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At 10:20 on a Wednesday morning, the Denver Post's Woody Paige strides into his paper's newsroom wearing a cream-colored suit, a pricey tie and a hairstyle that would look more at home on American Idol host Ryan Seacrest than it does on a 57-year-old sports columnist. No scribbler in his right mind would affect such an appearance for a day of pavement pounding, but that chore isn't on Paige's agenda. He's dressed for television.
Since last fall, Paige has been a contributor to Around the Horn, an ESPN offering (seen locally at 3 p.m. weekdays) that pits sports columnists from around the country against each other in a highly choreographed shouting match that reviewers have widely reviled. "I'm sure if you do a Google search, you'll find that this is the worst show in the history of television -- worse than My Mother the Car," Paige declares, in what winds up being only a modest bit of hyperbole.
Yet despite poisonous notices, the program, hosted by Gen-X poster boy Max Kellerman, has found a sizable audience of viewers attracted by its lightning pace, video-game-inspired graphics and air of gleeful rudeness. According to Paige, it's ESPN's most eyeballed show among TV watchers between the ages of twelve and seventeen. No wonder Horn was recently renewed for a second season.
In many ways, Paige is surprised that he's still involved. Early on, he says, "I sucked; the program sucked; I was losing sleep -- I was going to quit." He changed his mind after conversations with folks like remote-site field producer Jason Weindruch, who handles the Denver end of Horn. These chats helped him realize that "this show isn't for me, and it isn't for you. All the critics who hate it are my age, and this isn't made for people our age. It's for kids."
There are exceptions to this rule, of course; Paige says he hears from Horn blowers of various ages who live in the United Kingdom, where the broadcast is seen at night. Still, he's developed an unlikely following among the under-21 set, with a group of students at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University even basing a drinking game on his televised exploits. Kellerman has a mute button that he pushes to silence panelists whose remarks irritate him for one reason or another, and whenever he uses it on Paige -- and he uses it pretty damn often -- members of the Lehigh contingent guzzle down a shot. Move over, Bob Newhart.
Even more bizarre, if that's possible, is the existence of www.woodypaige.com, a Web site owned and operated by John Schelewitz, a Chicago software salesman, who forked over $14.95 for the domain name so he could pay cyber-tribute to the late-blooming TV star -- with Paige's belated permission. The site's news section chronicles the Wood Man's every Horn performance even as it aims barbs at the likes of Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke, a graduate of the Denver market, who's usually referred to in the text as "Puke." Also on hand is a top-ten list of answers to the question "Why even care about Woody Paige?" (choices include "He's known as LL Cool W -- Ladies Love Cool Woody") and T-shirts available for purchase; at the request of Paige, who's a diabetic, some of the proceeds are earmarked for the American Diabetes Association. A recent Post mug shot appears on the back of each shirt along with the Web site address, but up-front slogans come in several varieties, including "Misunderstood, as Genius Often Is . . .," "I Can't Be Muted!" and, inevitably, "Got Woody?"
Plenty of people do now. Schelewitz, 32, who says Paige's "personality is appealing across the board -- he has a different level of charisma," launched the Web site on May 5 only to have it crash three times because of, he insists, higher-than-anticipated traffic. He's also sold nearly a hundred shirts to Paige-a-holics from as far away as Germany. The Post, meanwhile, has received so many requests for autographed Paige photos since Around the Horn debuted that it printed up 2,000 of them -- and half are already gone.
The thought of Paige as a hip, lovable youth icon will strike many locals as thoroughly incongruous. After all, he has been writing about sports and other topics in Denver since 1974, and over that span, he's gotten into more than his share of trouble: Take a Mormon-needling column penned during the Salt Lake City Olympics that made him about as popular in Utah as the kidnappers of Elizabeth Smart ("Woody Goes Limp," February 21, 2002). Even Paige's supporters, of whom there are plenty, often see him as curmudgeonly, and in conversation, he can be. He claims that he's "not a sports fan," says he'd rather watch Trading Spaces than ESPN, regularly mentions divorce and depression (he's dealt with both), and declares, "People don't really like me here. I'm not well liked by people who work with me."
If that's true, the taping of Around the Horn probably has exacerbated the situation.
ESPN wanted the participating columnists to speak from their respective newsrooms and paid to transform a space near the border of the Post's sports and business departments into a mini-studio loaded with high-tech equipment. For instance, the Ikegami camera that stares at Paige is remote controlled from Atlantic Video, a Washington, D.C., facility where Kellerman is located. The building also serves as the base of operations for Pardon the Interruption (a sports-yak show featuring Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon that strongly influenced Horn) and, oddly enough, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.