Back in the early part of this century, the running joke among beat writers that covered the Carolina Panthers was that communications director Charlie Dayton was only 29 years old.
We used to say the fact he had white hair and looked closer to 60 was due to the fact that he had one of the NFL’s most stressful and difficult jobs. How many communications directors ever have had to deal with the aftermath of franchise quarterback Kerry Collins drinking his way out of town, less than two years after he led the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game?
How many communications directors have had to deal with the full media blitz that came after wide receiver Rae Carruth reportedly tried to kill his pregnant girlfriend? And how many communications directors have had to hold their breath every time wide receiver Steve Smith opened his mouth? And how many communications directors have had to try to put some sort of positive spin on a coaching legend (George Seifert) disintegrating?
I can think of only one and that’s Dayton. He truly is one of a kind and that’s why the press box at Bank of America Stadium will be officially be named for Dayton on Sunday.
That’s more than fitting because, for 20 years, Dayton was charged with dealing with the writers who filled that press box and he did it with uncommon grace, style and temperament. He did it the way a pro would do it, and I’ve never seen a bigger pro than Dayton.
I had the pleasure of covering the Panthers for The Charlotte Observer from 1999 until 2008. That’s when I left for ESPN.com, where I was assigned to cover the entire NFC South, which meant I continued to cover the Panthers. That lasted until 2014 when ESPN went to a format of one writer covering each of the 32 teams and I was assigned to cover the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That means I covered the Panthers in one role or another for 15 years. In those 15 years, I can honestly say I never saw Dayton get angry, which, considering his role, was more than a small miracle.
To understand the role of a communications director, you have to understand they have one of the most difficult and thankless jobs in the NFL. In loose terms, their job is to oversee all media coverage of their team. That role frequently gets expanded because you have owners and coaches that believe the communications director is responsible for every word that is written or spoken about a team. They get blamed by their superiors when something negative comes out, even though the Constitution says they can’t tell the media what to say or do.
The job comes with tremendous pressure, but Dayton, who moved to a new role as the team’s director of historical and alumni affairs, never showed a single sign that the job was getting to him. I have dealt with other communications directors who try to bully the media and have taken plenty of angry 6 a.m. phone calls.
Dayton never operated that way. In fact, he was more of a friend to the media. He would take writers to lunch and stop by for a beer with writers at the media hotel during training camp in Spartanburg, S.C. Dayton was and is the classic Southern gentleman, who never took himself or his role too seriously. He was a wealth of information after previously working for the Buccaneers, Falcons and Redskins. In fact, while with the Redskins, Dayton once made the All-Madden team for taking a vicious hit on the sidelines.
But it’s, by far, the Panthers that were the team Dayton is most identified with in league circles. He was hired a year before the franchise even started play in 1995. Dayton has been a fixture for the Panthers, and that’s a wonderful thing because, even through the bad times, he represented the team with class and dignity.
Unlike many communications directors, Dayton wasn’t adversarial. In fact, when I reflect on our 15 years together, I can’t remember a single argument. That simply was not Dayton’s style.
The closest thing we ever had to a spat was early in John Fox’s tenure as coach. There was a national media member who didn’t play like he was part of the media. Coaches aren’t supposed to be friends with media members. They’re supposed to treat each other as professional acquaintances, but this particular media member had covered Fox when he was defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. He didn’t just blur the lines of how things are supposed to be done. He stepped way over the lines.
The media member wasn’t treated like a media member. He was seen in Fox’s office, making phone calls with his feet up on the desk. When he showed up at practice, he was allowed to stand next to Fox on the field and talk with him. At training camp, he frequently pulled up a chair on the 50-yard line, which was 50 yards closer to the action than where the rest of the media was required to stand, and played with Fox’s children.
I complained to Dayton numerous times and so did other members of the media. Dayton would get a sheepish look, indicating he knew what was taking place was wrong but his hands were tied. I made several references to the incestuous relationship in print. Fox must have seen one of them because, one day, Dayton approached me calmly and said, “Pat, can we just leave the (media member) thing alone?’’
I told him I’d be happy to as long as the media member no longer was given special treatment. People underestimate Dayton because he’s gentle. But in the weeks following our conversation, Fox stopped leaking every bit of news to his buddy. When the media member showed up at practice, he kept a low profile. Fox was, and is, a strong-willed man. It took a powerful man to make Fox realize that things were out of hand. It took Dayton.
I don’t talk to Dayton every day like I did when I was covering the Panthers and that’s sad. But when we do talk, it’s like the good old days, and there is a mutual respect. I just spent much of the preceding paragraphs talking about what the relationship is supposed to be like between team employees and the media. When I covered the Panthers, Dayton and I had a strong professional relationship, but neither one of us would have called each other a friend because that was breaking the rules.
But time and circumstances have changed. I no longer cover Dayton, so now I can proudly say he’s a very good friend. A very good friend who deserves to have a press box named after him.