Peeling Ball State’s Onion: A Rising Broadcast Star
Three basketball broadcasts within the past week and a half can take its toll, so a quieter night accompanied by winter’s inaugural snowfall and Adam Sandler’s “Billy Madison” was a welcomed addition to one of Connor Onion’s rare off nights.
After charging through 12 weeks of football games, impromptu midnight drives from Muncie to Wrigley Field to witness his beloved Cubs squeeze the last gasping breath of the longest title drought in American sports or to get an up close look at Alabama football coach Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa, it’s not uncommon for the 22-year-old LaGrange, Ill., native to sport bags under his eyes.
Afforded the brief ability to grow slight stubble until his next appearance on press row, “Young Cawnzy” – Ball State’s student football and men’s basketball play-by-play voice – traded a headset and suit for the remote and sweats. Music History reading could wait a few hours.
On that note, a buddy was gearing up to sing at the local bar’s karaoke, so what’s two more hours really going to hurt?
It’s somewhat strange -- his laptop with eight tabs gleaning with game notes and stats was nowhere in sight, nor were the usual stacks of flash cards revealing 14 members of the opposing basketball team coming to town on Saturday for our roughly 30 minute trip down memory lane. I have a half suspicion he was running through name pronunciations in his head in a lull of conversation.
Which shouldn’t necessarily surprise anyone, as his mind had once been charged to start all 12 games at safety as a senior after spending time at quarterback the previous few seasons for Lyons Township High School – with playoff appearances, to boot.
Then, translate hours of listening to Cubs radio legend Pat Hughes -- among others -- to cultivate one of the industry’s fastest rising broadcasting stars.
We often hear professional athletes characterized as “students of the game”, or participate in the vast ovation toward those who spend “hours" in the film room.
Yet, nary is spoken -- much less known -- when broadcasters like Onion will flip through their charts minutes leading up to a class presentation, or burn the midnight oil to get his third look at the Toledo offense that week with a paper due the next morning.
He’s stashed a few CDs of downloads from Kevin Calabro calling the NBA Finals in his car or will simply pull up a PAC-12 student radio station feed on a given Friday night just in case he hears something he could borrow for the future.
Before bed, he’ll pop up a few videos on YouTube featuring Kevin Harlan from CBS Sports as he hunkers down for the night.
He’s called games from an Iowa ticket booth at Kinnick Stadium and the concourse of Michie Stadium, where Ball State’s 41-21 loss during a rainy, wind-infused Oct. afternoon is still enshrined on the Army football website two years later.
If you’re lucky, you might even get a free shout out for your business. Just ask T.J. Maxx. Keep an ear perked up for Ancient Greek history, while you’re at it.
“When I listen to Connor’s games, I know its Connor,” junior broadcaster Mick Tidrow said. “It’s not somebody just trying to sound like a broadcaster. Connor is comfortable and himself. Always be yourself. Don’t try and sound like somebody else. There’s already Al Michaels. There’s already Vin Scully."
Contrary to Onion's belief, I have yet to find an onion ring honored as a Sportcasters Talent Agency of America’s two-time top-20 finisher, including ranking seventh in their national competition in 2015. One year later, he finished 16th.
Before Nov. 17, 2014 -- a 101-62 drubbing by Ball State men's basketball over Indiana University Kokomo. Onion, a sophomore at the time, had never put on a headset to complete play-by-play for a team full-time. The year prior, he served as sideline reporter with the goal of ascending to the top job. Awards were a pipe dream at that point, simply trying to grasp everything that entails with the job.
“Edit your word choice on the fly," Onion said. "That’s what play-by-play is."
Onion touts his “adaptability” as one of his strongest broadcasting qualities. He has the confidence to be thrown into almost any sport, and be able to deliver his part.
To date, Onion has commentated six sports as a member of Ball State Sports Link. While he ideally wants to a chance to call all three major North American leagues -- NBA, MLB and NFL -- professionally, he’d be pleased with simply one.
“Once you nail the fundamentals of play-by-play, you can apply those to almost every sport,” Onion said. “It’s descriptions, storytelling and identification of people on the floor and adding interaction with co-hosts."
Though, he countered, improvement is needed in voice control and breathing.
Through the use of a voice coach and advice from broadcasting friends, Onion began to recently incorporate reading William Shakespeare into his workload, reading three lines -- breathe -- and another four before taking another breath.
It’s not often Onion can be at a loss of words during the flow of the roughly 300-plus games collectively from radio to ESPN 3 in his four-year broadcasting career thus far, but a 105-degree summer afternoon amid a DuPage Hounds Midwest Collegiate League double-header did the trick. The “Texas-like” heat wiped the opposing team’s roster down to nine players, and already succumbed an umpire to heat exhaustion.
With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, and the Hounds’ game-winning run 90 feet from home, the game suddenly stopped, prompting the home plate umpire to wave in the runner from third. With the Hounds pouring out of the dugout in celebration, Onion had an estimated two minutes of dead air -- silence -- trying to process the unfolding action below.
“If it was a Cubs game, yeah, I’d look like an idiot,” Onion said.
It wasn’t until the following day’s pregame show the truth became known. The opposing catcher had to run off the field to use the bathroom. After waiting about five minutes, the umpire waved in the run, seeing only eight defensive players were in the field of play. Onion claims that instance is the worst call of his career to date.
“To do play-by-play well, you have to make sacrifices," Onion said. "I made the mistake -- or maybe out of naivety -- last year thinking that once you do it for long enough, you’ve nailed it, and you can just show up and do it. You can’t. Once you think you’ve hit that plateau where you’re doing it well enough, you’ve got to understand there’s another gear to hit.”
And another gear became reality in January.
Onion officially announced he will become the radio play-by-play voice of the Quad Cities River Bandits, the Class-A affiliate of the Houston Astros. In order to be ready for the season, he will be finishing his Ball State and Digital Sports Production degree online and move away from Muncie to Davenport, Iowa on March 1.
While his leap into the professional ranks as a soon-to-be graduate came earlier than anticipated, Onion is thrilled to call America's Pastime for a living.
And similar to his Cubbies, perhaps someday he too will go all the way to the top.