“Devin Hester, you are ridiculous!”
Wheaton resident Jeff Joniak coined what has become his signature phrase as the Chicago Bears’ radio play-by-play announcer during the excitement of describing Hester returning a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown during the fourth quarter of a Bears vs. St. Louis Rams Monday Night Football game back in December, 2006.
Earlier in the game, Hester took a kickoff 94 yards to the house. The Bears went on to win that game and eventually earned a trip to Super Bowl XLI in February, 2007, where Hester ran back the game’s opening kickoff for a TD.
Joniak’s had the opportunity, of course, to use this phrase many times since then as Hester has become the NFL’s all-time leader for total return touchdowns with 16.
Had Joniak known then just how popular that description of Hester would become when he first uttered it almost five years ago, he might have applied for a copyright or trademark. His “Devin Hester, you are ridiculous!” phrase has been used in commercials. There are even “Devin Hester, you are ridiculous” pages on Facebook.
“I get asked that all the time, and I probably should have done something,” replied Joniak with a laugh. “I’m not a smart business man, but it sure is a popular phrase. Anytime I go somewhere, somebody brings it up and wants me to say it, so the fact of the matter is, he is ridiculous.”
Joniak in 11th season
Joniak, now in his 11th year as the voice of the Bears on WBBM-AM 780, noted that he received text messages “in droves” from listeners after Hester set the new record for career return touchdowns during the Bears’ victory over the Minnesota Vikings Oct. 16.
“And everyone with the same quote: ‘Devin Hester, you are ridiculous,’ ” said Joniak, who’s been with the team the past few days in London, where the Bears defeated Tampa Bay on Sunday.
When he’s not broadcasting Bears games, Joniak usually can be found at Halas Hall, the Bears headquarters in Lake Forest, where he covers the team and provides sports updates for WBBM throughout the day.
Spending as much time as he does at Halas Hall, Joniak gets to know players on a personal level, including Hester. Joniak says Hester is a soft-spoken, yet hard-working athlete who recognizes that he’s making NFL history.
“He doesn’t love the spotlight, but yet some of his biggest moments have come on the biggest stages,” said Joniak, who’s also WBBM’s director of sports operations. “With the lights on, he comes out. He’s kind of a conundrum that way. He’s very serious about his place in history. He acknowledges that he’s definitely changed how teams defend him and how schemes have changed because of his presence on the field.
“He understands his climb through the record books, and he’s clearly not done. There’s a couple more (records) out there yet, even though he’s the all-time kick return leader. He’s chasing some really amazing things, but in the fraction of the time. That’s the part of it that’s the stunner. It’s not that he’s doing it; it’s how he’s doing it and how quickly he’s doing it.”
Hester a family man
And Hester is very much a family man. Hester writes a monthly column for Chicago Parent Magazine, which details father-and-son moments with his 2-year-old, whom he calls “lil’ Devin.” Click here to read one of Devin’s columns, which appeared in the August issue of the magazine:
“He’s just a soft-spoken guy,” Joniak said. “He’s a dedicated father. He writes a column for Chicago Parent Magazine each month. He comes from a proud University of Miami program. He’s a guy who’s humble, but at the same time puts ‘any’ and ‘time’ on the back of his cleats for ‘Anytime.’ That was his college nickname.”
Joniak is a family man, too. He lives in Wheaton with his wife and two daughters. He’s been part of the Chicago sports family for many years, as well.
Joniak began hosting Bears’ game-day broadcasts in 1997 when Wayne Larrivee—now play-by-play voice of the Green Bay Packers—was joined in the broadcast booth by color men Hub Arkush and Tom Thayer on the Bears’ old flagship station, WMAQ.
Gary Bender then took over the team’s play-by-play duties for the next few seasons, replacing Larrivee after Larrivee went to the Packers in 1998. WBBM, which became the Bears’ flagship station in 2000, named Joniak its new play-by-play voice the following year—a move that came as a surprise because Joniak had virtually no previous play-by-play experience.
“I had no real play-by-play experience since college and admittedly they took a big chance on me,” he said.
Fast-forward 11 years, and Joniak and Thayer are household names to Bears fans—a good percentage of whom hit the mute button on their remote controls and listen to their radio broadcast while watching the game on TV.
“Once you hit double-digit years, your base is growing,” Joniak said. “Everything takes time, and much like sports you need reps (in broadcasting). The more reps, the more comfortable you become in carving out the style you have.
“I always repeat this quote from Vin Scully, who throughout his career claimed that he never listened to other broadcasters. Even while he did the game for 50 years he never wanted to hear how others do it because his quote was, ‘Don’t water your wine.’ I really take that to heart because it’s just such a personal experience when you do a game.
“It’s you and the game and the guy who’s sitting in his car or driving to work or on the way from something or at home with the TV sound down and the radio up. It’s a one-on-one experience even though there’s hundreds of thousands of people listening to the broadcast. It’s just you trying to paint the picture with the passion and the excitement that it deserves because the game is so unique. It’s the greatest game going.”
Joniak recalls a wide receiver candidate at the Bears’ training camp coming up to him at lunch one day and telling him, “Man, I grew up listening to you.”
“That growing up listening to you thing, when you start doing the math, there’s a whole group of kids that have only known me as the play-by-play guy,” Joniak said. “That’s how you cultivate your following, and you’ve got to be good at it. If you’re not good at it, you’re not going to have a following so I’m really humbled by Bears fans.”
Joniak: Thayer the best
Thayer, a former Bears offensive lineman who’s been Joniak’s color commentator exclusively since the 2003 season, brings such insight into the game during broadcasts that Joniak compares Thayer’s analysis to “going to football grad school” each week.
“I work very closely with him,” said Joniak, who also teams up with Thayer for the Chicago Bears-produced “Bears Game Day Live” and “Bears Game Night Live” television programs. “We spend a lot of time together and we talk constantly about football. He’s become my closest friend.
“What I respect about him, beyond his knowledge and his experience, is that he treats each week as if he’s a player or a coach. His preparation is just stunning because not everyone does what Tom does. I’m really grateful for having a guy like that in the booth. It just makes the broadcast pop. He’s always coming up with new angles and new ideas to discuss on game day.”
Joniak accompanied his broadcast partner and several members of the Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl championship team to the White House earlier this month to be honored by President Barack Obama. Thayer started for the ’85 Bears, who never got a reception at the White House in 1986 because the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded two days after the Bears beat New England to win the title.
“The whole thing from start to finish was one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of with the NFL,” Joniak said, “and the Bears in concert, with Washington, just did an incredible job for these guys. Just the story-telling from the moment we got to the parking lot at O’Hare to wrapping things up (in Washington) and heading home was just great.
“I’ve become acquaintances with many of those ’85 Bears over the years during my time broadcasting. It’s a unique group right to the end. There’s no question that there’s no group like this, and the experience was fabulous. I had a chance to shake the hand of the President, which you never think you’re going to be able to do in your life. And we did it on the South Lawn of the White House. It was one of the top moments of my career, no question.”