ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – I remember the smile on his face as the football first went through the air, end-over-end, on a Thanksgiving morning so chilly you could see your breath.
We had asked this longtime Cardinals and Mizzou football broadcaster to call the 100th edition of the Kirkwood-Webster Turkey Day game, a storied rivalry, in 2007. As a longtime listener and admirer of his, there I was, now serving as his producer in the booth. And a producer just knows when the talent is in a good place.
Hear Tom Ackerman’s tribute to Bill Wilkerson played before the St. Louis Blues game, Saturday, Nov. 4:
Bill Wilkerson was back home.
Wilkerson, one of the greatest to ever get behind the microphone, died Thursday (Nov. 2) after battling a brief illness. He was 73.
Related story: Longtime KMOX Broadcaster Bill Wilkerson Has Died
I remember how hard Wilkerson had prepared for that particular high school game, just as he had done for years in the NFL and the Big 8 Conference. He had notes and charts on Kirkwood and Webster, stories to share with the audience. He peered through binoculars at the sideline. He jotted down stats and used them in a timely fashion. It was like watching an artist get lost in his work and I soaked in every second of it, even if our feet were frozen.
Growing up in St. Louis in the 1980’s, Wilkerson’s voice meant football to me. On those crisp weekend afternoons, I’d clean out the garage with my dad and the game would be popping from the radio:
“From the 21-yard-line of K-State, another double tight end set,” Wilkerson would start the call, always noting positioning and alignment. “He might throw it out of this.”
Always, the knowledge. And of course, the unbridled enthusiasm:
“He fakes, drops, sets, looking, throwing upfield it is… CAUGHT! Touchdown, VICTOR BAILEY! Wide open!”
And my dad and I would pump our fists as the leaves gently blew around the driveway. The Tigers had scored… and it was always more exciting with Wilkerson describing the action.
As my colleague (and a former co-worker of Wilkerson’s) Charlie Brennan noted, Wilkerson was the first African-American to call games for an NFL team, working with the St. Louis Cardinals from 1973-1987. He was also the first black radio analyst in the NHL, paired with Dan Kelly on Blues broadcasts. Wilkerson called Spirits games on KMOX as well, handling those ABA games with Bob Costas.
I often tell the story of attending a sportscasting “camp” at UMSL back in 1993, the same week that my father had died of a heart attack. I wanted to meet Costas and was thrilled to get that opportunity. But I relished in the chance to listen to Wilkerson, my favorite football broadcaster, give a seminar on the fundamentals of calling play-by-play. I took diligent notes and listened, in awe, as he explained various formations and how to describe them to the audience over the air.
Wilkerson was also an outstanding co-host on “Total Information A.M.,” for years the top-rated morning drive-time show on KMOX. He proved to be adept at delivering both news and sports, conducting interviews, relaying pertinent information in a concise manner. He was the soundtrack to our mornings on the way to work and school — and he used that notoriety to do important things in the community.
A board member for the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club for 40 years, Wilkerson put his heart into making sure there were many opportunities for children in the inner city to grow and learn. He volunteered for countless organizations. We saw his passion for St. Louis first-hand, always finding a way to do something to make our city a better place. The St. Louis Press Club honored Wilkerson (and co-host Wendy Wiese) with a “Media Person of the Year” award. The FBI in St. Louis awarded him the Director’s Community Leadership Award. He most recently received the Bob Broeg Award from the National Football Foundation’s Tom Lombardo-St. Louis Chapter in 2014.
But on that cold day in 2007, he was most comfortable in the booth at Kirkwood High School. His head was wrapped tight in a knit hat, leaving room for his headset. He spoke into the microphone with gusto… and for a moment, he transported us to Busch Stadium or Faurot Field, calling a game over the din of the crowd.
Or maybe he was just enjoying the game of football, describing two teams engaging in strategy to move down the field. Bill Wilkerson always seemed to find the beauty in that, just like he did with most everything in his life.
What a gift.