Charlotte storyteller helped shape ESPN
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Sunday, Sep. 11, 2011

Charlotte storyteller helped shape ESPN

South Charlotte resident has won 6 Emmys

You may not know his name, but if you're a sports fan, you probably have seen his work.

Kory Kozak has been nominated for 20 Emmy awards, winning six. He's also won New York Festival medals, a GLAAD Award and several others.

Most importantly, Kozak has helped change the face of ESPN.

Kozak, now 41 and living in the Ballantyne subdivision of Hunter Oaks, has always been a sports fan.

"My parents said I learned to read by reading the box scores in the paper," Kozak said, laughing. "I probably knew names before I learned to read regular words."

In college, Kozak played football for Rutgers University, but after a bad shoulder injury he realized his football career was over.

"I had to grow up fast," he said.

Kozak decided he wanted to go into television, but with no experience he had to work his way up. He worked in radio and newspapers but wanted to make a broader impact.

"I took a big step back and got a job as an NBC page, working on stuff like Conan O'Brien, 'Saturday Night Live,' and 'The Rosie O'Donnell Show,' " Kozak said. "I did garbage work for them - seating people at the shows, giving tours - but it gave me an in."

It was through his connections with NBC that Kozak got work as a temp with ESPN in 1996. There was no guarantee that after seven months he would still have a job.

"It was a tense seven months, but things just went really well and I started working on the 'NFL Countdown,' and that's where I got into features," Kozak said.

Kozak said his team consisted of five guys under Craig Lazarus who started doing weekly features on NFL players and teams. Kozak focused on digging deep, getting the feeling and passion from the players.

"I loved the NFL and doing that stuff, but it became limiting," Kozak said. "I wanted to tell bigger stories."

ESPN responded to the crew's desire for stories that went beyond professional players and major sports. Kozak and his team started delving into stories about overcoming obstacles that went beyond the big names and into the heart of athletes worldwide.

"That all started happening around 2002, and that's when I really fell in love with it," Kozak said.

Kozak since has shared a lot of stories with the world that he's proud of: a first-person account of NFL player Tony Mandarich and his struggle to overcome steroids, drugs and alcohol; the story of Martel Van Zant, a deaf college football player who succeeded in a game where hearing seems imperative; the way the NFL's New Orleans Saints embody the soul of New Orleans and helped pick the city up after Hurricane Katrina; the high school cross country team in San Francisco that rallied to get its coach his eighth state championship before he became completely debilitated by ALS.

Kozak usually plays the role of reporter, writer, producer and director for the features.

Kozak said he currently is working on the story of a cross country runner at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who, despite a brutal rape that left her near death, is determined to keep running and share her story as a way of spreading awareness and helping others.

"This kind of story would never have been allowed 10 years ago," Kozak said. "Being able to grow is what kept me with ESPN. It's been an awesome opportunity to have and an honor to tell some of these stories."

Five years ago, when his contract with ESPN expired, Kozak decided to move from Connecticut - ESPN headquarters - and work as a permanent freelancer from Charlotte.

Kozak and his wife, Monica, say they were tired of the cold and the limitations of living in central Connecticut. "I moved to Charlotte because I'd done a bunch of stories down here that year, and I just really liked the area," Kozak said.

Kozak flies back to Connecticut when necessary, and Charlotte/Douglas International airport also gives him easy access to the worldwide destinations he has travelled to in pursuit of a story.

In addition to features for ESPN, Kozak has been working with National Geographic as a producer for a few commercials unrelated to sports.

In his free time, Kozak said, he and his wife are knee-deep in child-rearing, with two children, ages 14 months and 3 years. The friendly neighborhood and community pool have been positive aspects of starting a family in Charlotte, he said.

Kozak plans to continue telling stories, in one aspect or another, for the rest of his life. Not only has he touched the world with his stories, he said, he's also had many once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Lauren Bailey is a freelance writer for Union News. Have a story idea for Lauren? Email her at lbailey.charlotteobserver@gmail.com.

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