Sam Champion, the jovial, smooth-talking, impeccably dressed weather anchor on Good Morning America, is a proud Kentuckian with fond memories of overnight stays at state parks, his first encounters with broadcasting at Eastern Kentucky University and anything on the menu at Starnes Barbecue in Paducah, his hometown.
"My dad was a Kentucky Colonel, my grandfather was a Kentucky Colonel," said Champion, adding he even had a few encounters with the Kentucky Colonel, Harland Sanders, who knew some of his relatives.
Champion's deep Kentucky roots will be on display Friday as America's top-rated morning show is highlighting the early days of its anchors and how they began their careers. The show, which runs from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., will feature live segments from EKU where the marching band, cheerleaders, dance team and communications students will gather to celebrate along with their alum.
Champion is only too happy to share his ties to the Bluegrass as he did in an interview this week with the Herald-Leader.
Born in Paducah, Champion, 52, and his family traveled the globe after his father joined the Marines. But when it came time to choose a college in 1979, his parents — Lt. Col. James H. Champion and his wife, Sylvia — urged their son to come back to Kentucky, where he still had extended family. They wanted him to be close to relatives as he went off on his own.
Before making a decision Champion made a tour of Kentucky schools. He thought of becoming a Hilltopper at Western Kentucky University. The Bowling Green campus was beautiful, he said, but he couldn't face trudging up the hill every day. He considered the University of Kentucky but then learned that EKU had just built two new television studios for broadcast majors and he was all in.
He also honed his craft in Lexington, landing an internship with WKYT his sophomore year. He ran tape and has "a boozy, hazy recollection," he said, of covering some UK games. But his coup, he said, was convincing his bosses to let him do stand-up reports on the weekends.
"They didn't have any weekend reporters," he said, so he offered to cover sports.
They said yes and a career was begun. Champion said he doesn't have copies of those reports from the early '80s and that may be just as well.
"Doing TV isn't a natural skill set," he said, "The more you do it the better you'll be."
He says he thinks that first taste of television news in Lexington set him up to succeed.
"I just remember there were great opportunities," he said. "If I had been anywhere else, I don't know if I would have had those opportunities."
After working at stations in Paducah and Jacksonville, Fla., Champion began at WABC in New York in 1988. He joined Good Morning America in 2006.
He said he keeps in touch with his college advisers, touching base with them even before deciding to take the job with GMA.
Champion, who married his partner, Rubem Robierb, in 2012, said he didn't enter into the union to be an activist for same-sex marriage but because he was in love. Still, Champion said, he and Robierb hear from kids every day glad to have high-profile openly gay role models.
"I never intended to stand up necessarily for anything," said Champion, who did not make a habit of making his private life public until he announced his engagement last year. "When you fall in love, you want to make the choice that anyone else has a right to make."
Champion said since his father died in 2010 and his mother no longer lives in the state, he doesn't get back as often as he'd like to. But Kentucky still holds a place in his heart. As a kid, he spent summers traveling the commonwealth with his grandfather, who worked inspecting natural gas lines. Often, he said, they would spend the night at Kentucky state parks and Champion remembers those visits fondly.
Good Morning America in July did a segment about the anchors and their favorite things. Champion picked Starnes Barbecue, because he favors the Paducah restaurant's pulled pork sandwich with secret sauce.
Champion does have a request for those who own land along Interstate-75 between Lexington and Richmond: Don't develop it. Keep that beautiful drive beautiful.