Amy L. Marxkors

“You should tell them the weather, Tommy. The wind speed. The temperature.”

Tom Ackerman’s first gig behind a microphone came when he was a sophomore at St. Louis Country Day School. It was his first real experience in the press box, rifling through rosters, interviewing head coaches, and calling plays on the field as the school’s public address announcer. The games were on Saturday, and at halftime Ackerman would call the old KMOX Sportsline to get the college football scores, which he then relayed to the crowd. The updates were his first official sportscasts. His dad would give him advice, listing what he liked to hear in a broadcast. Of particular importance? The right way to introduce “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“‘Ladies and gentlemen, please rise and join in the singing of our national anthem,’” his dad would instruct him. “That’s the proper way to address the crowd, Tommy.”

*****

Bill Ackerman was an army veteran, devoted Mizzou graduate, and lover of sports. He used a degree in business and an old garage to start one of the largest drapery companies in the country. He was also a pilot, and whenever he took his son to an airshow or there was a flyover at a football game, he’d name the aircraft and describe its service. Complaining wasn’t Bill’s thing. He believed in the value of hard work and grit. If things weren’t going your way or if you got hurt in the line of duty, well, suck it up. It was a rare moment when young Ackerman saw his dad tear up.

Once was at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, while Bill and his son watched the world’s best athletes compete in the Coliseum.

The other was in Cooperstown, on Father’s Day, as the two walked into the Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time.

Bill instilled in his son the importance of a strong backbone, but he also recognized the significance of the moment—and the momentousness of sports. The start of the Indianapolis 500. A walk-off homer. A shot launched with no time left on the clock. Bill understood the thrill of a big event, and he felt deeply the privilege of witnessing it. As a result, Ackerman learned to watch sports through the eyes of a man who saw the game not as a box score, but as a dramatic script unfolding one play, one swing, one shot at a time.

“Tom! Bulls. Celtics. Tie game. Get in here,” his dad would say, poking his head into the bedroom late in the evening when Ackerman was supposed to be studying. Homework could wait. So could sleep. The thrill of watching Michael Jordan win a championship?

That could not.

*****

Bill was an avid supporter of his alma mater and remained close to the coaches and athletic department in Columbia. He had a bucket list of sporting events he wanted to see—the Final Four, the World Series, college football’s National Championship—and when he and his buddies trekked across the country to the games, he brought Tommy along for the ride, giving a young Ackerman the opportunity to brush shoulders with some of the biggest names in sports. Once, the two found themselves outside the Royals clubhouse during the team’s spring training. Incredibly, no one else was around.

“Hey, Tommy, let’s see if we can find George Brett and say hi…”

He pushed open a door marked with an unambiguous “No Admittance” sign, waved to a few folks as he walked across the room, and exited on the other side, where he promptly came face to face with the legendary third baseman.

“George! We’re friends of Larry Ziegler,” Bill exclaimed, holding out his hand and mentioning the pro golfer who also happened to be a mutual friend.
Another time, when Ackerman was twelve, he and his dad came across Brent Musburger at a basketball game.

“Hi, Mr. Musburger,” a young Ackerman said, holding out his hand. “I’m Tommy Ackerman. I’m a big fan of yours. And I want to be a sportscaster.”

Like father, like son.

His most fateful encounter, however, happened in Colorado, when the family visited their friend Ziegler, who was playing in a celebrity golf tournament. Ziegler happened to be playing a round of golf with one of his own friends, legendary Indiana basketball coach, Bob Knight.

“Hey, Tommy,” Ziegler called as he and Knight walked up from the putting green. “Why don’t you caddy for Coach Knight today?”

Ackerman was star-struck, but Coach Knight soon took over the conversation. He asked how old Ackerman was and if he were looking at colleges. Ackerman listed a dozen schools. IU wasn’t one of them.

“What about Indiana?” Knight finally queried.

Ackerman said he hadn’t considered the school; Knight offered to set up a tour for him. A few weeks later, he received a call from the admissions department. The following summer, in a slurry of college acceptance letters, an envelope stamped with the IU logo arrived in his mailbox. Bill, an eternally devoted Missouri Tiger, took the hit like a champ. How could he not? His son had been recruited by Bob Knight himself.

*****

On June 27, 1993, two weeks after his high school graduation, Ackerman woke up earlier than usual. He couldn’t fall back asleep. To this day, he doesn’t know why. Climbing out of bed, he made his way downstairs to the kitchen. His dad was lying motionless on the floor, his mom frantically trying to revive him. Ackerman dropped to his knees and performed CPR. But his dad had suffered a massive heart attack.

Bill Ackerman was gone before the ambulance arrived.

*****

As a graduation present, Bill and Montie Ackerman had given their son a week at a sportscaster’s camp at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The camp started the day after his dad died. Devastated by the loss, Ackerman skipped the entire camp—except for one speaker, on the very last day.

Bob Costas, the sportscaster Ackerman had grown up idolizing, was the final guest lecturer. Forcing himself out of bed, he managed to make his way to UMSL just in time to catch Costas’s talk. Afterwards, he walked up to Costas, carrying a binder that was given to all camp attendees. He told him his speech was great. He asked him to sign his binder. And then he left.

The next day, his mom knocked on his bedroom door.

“Tommy, you have a phone call.”

He was lying in bed. “I’m not up to it.”

“Tommy, I really think you should take this call.”

“I don’t think I can talk to anyone right now.”

“Tommy, it’s Bob Costas.”

One of the camp directors had told Costas that the seventeen-year-old had just suffered the loss of his father. In response, Costas asked the camp director for Ackerman’s number.

Costas said he was sorry to hear about Ackerman’s dad. Then he revealed an unexpected connection: Costas had lost his own father when he was eighteen. The two talked about their dads, about grieving, about continuing on. Ackerman told Costas about his PA duties at Country Day and that he recorded himself practicing broadcasts. Costas affirmed the young man was well on his way to a successful career. He sent him an autographed photo. Ackerman still has it.

To Tom,
See you in the booth someday.
Bob Costas

*****

“Mr. Buck, I’m Tom Ackerman. I just started working here.”

After graduating from Indiana, Ackerman returned to St. Louis and applied for a minimum-wage position at KMOX as board operator during Cardinals and Blues games. He told the program director, Tom Langmyer, about his student radio experience at IU and his internship in the promotions department at KSHE, where his chief responsibilities involved blowing up an inflatable “Sweetmeat” pig at car dealerships. Langmyer was impressed.

“So, Tom, what’s your goal in the radio business?”

“When the big names come to town, I want to be the guy that does the interviews. When the big games come to town, I want to do them.”

He got the job and, on his first day, stumbled across Jack Buck sitting in an office, mulling over a pile of papers.

“Sports and news,” he continued. “Whatever I can do to help. Nice to meet you.”

Buck was silent. Then the legendary announcer held out his hand.

“What kind of pizza do you like, kid?”

“Pepperoni.”

“I’ll buy it if you go downstairs and get it.”

In high school, Ackerman had been a delivery boy for his dad’s company. He worked in the warehouse, tagged along in the delivery truck, and carried armoires and coffee tables up flights of stairs. He also worked as a cook, server, and drive-through attendant at a barbeque joint his dad opened with some friends. Between furniture and smoked ribs, he caddied at Westwood Country Club. So when KMOX asked him to drive the station van halfway across the city just to set up a table or make a coffee run at an unholy hour, he did. He collected content from sporting events, filed game reports, conducted interviews, and snagged sound bites from players. And, whenever he got the chance—usually in the middle of the night when no one else was around—he’d slip into the studio and record himself reading sportscasts. Then he’d leave the tape on his boss’s desk.

Word got around that the Ackerman kid was doing a good job.

In October of 1998, KMOX needed a host for “Sports Open Line” while Ken Wilson and Bernie Federko made their way from the Kiel Center to Turvey’s on the Green for the Blues’ post-game show. Ackerman was ready. From that point on, he had a place behind the microphone. In addition to helping produce “Sports Open Line” and “Total Information A.M.,” Ackerman called in game updates for the Associated Press, filled in for broadcasters on Illinois radio networks, and provided scores for ESPN.

The timing was perfect. It was the late 1990s, and St. Louis was surging into the national spotlight. As Ackerman’s voice carried across the airwaves for the first time, the Rams became the Greatest Show on Turf, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased Roger Maris’s single season homerun record, and the Blues rebounded from the Mike Keenan era to be annual contenders for the Stanley Cup. National sports shows and major markets such as New York and L.A. reached out to him for interviews. Suddenly, the kid who stayed up late at night polishing his play-by-play skills on a tape recorder found himself the national expert on St. Louis sports just as his hometown was being heralded as America’s Best Sports City.

*****

Ackerman thinks a lot about his dad. Almost twenty-two years have passed since he died. In that time, Ackerman has worked on some of the grandest stages in sports: the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Final Four. He had dreamed of being in the booth one day, calling the game. He just never imagined his dad wouldn’t be around to see it happen.

“My dad was—is—tied into my love of sport,” he says today. “I think about him—about how he would have enjoyed seeing certain things, like the Rams winning the Super Bowl. He passed away in 1993. He didn’t even know the Rams were in St. Louis.”

When he served as the public address announcer for the final Missouri-Illinois football game at the Edward Jones Dome in 2010, Ackerman introduced the national anthem the way his dad taught him. It was a tribute to the man who nurtured his love and respect for sports. Today, when opportunity arises, he still follows his dad’s careful instructions.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “please rise and join in the singing of our national anthem.”
He is back at Country Day. With his dad.

*****

“Daddy, you watch football?” Ackerman’s daughter Audrey asks, pointing at the television and climbing into her dad’s lap.

Now he is the father sharing his love of sports with his children.

“Yes, I’m watching football! Wanna watch it with me?”

“Yeah.”

His older daughter, Erika, prefers playing Barbie to tossing a baseball, but she loves going to Cardinals games with her dad. The two always stop before entering the stadium to see their special brick, just outside the gates: In memory of Bill Ackerman, Dad and Cards fan.

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