Noie: Chris Ackels ready for the ride as new voice of Notre Dame Stadium
Hours before his voice tumbles over thousands of fans in the Notre Dame Stadium stands, telling them who made this tackle or who scored that touchdown, Chris Ackels figured to spend a sleepless Friday night reminiscent of his days in high school.
Attending Jesuit College Prep in Dallas, Ackels also was a pitcher and a shortstop on the varsity baseball team. Nights before games were particularly problematic. Ackels would toss and turn and generally get no good sleep while running through all the possible scenarios of the next day’s game.
Such likely was the case as Friday night gave way to Saturday morning before Ackels settles in Saturday afternoon and his first game as public address announcer for Notre Dame Stadium.
It was like high school all over again for the 30-year-old Ackels.
“I never slept the night before a start,” he said with an easy laugh earlier this week. “I’m trying to maximize my sleep this week. The adrenaline is going to carry me, I know that much. I may not get a minute of sleep, but I’ll have plenty of adrenaline.”
Ackels officially replaces Mike Collins, who retired last fall after 39 seasons of calling out those touchdowns and tackles from his public address announcer’s perch high above the field on the stadium's west side. That Ackels even will be on campus Saturday is a true this-can’t-be-happening experience.
Back in June, he was part of a select group of finalists working through one last run-through for the P.A. position. Ackels was convinced as he left the stadium that afternoon that he wouldn’t be back this month. If he was, it would be as a fan, certainly not as THE voice of the iconic venue.
He was good in his audition, but just not good enough.
“I walked out pretty convinced that I was not going to get this job,” Ackels said. “It had nothing to do with me. The other voices, every single finalist was phenomenal.”
The day was a running joke between Ackels and two other finalists. Each time one spoke during their 10-minute P.A. practice run while watching an old game on a nearby monitor, the other two would look at the other and concede that yep, they’ve got no shot.
One guy would be that good. Then the next guy would be better. Ackels was the best of the bunch.
“During the interview and tryout process, Chris’ passion for Notre Dame and his understanding of the history of the role shined,” said Brian Pracht, associate athletic director for marketing and ticketing. “Chris joining our gameday experience will be great for Notre Dame football and our fans.
“We can’t wait for Chris to welcome everyone to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time.”
First, Ackels will have to get to his booth.
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Time to develop a Saturday routine
Following a season when fan attendance and game day traditions were severely limited because of coronavirus protocols, Notre Dame Stadium and the surrounding area will wake Saturday to something closer to normal. Finally. Most of the gameday rituals and routine that define a fall Saturday in and around South Bend will return. For fans. For media. For coaches and for players. For everyone.
Even for stadium employees like Ackels.
Ackels has thought about his routine, and what it might entail. At midweek, that wish list remained relatively blank. Even a call from his mother, Carol, wondering how Saturday will unfold for her son was met with relative silence. Did he have a plan? Well, not really.
Should he spend Friday night at his home in the Chicago suburb of Glenview? Get up early (really early) Saturday morning and make the 90-minute drive over to campus? What about the time change? Or clearing the notorious Chicago traffic that seemingly chokes every downtown artery? How would the Indiana Toll Road flow to Exit 77?
Would it be better just to snag his friend’s lake house in Bridgman, where the commute would be way less stressful? So many questions awaited Ackels with not enough answers.
He did have one. Though where he would park and how far it would be from the stadium remained a mystery, Ackels knew of his gotta-make first spot.
“I will stop by the Grotto,” he said. “I want to get a prayer in before the beginning of this wild ride.”
The ride commenced in March. Long before he was a finalist for the job, Ackels submitted his audition tape like dozens of other P.A. hopefuls. In touching up his résumé, Ackels realized that he’d worked in some sort of role – play-by-play, in-game hosting, public address – in 11 different sports. He's called lacrosse matches and track and field contests. He’s announced for field hockey and even for one of his cousin’s seventh-grade basketball tournaments. He’s been up close in pro baseball.
Anything that got him any experience in a field he’s wanted to follow since he was a kid, he was all in. It’s his calling.
Ackels has been the on-field emcee with the Chicago White Sox the last five years. He’s regularly front and center talking in front of 30,000 fans at Guaranteed Rate Field on a game night.
When he wasn’t at a park or a stadium or a field or an arena, Ackels taught high school English for the last four years — three at Loyola Academy in Wilmette and one at Saint Patrick’s High School on Chicago’s near north side. He’s not teaching this year, and that’s by design.
“I really miss my colleagues (but) I don’t think I’m going to miss reading The Great Gatsby and grading papers,” he said. “A great experience, but I think I always kind of knew that it wasn’t the 40-year profession for me.
“I really have the chance to chase this dream full time.”
Ackels considers White Sox public address announcer Gene Honda a role model. A mentor. The man. Honda’s smooth and professional delivery has become synonymous for sporting events at Guaranteed Rate, at United Center and at the NCAA men’s Final Four.
Honda encouraged Ackels to chase the Notre Dame job.
Saturday is the first time Ackels works a football game as public address announcer since the spring when he called a high school contest between St. Rita and Loyola. The last college game he worked was at Northwestern two seasons ago.
“I’m ready to get back to full-speed college football,” he said. “You could really see that energy this weekend and I think we’re going to feel that on Saturday.”
Ackels wants to get that pregame feel for the Notre Dame crowd. Soon after the Grotto visit, he planned to wander the Joyce South and Stadium lots. Mingle with tailgaters, share a story or two and understand what a Saturday football game means on campus.
“That’s why you’re here and you do what you do,” he said. “Those are the people that give you the energy to do it.
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Take this job and run with it
Ackels learned in July that he’d earned the job. He didn’t figure it to be all that big of a deal, and was home in Texas visiting family and friends when Notre Dame released the news. Official word had been delayed a couple of days, to the point where Ackels didn’t know what day he’d officially be named the new public address announcer of Notre Dame Stadium.
It wasn't that newsworthy. Or was it?
On what had been a quiet midweek summer afternoon, his phone started buzzing with text messages and ringing with calls from friends he hadn’t heard from in years. His younger brother Thomas actually was moved to tears at the news. And when his father, Henry, returned from work that day it became official and announced how many different people he had heard from, Ackels finally realized that whoa, this is a REALLY big deal.
“That was kind of the coolest part,” he said. “It was not the press release or the news but hearing from people I hadn’t talked to in a long time and hearing them be excited. I got to reconnect with a lot of people.”
That included his best friend from their days at Dallas Jesuit, former Notre Dame kicker Nick Tausch. First time Ackels visited Notre Dame Stadium, he was a freshman communications major at Saint Louis University. Tausch had secured tickets to the 2009 Boston College game for Ackels and a few of their buddies. Last time Ackels was in South Bend for a college football game, it was senior year of college in 2012.
Ackels might’ve spent a little too much of that weekend at the Linebacker.
“To be frank, I don’t remember a lot about that game,” he said. “I couldn’t give you a whole lot of details, but man, what a blast. There was so much fun up there.”
Preparation for what awaits Ackels on Saturday for the Toledo game started Sunday night back in his Glenview home. He laid out the Florida State and Notre Dame rosters and depth charts in front of him. He turned down the sound on the ABC broadcast. He spent the first half working the game just as he would had he been in Doak Campbell Stadium.
That’s Jack Coan to Michael Mayer for a Notre Dame touchdown.
Tackle by JD Bertrand
The field goal’s good by Jonathan Doerer
Everything felt so natural. Later in the week, Ackels showed off by seamlessly pronouncing the names of Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Ademilola (Jayson and Justin) as if committed it all to memory. In a way, he had.
Ackels has had a copy of the Notre Dame roster since spring, which allowed plenty of time to memorize the names and the numbers. He’s ready for anything, but just plain ready. To get to the Grotto. To walk the parking lots. To feel the energy on campus. To see the football go in the air around 2:43 p.m. and get to work.
What would be his dream first call? How about a Chris Tyree kickoff return for a touchdown. Or another Coan to Mayer scoring connection. Ackels will settle for a simple first down and 10 from the 25 to shake any lingering nerves and get settled.
“I’ve known this is coming for a month of a half or so now,” Ackels said. “It’s almost here. It’s like, OK. Here we go.”
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI