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Punch Prefers New Career to Old One

April 30, 1999|LARRY STEWART

The name suggests Dr. Jerry Punch might be a fight doctor, or a professional wrestler.

What Punch is, is one of the more interesting people in broadcasting. Until 1995, he was juggling two careers--one as the head emergency room doctor at a hospital near Daytona Beach, Fla., the other as an auto racing pit reporter and college football sideline reporter for ESPN.

He finally had to make a choice, picking broadcasting over a lucrative medical career.

Punch is in Southern California for this weekend's festivities at California Speedway in Fontana. He will serve as the host of the Busch Series Auto Club 300 television coverage on Saturday and as a pit reporter for the Winston Cup California 500 on Sunday.

Both races are ESPN productions but are being carried on big sister ABC for maximum exposure.

We caught up with Punch on his cell phone as he was driving from LAX to his hotel in Ontario Wednesday evening. We talked from 5:30 to 6:30, as Punch drove out the 105 Freeway, up the 605 and out the 60. Had he taken Interstate 10, he would have been right in the middle on the six-mile, 150-car pileup.

As it was, Punch was free to talk--and talk he did--about growing up in rural North Carolina, about toiling in auto racing as a mechanic and driver while in high school, about being a backup quarterback at North Carolina State for Lou Holtz, about how Ned Jarrett gave him his first break behind a microphone, about how holding down two full-time jobs contributed to the failure of his first marriage, and about how good life is these days.

Of his football career as a veer option quarterback at North Carolina State, Punch said: "Coach Holtz once told me, 'You're not slow, you just reach your maximum speed faster than anyone else.' It took me a minute to realize that wasn't a compliment."

When Punch, 45, was in medical school at Wake Forest, he was in the press box at Hickory Motor Speedway when the track announcer didn't show up. Jarrett, the promoter, asked Punch if he would handle the job. He was apprehensive because he had a stuttering problem. But Punch gave it a go, discovering he didn't stutter behind a microphone, and became the regular track announcer.

That led to some local radio work, then a radio job with the Motor Racing Network and a one-year stint with WTBS before ESPN hired him in 1984.

Until '95, Punch was working 60 to 80 hours a week as an emergency room director. Even when he wasn't on duty, he was in charge of 14 physicians, and one year he served as chief of staff at his hospital. On weekends, he donned his ESPN garb.

"I guess I had the philosophy that he who works the hardest and makes the most money wins. Well, I found that is a fallacy. In my years in the emergency room, I heard the last words of a lot of people. In their last breath, no one ever complained that they wished that could have worked one more day. They always said they wished they had taken more time to enjoy life and spend time with family and friends."

He says most emergency room doctors burn out.

"Research has shown the average trauma physician's career lasts between 8 1/2 to 10 1/2 years," he said. "It's not like on the TV show 'ER.' That's too clean, too sterile of a setting, too laid-back compared to the way a real trauma center works. In a real ER, there is no time to get involved in anyone's social life.

"When I was at the height of working both jobs, one of my older sons, when he was little, thought I worked for Delta Airlines, and the younger one thought I worked in the wooden box in the living room."

These days, Punch lives with his wife Joni, 5-year-old daughter Jessica, and 15-month old son Logan in Cornelius, N.C., outside Charlotte. He seems to be making all the right decisions, including taking the 60 Freeway instead of the 10 on his way to Ontario Wednesday night.


Fox's attitude about regional sports coverage seems to be working. Nielsen ratings for March show that Fox Sports West is tied for second with A&E and HBO among cable channels in Los Angeles with an average rating of 1.5. Nickelodeon is the leader at 1.7. Fox Sports West averaged a 1.2 for March 1998.


Gary Sheffield talks about the Dodgers' lack of attitude on "Goin' Deep" on Fox Sports West Sunday at 9 p.m.

"When I used to come in and play against the Dodgers, they never put any fear in us," he tells interviewer Chris Myers. "As a team, we felt we could just walk over these guys because they would lay down eventually. And they did.

"When I became a Dodger, that was one of the things that I addressed when I got here. . . . We can't have that same laid-back attitude."


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