchise history for the last NFL team to integrate.

Speight met the PR director that day, laying the groundwork for a job that would eventually come. But it was more eventual than it had to be. Speight worked as a training camp intern, and helped on game days, but when Dayton offered him a full-time job, Speight declined, citing a commitment to go to grad school. Washington beat Buffalo in the Super Bowl that year.

And it was patience that made Speight stand out to Dayton, when he was early in his work with Washington.

Speight recalled his boss sending the young intern to take coach Joe Gibbs' car from training camp in Carlisle, Pa. back to the team's headquarters back in Ashburn, Va. (a quick two-hour drive).

"I was afraid to turn the air conditioning on," Speight said with a laugh.

Then the team traded for defensive tackle Tim Johnson, so Speight was sent back to the airport to collect him. Then they broke camp early. There were a lot of trips back and forth those days. Speight did it all, without flinching. So even though Speight went on to take another job with the Hoop It Up Tour when he finished school, he remained on Dayton's radar. In the spring of 1995, Dayton brought him to Charlotte to help with the expansion team's staff.

"He didn't overcomplicate things," Speight said. "He made things digestible, and gave people ways to make it work. He created an environment where we felt like we could do this, and he armed us with the tools to be successful."

Speight's been doing this a long time, and left the Panthers to run the PR department for the Jets in 2007. He's seen some things.

And though New York's a different environment than Charlotte, it was the lesson the easy-going man from the Carolinas sent him to the city with that stuck with him.

"I think his greatest asset was his patience," Speight said. "He had this even-tempered nature that served him and the team well.

"There are things you can hear him say in your head, and of all of them, I can hear him saying, "Let it play out, let it play out.'"

Speight was the first of many executives Dayton would provide chances to here, who would go on to head their own departments.

One of his other early hires was another kid from South Carolina State - and according to Hamilton, a better student than Crews - named Avis Roper. Roper would eventually go on to lead the PR operation for the Colts, navigating them through some unprecedented days after cutting some guy named Peyton Manning and learning coach Chuck Pagano had been diagnosed with cancer in the same year. Roper now works for the league office.

But Roper wasn't sure he'd ever get that kind of a chance.

When he was an intern with the Panthers, one of his jobs was to ferry reporters to an off-site parking lot after games in a borrowed van.

As it turns out, that van was a bit taller than the parking garage Roper tried to pull it into. After that initial walk of shame back to the press box, he would later back that van into a car in a different parking lot.

"I knew I was fired the first time, Roper said. "I mean, obviously, he was disappointed with me, but he never showed any emotion.

"The grace and forgiveness he gave me when I absolutely didn't deserve it will always stand out to me."

That, as you can tell, was a pattern with Dayton.

Scott Cunningham/Getty

Ravens senior vice president of communications Chad Steele was another one of Dayton's interns.

A former basketball player at Winthrop who may or may not have had a clear plan for the future, Steele was sent to talk to Dayton about possibilities in the world of public relations.

Steele came in sweaty after practice, perhaps not aware a lot of people showered and changed before job interviews.

"There was no reason for him to not throw me out of his office that day," Steele recalled with a laugh. "But he didn't."

Steele has gone on to be one of the most recognizable faces in NFL PR. His friends tease him about being the league's most famous camera-diver, but he's in those visible spots because he's trusted to shepherd Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks off the field in time-sensitive moments. But he admits he might not have gotten this far without that first assist, making him part of a deep roster.

"I mean, all of us have the same story," Steele said. "Charlie believed in us when we weren't sure we could believe in ourselves."

Time after time, Dayton hired young men and women who went on to bigger things. The building is still full of them, with his former interns and assistants still working for the Panthers in several departments. Another of his early interns, a country kid from Stanly County, N.C., named Brandon Beane, is now the general manager of the Buffalo Bills.

The list goes on. And on and on. The common thread is the man who gave them a chance.

And yes, they've all got a story to tell.

A few of them end in tears, especially when Crews starts talking (what a load that guy is). But most of them come with laughter.

And while there's never been a more devoted husband to his wife Lynne (who can fill a room with her own distinctive laugh, and often does), you should hear Charlie's guys tell about the day their boss was smitten. When television's Marg Helgenberger showed up on the sidelines in San Diego for a game (she was a Panthers fan), it was Dayton's honor to show her around. Let's just say he was a fan of her work on CSI.

But behind every story his people tell, there's always a central theme of how much he cares, how hard he works, and what he's put into the business.

One of his best friends in the world is longtime Ravens PR executive Kevin Byrne (who hired Steele on Dayton's recommendation). Byrne has accompanied him on work trips and vacations, and knows Dayton as well as anyone. He knows how to needle him as well.

"He still plays five tennis times a week, and for his age, he's really good," Byrne said.

Byrne also does a mean Dayton impersonation, and it's not an easy one to get right. Dayton's a son of the South (grew up in Raleigh, graduated from Wake Forest), but it would be wrong to describe his speech pattern as a twang. The words just roll in a little more slowly than others, like a breeze blowing in from the sea near his beloved home in Hilton Head, S.C.

"My favorite is, the phone would ring, it would be Charlie," Byrne said with a giggle. "And there would be a little silence, and he'd say . . . 'Kevin, . . . these jobs are hard.'"

It was a flawless delivery.

The two have known each other since 1978, when Dayton was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Byrne got a job with the football Cardinals in St. Louis. So they've got a lot of background, and the respect that goes with it.

"There are some folks in the NFL that are more flamboyant than Charlie, but I think his strength is his humility, his wisdom, and his gentle power of persuasion," Byrne said. "He is highly, highly competitive, whether it be on the tennis court, or with his football franchise, or being the best in the business.

"I think he's just such a strong-willed guy; he's a tough guy. His demeanor when you first meet him, that doesn't leap out, but he has real toughness and fortitude to him. He doesn't back down from challenges. He's obviously special. I mean, in The history of the league, five people in our business in the Hall of Fame. That says so much about him. You could be a good guy and have great success in the NFL."

It's a lot to encompass. And with so many stories to tell about Dayton, it's weird that we're this far into a long piece, and we haven't talked to him yet. Either that, or it's appropriate.

Dayton's ability to make it about everyone other than himself is legendary, and he will go to great lengths to keep it that way. Among the specific tidbits he'd teach his young assistants is "never end up on TV," which was both a gentle reminder to not embarrass the organization, but mostly a professional device for framing a story. It's not about you. Don't let it be.

But he was always available as well, in the service of the job. If there was a reporter who was in the building early, Dayton would unlock the press room door in the mornings before anyone else was around, and would sit and talk - about the day's news or not-news, the state of the league, the state of journalism, but also about kids, about families - the important stuff.

And both sides could know that newspaper reporters and PR directors have different goals and different paths to get there. But it was never adversarial, both sides understood each other.

In those moments, he wasn't a guy trying to soften the news, and the reporter wasn't a guy trying to break any. It was two people talking for what amounted to hours every week, for months on end.

So maybe the right play, for now, is to not call him, because all he'd try to do is diminish his own role in all this, which would be the furthest thing from the truth.

"You know what, you're 100 percent correct," Byrne said when asked about that strategy, before again dropping into Charlie-voice. "He'll say 'Well, Darin, you've talked to those other guys, so you're probably in really good shape right now. You don't need me. . . .'

"And you may not. But those of us old-timers now, who have known Charlie for 20, 30, 40 years, we've all learned something from him that helped us in our world."

And that's a refrain that echoes through every anecdote about Charlie Dayton.

Charlie Dayton helped shape the history of this franchise, and others. The press box is named after him; he's literally part of the brick and mortar.

Charlie Dayton helped tell the story.

But mostly, Charlie Dayton helped people, changing a lot of lives, and never making it about his own.

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