Were these not pandemic-addled times, Chuck Hinkel would be following the lead of legendary singer Fats Domino and going to Kansas City. He’d be traveling to Arrowhead Stadium to work on the stats crew for CBS’s telecast of Sunday’s highly anticipated AFC Championship Game between the Chiefs and Buffalo Bills. And that undoubtedly would have been one memorable trip, given the Bills are in their first title game since 1994, and Hinkel has been following them since the early ’80s, when Joe Ferguson, Joe Cribbs, Jerry Butler and the Bermuda Triangle defense had Buffalo talkin’ proud.
But, as Hinkel has learned first-hand in the past 10 months, the coronavirus frequently calls audibles, so you better be flexible and willing to change plans in a snap. In order not to have too many crew members clustered in one place, CBS will have Hinkel work remotely this week, providing statistics for the broadcast from his Irondequoit home. In a sense, he’ll be there, in Kansas City, but he won’t. He’ll be in a state of limbo, just as he has for all but three of the 31 NFL and college football games he’s worked for CBS since early September. “Under normal circumstances, I’d be at the site of the game,’’ he said. “But these obviously aren’t normal circumstances.”
COVID protocols and travel restrictions have dramatically disrupted his schedule. Instead of hopping aboard an airliner, and logging another 40,000 to 50,000 frequent flier miles, Hinkel has been climbing into his Jeep Patriot for 5 ½-hour drives to CBS studios in Clifton, N.J., where he’s monitored games on several video screens, while inputting every play. The only in-person events he’s worked since late summer were college games at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, and the Bills’ home opener against the New York Jets.
“Here’s how crazy it’s been,’’ he said. “I did the Bills’ Wild-Card playoff game in Orchard Park two weeks ago from the studio in Clifton, N.J., even though I live only about an hour from Bills Stadium.”
Fortunately, the driving conditions to and from Jersey have been good, save for a recent trip through a blizzard in the Pocono Mountains that added three harrowing hours to his return. The additional driving has taken a toll on him and his Jeep, with 13,000 miles being tacked onto his odometer for those football sojourns. “The older you get, the more the travel wears on you,’’ said Hinkel, who will turn 50 in June. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful to have gone to places I never would have visited. I’m up to 42 states. But it can be fatiguing, and the pandemic made this past year even tougher.”
It would be one thing if this was all Hinkel did. But the CBS Sports gig, which he’s had for 14 years, is a part-time, seasonal job. His main job is owning and operating laundromats in Waterloo, Geneva and Greece. Being a sole proprietor was a lifelong ambition that came true four years ago, when he purchased his first laundromat in Waterloo. Since that time, the Waterloo Laundry Depot has grown 122 percent, and prompted him to purchase the Geneva site a year ago, and the Greece location a few months ago. Being your own boss has pluses and minuses. Starting a business isn’t easy. “It requires a lot of time and effort, and a lot of sacrifices to make it grow,’’ he said.
Thanks to the money he’s made from his CBS work, as well as part-time jobs delivering for Instacart and Amazon, he’s been able to reinvest profits from his laundromats into renovations. “I still haven’t taken a paycheck from the laundromats, and that’s something I’m very proud of,’’ he said. “I’ve poured much of the profit back into them so I can grow the businesses. Between upgrading our Waterloo and Geneva sites, and remodeling the Greece location, we’re looking at about $600,000 in renovations.”
Hinkel has always believed in giving back to his community, and he’s done so through his laundromats. In early April, not long after the pandemic shutdowns began, he gave away 100 bagged lunches to Waterloo residents. Overall, he’s donated more than $5,000 to charitable causes in that Seneca County village. “I think it’s the right thing to do if you truly want to be a part of a community,’’ he said. “You can’t just take. You also need to give back. Doing those sorts of things really feeds my soul.”
His philanthropy actually began during his 20 years as the media relations director of the Rochester Red Wings, and continued on through his work as vice president of public affairs for Citizens Bank and his own public relations agency. Though his life occasionally feels harried because he’s juggling so many jobs, he’s grateful to CBS for giving him an opportunity to stay involved in sports. He’s closing in on working 300 NFL games. Highlights include being there for Adrian Peterson’s NFL-record 296-yard rushing performance in 2007. The past four years have seen him work scores of Southeastern Conference games, including the last four SEC Championships. One of those games resulted in him sharing a national Emmy Award with his CBS crew for best game sports coverage. He’s also worked numerous college basketball games for the network, including several NCAA tournaments.
Hinkel has fond memories of attending Bills games as a youngster with older sister Cindy and brother-in-law Mike. He remembers being at the AFC Championship Game in Miami in 1993 when Buffalo defeated the Dolphins to reach Super Bowl XXVII. This year’s team, like those great Bills teams of yore, has captured his fancy and the fancy of Western New Yorkers. And he firmly believes Josh Allen and Company have a marvelous chance of knocking off the Chiefs and advancing to their first Super Bowl in 26 years.
He’d love to be in Kansas City to witness it. Instead, he’ll be home, working remotely and behind-the-scenes, to enhance the story told to millions by announcers Jim Nantz and Tony Romo.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.