SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Sports announcing has been Chris Ackels’ dream for as long as he can remember.
Notre Dame Stadium’s new public-address announcer chuckles as he thinks back to KWAT-AM (1102), the imaginary outlet he invented in his boyhood room in the Dallas area. Well past bedtime, Ackels would craft hushed recaps of that night’s Texas Rangers game before throwing it to his younger brother, Thomas, for the out-of-town scoreboard.
“Sometimes he’d say, ‘Chris, I’m trying to sleep,’ but that was my radio station,” said Ackels, who also serves as an in-stadium host for the White Sox. “He’d have to read some scores, and I would go back to hosting my radio show.”
By his sophomore year at Jesuit College Prep School, Ackels had enough self-confidence to march into the office of athletic director Steve Koch and request a sportscasting opportunity. Ackels already had been up in the press box as a freshman spotter for Rangers high school football broadcasts, assisting local donor Tom Walsh and analyst Jack Fitzsimmons. So PA for JV boys basketball was a natural progression.
“[Koch] was the first person to put a microphone in front of my face and say, ‘I trust you,’ ” said Ackels, 30.
By his junior year, Ackels was calling soccer games through a rudimentary online streaming system that he researched and arranged. As a senior, he got a chance to do PA for boys basketball when Paul McDaniel, a Jesuit Prep counselor, offered to step aside.
“That was so cool,” Ackels said. “I got to announce starting lineups, and they were all my buddies on the team. My buddy Mike and my buddy Ben. It was great.”
The Irish football team won’t be quite as familiar for Ackels, but he once again credits a mentor’s belief in making this opportunity happen.
Even though he has done PA work for DePaul and Northwestern, as well as Big Ten, Big East and Atlantic 10 postseason events, he didn’t apply initially when Notre Dame announced a social-media-driven search for Mike Collins’ replacement after 39 seasons.
Instead, it took an unsolicited nomination and some persistence from Gene Honda, PA voice of the White Sox since 1985 and the Blackhawks since 2001.
“He’s the one who said, ‘Hey, I put your name in the hat for this thing,’ ” Ackels said. “Public-address announcers don’t have agents, but if I did, Gene has been the best agent I could possibly ask for. He’s just a good man and a mentor to me.”
After more prodding from Honda and a call in March from Nathan Bush, live events producer for Irish media, Ackels finally put together an audition tape. Four months later, he won the sweepstakes for what he terms a dream job at one of the nation’s iconic sports venues.
Next came an hourlong phone conversation with Collins, who retired at 75 after putting his personal stamp on the PA role since the season opener in 1982 against Michigan. It was Collins who coined the phrase “Here come the Irish!” and made pregame weather reports a memorable part of the fan experience.
Like Collins, Ackels plans to keep the press-box window open so he can feed off the energy of nearly 80,000 fans in the stands. At Collins’ urging, Ackels also hopes to let his natural personality flow on game days.
“There are a lot of unique things that Mike Collins did,” Ackels said. “Which of those things are Notre Dame and which of those things are Mike Collins are specific and unique to him? How can I honor that legacy but also be my own man?”
Collins’ advice: Be yourself.
“What made him so good and so unique was that his personality came across on the mike,” Ackels said. “He took this job and said, ‘I’m going to be me.’ He just kept encouraging me not to be afraid to do that.”