50 Years Of WBBM Newsradio Sports Reporters: Tom Thayer

Jeff Joniak
May 29, 2018 - 9:57 am

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CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- In honor of WBBM Newsradio's 50th anniversary, some of WBBM Newradio's sportscasters, past and present, have shared their Newsradio memories.

WBBM Newsradio's Jeff Joniak and Tom Thayer sat down to look back at their careers with the station and talk shop.

Joniak: I’m with my broadcast partner now for what’s going to be 18 years with the Chicago Bears this season and overall.  It’s an honor to call him my broadcast partner on those games. Tom, since the games arrived on WBBM in the year 2000 - you did one year with Gary Bender and then I took over in 2001 – a lot has happened in those, what’s soon to be, now, 19 years. Let’s go back a little bit about…how you got started in this and how much you’ve enjoyed it over the course of your career.

Thayer: Well, I think you kind of get started when you’re an offensive lineman. Because the details to information doesn’t only include your job, but it includes every job around you, offensively speaking. And so that entails and makes you study defenses even longer and harder, at times, because of the complexities of the defenses you face.  So if you’re a true student of the game, and you put as much mental effort and desire into the game, I think one of the results is you don’t ever want to miss it.  And then the longer you’re away from it, the more you want to study it. And I think that’s been a major part of our excitement to be a part of it.

Joniak: What have you learned about being in the broadcast booth that you maybe didn’t anticipate?

Thayer: The passion to broadcast is equal to the passion to play the game.  And that’s what I like about our booth so much. Because, you know, every game, whether it’s Thursday, Sunday, Saturday, wherever they’re going to play the game, the intensity in the booth is similar to getting prepared to play. It means a lot to us. Our preparation throughout the week is intense. We put a lot of effort, and a lot of times we lack sleep, because of it. But because we enjoy gathering the information so much, it makes us enjoy the broadcast even more.

Joniak: You know, you’ve mentioned to me many times that you had a ten-year career as a National Football League player, and to have another decade-plus as an announcer, and then hopefully 20 years as an announcer, that would then signify at least two careers in one around the game of football. You’ve reached that…did you ever think that would ever happen? You didn’t really know what you wanted to do after your playing career, I’m certain, but did you ever think that this would be such a long and winding road, and a great career?

Thayer: There’s one way to think of it. I always knew I wanted to be a professional football player, period, when I was a junior in high school. And then it amped up as a senior, and then through my adventure at Notre Dame. I always was a Chicago Bear at heart. But you can never set your sights on getting drafted by your hometown team because the chances of it are so small. But to grow up as a Bears fan, become a Chicago Bear, and then become an announcer for the Bears…it’s more than football. It’s the Bears, and then football, for me. It’s not only a way of life, it’s a way of life for my family. My mom and dad, 88 and 86, what they look forward to is football season. They look forward to the Bears games. Preseason, regular season, and postseason. And they’ve had the opportunity to experience the fanfare that goes along with a Super Bowl. So for me, it’s not just football, it’s the Bears and football.

Joniak: Tom, as an analyst, obviously, your role is to explain the game to folks, educate the folks, and put things into context in relationship to what’s going on, and playing off your play-by-play man as well.  What have you learned about working with three different play-by-play guys (Wayne Larrivee, Gary Bender, and me)?

Thayer: You know, I always talk about how complex the terminology is for a quarterback going to a new team, and I think it’s equal for the play-by-play man. Not only does he have to understand football, he has to understand how to enunciate each member’s name correctly from an opponent that you may rarely see. I think it’s incredible to watch the eyes match up with the mouth of a broadcaster that understands how to describe the momentum, the motion of a play, including the personnel, the time on the clock, down and distance, hashmark…understanding the flow and the motion of football offensively, defensively, and special teams. And, like I say, be able to respect the families that you are broadcasting to, enunciate the names perfectly, because I do think it’s a difficult aspect of the game, the terminology that the broadcasters have to understand. It’s not as difficult as a quarterback, but it changes week in and week out.

Joniak: How about just the reactive aspect of the position, for both of us. Because you see the game through a completely different lens than I do. I’m trying to just set the scene, and see-it, say-it, you know, whatever comes to happen in the course of a play, within the span of a few seconds. And then it’s your job to analyze it quickly, without benefit of a replay. That aspect, to me, is the most difficult thing of what we do. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen from our brain to our mouth, that short distance!  Some strange things can come out from time to time!

Thayer: Well, you know, Jeff, our greatest example is playing off your emotion the first time that Devin Hester, “You are ridiculous”, came out of your mouth! Now it’s…everybody around the country, the football landscape, knows “Devin Hester, You Are Ridiculous!”  And it’s not something you practice. It’s just the emotions that came out of you. But as an ex-player you watch the flow of the play. You know what it means to your opponent.You look at the people in front of a guy like Devin Hester at that time, that were intricate in making sure that they block correctly to expose him to the goal line. You know, it’s everything. I think, though, that the play-by-play man, a lot of the time, is responsible for the momentum of the broadcast. Because of the flow of the voice, play-in and play-out, from the excitement of a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown, to the disappointment of a sack and interception.

Joniak: Tom, from the time we started here at WBBM, how do you feel our jobs have evolved and changed since 2000?

Thayer: I just think we respect the job more each year. I don’t think this has ever become a thing that complacency has set in. If you feel - they say ‘oh, wow, you guys do a good job broadcasting’ - we need to be better next week, and we need to be better next year. And if it’s something you ever think that, 'oh, I’m over the hurdle, now everything’s downhill'…we’re not gonna have it. That’s the unique thing about it. Training camp to the end of the season, we like to bring it every day.

Joniak: Well, you know, I think the unique relationship that we have, and we’re as close as two friends can be, over these past two decades, is that we do hold each other accountable in our own way!

Thayer: Of course!  But, you know, Jeff, I think everybody understands the expressions on our face and the serious approach that we take to it. Because we respect the organization and we respect the players and coaches, we understand, when they’re going through a 3-and-13 season, how difficult it is. But we also understand the excitement that we can all have if they’re able to capture good health, good roster, good success, and earn their trip back to the Super Bowl.

Chicago Bears

Joniak: We sure have had some crazy games, good and bad, and certainly some rare circumstances that have cropped up. Whether it be position of our broadcast booth…I’ll never forget, obviously, the Washington Redskins game in 2001…that was a very difficult assignment when I had to kneel to do the game and three women were staring at you the whole entire game! Mom, and her two daughters, screaming, the entire game. And we had to broadcast through that! That may be the most bizarre game I’ve ever called.

Thayer: Well, all right, then let’s talk about the amount of stadiums we’ve been in. Because the Washington Redskins build a new stadium. They’re not concerned for the away team radio broadcast, so they just put you in the worst position possible, and hey, whatever happens ,happens. We’ve seen that around quite a few new stadiums that we’ve been around since so many new ones have been built. Whether it’s Minnesota or Washington or Tampa Bay or wherever, that’s the unique thing about it. You know, Jeff, that makes every adventure great. And I think the difficulty of broadcasting with people screaming in your face - that are cheering for your opponent - is the same thing as when we sit through an hour-and-40-minute rain delay not knowing what the exact outcome is going to be, even if they’re going to go out on the field and play again – which we’ve been a part of!

Joniak: What’s most memorable to you since 2000? What game, specific game, specific moment?

Thayer: Devin’s touchdown in the Super Bowl. And I think…not only was I going 'oh my God, this is incredible, he’s going to open the game with a touchdown,' but then my eyes capture a view of Peyton Manning, who is immediately looking at his teammates and letting them understand that it’s only one play, let’s get on the field now. But your call of a Super Bowl opening kickoff, Devin Hester – should be a Hall of Famer – it’s kind of hard to find bigger plays than that.

Joniak: After that, you said “The game hasn’t even started yet!” And it proved to be true!

Thayer: Well, with five minutes left in the game, seven minutes left in the game, I think that’s when it really started. The Bears still had a chance to win that game, and then they had a hiccup-mistake at the end, and the Bears were on the unfortunate side of that loss.

Joniak: Tom, on WBBM…and those call letters, if you’re in radio, and you’ve been a fan of radio for a long time, you’ve been on several different stations after and during your pro-playing career, both television and radio. The call letters of WBBM carry significant weight in the radio industry.  It’s a heritage radio station, it’s one of the premier-sounding stations in America, a very provincial station as well, being that this is a provincial town. What’s it mean to you to be a part of this for two decades here?

Thayer: Well, what’s amazing to me – and it’s a true story – is now, our radio station, even though it’s out of Chicago, has worldwide capabilities of listening to it. And I have a lot of people who I’ve become friends with over 30 years in Hawaii that, they tune to WBBM on Sundays, in the Hawaiian Islands, to listen to our broadcast! I get text messages during the game if I’m saying something critical to you! Or…just the support that we get. It’s not only in Joliet, it’s everywhere. And I think that’s the distinct thing about WBBM. You only have to say the call letters once, and they remember it forever.

Joniak: Lastly, we’d be really egregious if we didn’t compliment the crew that we’ve worked with for the better part of all those seasons.  There have been changes along the way – at one point, we were with Hub Arkush in a three-man booth, we had various different sideline reporters from Mike Adamle to Raymont Harris to Jim Schwantz, who’s on the crew. And you brought Jay Hilgenberg into the mix in our pre- and post-game.  Just the amount of guys that have worked behind the scenes. Jim Mulvaney, the guy who’s sitting in the room right now with us producing everything, to little Z, the late Mark Zarang…Steve Zarang, Zach Zaidman…I mean, we’ve had a lot of different people, not the least of which is Doug Colletti, our longtime statistician.

Thayer: Andy Giersher. That’d be a personality that was so fun. But you know what, Jeff, again, I’m drawn back to the serious approach that we have for the broadcast day.  I think everybody kind of takes that on. Everybody is extremely prepared for all the information they can possibly absorb during the week. Everybody that comes to the booth…it’s mandatory that they come up there as a Bears fan. And just the groups, the different personalities, the different combinations…you know, the passion. That’s the thing about it - no matter who was in our group, it was always a passionate group of Chicago Bears supporters.

Joniak: You kinda lay down the law, don’t you? On game day?

Thayer: Yes. Yes. Always will! We’re here…I’m here because of the Bears, and the opportunity it’s given me and my family.  And I’m going to support the Bears, but I want to support the Bears to be winners. I want them to be in pursuit of division championships and Super Bowls. Through thick and thin, that’s why we stick with ‘em.

Joniak: Well it’s an honor to work with you, and hopefully we’re talking about a playoff trip this year! Tom Thayer, appreciate you joining us, and long-term continued success to my broadcast partner.

So thank you very much for listening to Tom and myself break down some of our historic moments in the last, well, 19 years? Eighteen years, here on WBBM, calling the Bears on this great station. We’ve had some unbelievable moments, some things we’ll never forget…nor will you, as a listener to Chicago Bears radio. And as an aside, no better guy to work with in the booth, given his preparation each week…he’s serious about what he does, never have to worry about the man not being prepared to call the game on Sundays, because he is. And he has taught me a lot about the game. And hopefully we’ve put together something that you all have liked and enjoyed over the course of this time as well, and for many years to come.