When WCCO’s Mike Max crawled into bed at 3 a.m. the other night, after hours of covering the George Floyd protests, his wife tried to lighten the mood.
“I hope you don’t have tear gas in your hair,” she said. “I don’t want to wake up coughing.”
Not that the station’s sports anchor is getting much sleep these days.
“Your adrenaline just spikes,” Max said Tuesday while heading to report on a silent protest in St. Paul. “It takes a long time to come down from that.”
Dozens of local and national journalists can relate. But Max has found himself getting more attention than his peers, proving that a guy known almost exclusively for covering athletes can handle a major league crisis as well as any hard-news reporter. Maybe even better.
At one point last weekend, he was the No. 1 topic on local Twitter feeds. Almost every post sang his praises.
“We’ve now elevated @WCCO’s Mike Max to Legendary War Correspondent in our household,” wrote one fan. “He needs a scooter and a ’CCO cape.”
Even competitors have been impressed.
“Mike Max needs to win an Emmy for his protest reporting!” tweeted Cathy Wurzer, who hosts MPR’s “Morning Edition” and TPT’s “Almanac.”
One colleague who isn’t surprised by the seamless transition is Frank Vascellaro.
“He knows how to deal with people under a lot of emotional stress,” said the WCCO news anchor who hosts a high school sports show with Max most Fridays. “It’s not easy to talk to people who have just lost the biggest game of their lives and do it with grace, charm and humor. He can talk to anybody about anything. That’s a great personality to have out on the streets.”
Vascellaro also believes his friend’s experience working on deadline has benefited him in during a story that’s constantly in motion.
“The timeline pressure of turning sports stories is much greater than when you’re turning a news story,” he said. “You’re often interviewing a guy when the game ends at 9:50 and have to get the story on the air at 10:05.”
Max is quick to dispel notions that there is a big gap between covering a playoff game and unrest in the streets.
“In an emergency, what’s the difference between me or any other reporter?” said Max, struggling to figure out the volume control on the new phone he purchased during a rare hour off. “None of us know what’s happening. We’re all in the same boat. It’s not that much different from sports. You think you know the story in the first quarter. It changes in the second quarter, and then in the third. The way you process is similar.”
Almost immediately after George Floyd’s death on May 25, Max started discussing law enforcement and race relations as part of his WCCO radio show, “Sports to the Max,” but strictly through the lens of athletes participating in rallies.
Last Friday, word got to the WCCO-TV newsroom that protesters were starting to shut down the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. Max stood up and volunteered his services.
News director Kari Patey quickly accepted the offer.
“We sent him out because good reporters are good reporters,” said Patey, who also notes that sports reporter Norman Seawright has also been a valuable asset this past week. “This was an all-hands-on-deck situation and Mike has an innate ability to tell stories through people’s experiences.”
That’s especially true when it comes to covering Minnesotans.
Max, who was born in Gaylord, Minn., played baseball and basketball while attending Hamline University. He has spent his entire professional career working in the Twin Cities.
His knowledge of the area has come in handy, whether he’s explaining how protestors were getting blocked in by police near Bobby and Steve’s Auto World or offering detailed commentary while driving down Lake Street as locals protected storefronts.
He learned from Star Tribune sports columnist Sid Hartman how to build a vast network of contacts that he could trust and would trust him in return. From former WCCO anchor Don Shelby, he learned the importance of taking people aside and developing a rapport that would put them at ease before going on camera. Both those lessons have come in handy.
“I can’t begin to tell you how many people I’ve run into in the midst of all this that I have some background with, like covering them when they were in high school,” said Max, who was promoted to sports director early last year following Mark Rosen’s retirement. “I’ve taken some criticism for not wearing a mask, but that’s strategic. If they recognize me, it’s almost like comfort food. Everyone wants to talk sports. It’s easy to strike up a conversation.”
Max’s folksy approach is just one reason WCCO has been the leader in local ratings this past week.
“Mike’s got incredible heart and sees people for who they are just like all of my news reporters,” Patey said. “It’s no surprise he was able to capture humanity on some of our darkest nights.”
Max’s secret weapon? A constant consumption of coffee, preferably half-decaf. His only complaint this past week is that, with so many businesses closed at night, it’s been hard to fill his cup.
“He should be a spokesperson for Caribou Coffee,” Vascellaro said. “This dude has more energy than the Energizer Bunny. I’ve never, ever seen him fatigued.”
As much as Max has enjoyed working on the news side, he’s not thinking about a career change.
“I want to go back to sports,” he said. “But I love the fact that the newsroom now knows that if they need me for anything else, they can call on me.”