After more than two decades, the esteemed 11 Alive sports anchor Fred Kalil today announced during the 6 p.m newscast that he is stepping down from that much coveted job.
News director Ellen Crooke send out this note to staff today:
Our Fred Kalil …the guy we all love, the guy who makes us laugh, the guy with a heart the size of Buick has an announcement he wants to share with all of you. We are sending it to all of you first before we tell the community tonight. Just remember Fred will continue to cover sports for us on air… in fact watch sports tonight as he previews this weekend’s biggest college game ! We love ya Fred !
In this farewell video narrated by Jaye Watson, he expressed his love for sports and his desire as a young man to become an anchor, a dream he pulled off with aplomb.
He had a benign cyst removed from his brain in 2000 but it took months for him to recover short-term memory. He returned to the air three months later and took medication to avoid seizures. He said recently, he has had more trouble reading the prompter. He felt it was time to step away from anchoring but will still do stories on occasion. (Whether he will remain on a freelance or part-time basis has not been clarified to me but I will update this when I find out.)
“It stinks,” he told Watson. “It’s tough. It’s tough, it really is. I can’t tell you how hard it is… I used to be able to do all this stuff in my sleep.” At the same time, he said he has no regrets.
Brenda Wood, the anchor, told the audience during the 7 p.m. telecast: “He’s talented. He’s smart. He’s witty. He’s one of the longest-running sports anchors in Atlanta. He’s a fighty, a gritty fighter and a tender soul, like a great big teddy bear…. We love you Freddy.”
No word from the bosses on whether fellow 11 Alive sports guy Sam Crenshaw will take over anchoring full time or not. A source told me Crenshaw is on a month-to-month contract basis right now and that Crooke is not a huge fan of sports.
Here is the story we wrote in the AJC about his recovery from that surgery in October, 2000, courtesy of my former colleague Drew Jubera:
Fred Kalil steps through a waiting room door inside North Fulton Regional Hospital in Roswell, arriving this morning for memory therapy. He turns down one white hallway, then down another. Unless you work here, the second one looks pretty much like the first.”Hey, ” he says, sticking his head in an open door, glad to recognize the place. “We’re at the right office.”
It hasn’t been that easy recently for Kalil, WXIA’s popular, 41-year-old sports anchor, who underwent brain surgery in mid-August to remove a non-cancerous cyst.
When Kalil started memory and speech therapy two weeks after his operation, stepping down these same white halls was more like a trip by Alice down the rabbit hole.
“It took him weeks before he could find the therapy room, ” says Kathy Peyton, the therapist who sees Kalil three times a week. “He would just wander the halls. Every time he came out of this room, he’d go right when he was supposed to go left.”
Kalil navigates those hallways smoothly now. He started working again at the station two weeks ago, though he’s not expected back on air for a couple of more weeks. Peyton wants Kalil’s short-term memory and speech — which was slurred after the operation and still gets a little tangled when he tires — close to perfect.
Kalil smiles at the thought of potential on-air flubs. He says the surgery gives him cover. He points to the head a surgeon cut open with a power saw and in which he left, like some pricey souvenir from the hospital gift shop, a titanium plate. Curly brown hair covers the scar.
“Now, ” Kalil says, still pointing at his head with an I’m-With-Stupid finger, “I have an excuse.”
Some viewers might wonder if Kalil needs an excuse.
He’s the guy who once did a sportscast after Freaknik from his car’s open sunroof and called it Frednik (”That was some awful TV, man”). Who had a football analyst lie down on a couch while Kalil impersonated Sigmund Freud (”Fred Freud”) and turned a Falcons discussion into a therapy session.
Kalil once called a local college player (this was in Phoenix) the slowest tight end in America, then was challenged by the player to a race and aired it (”I got smoked”). He once taped himself in a tobacco-spitting contest (also in Phoenix), then went back on the air the next night when the general manager insisted he apologize.
“Fred has always been fairly unprofessional to begin with, so this will be an easy transition to make, ” jokes Jimmy Baron, morning radio host on 99X, where Kalil sits in when co-host Steve Barnes is on vacation.
“He’s totally what people want to watch today: not old-school, kind of irreverent, uses a lot of hip references.” Baron adds: “Even when he does the cheesy stuff, he does it with a wink and a nod, to indicate to viewers that he knows it’s silly.”
But Kalil has evolved into more than just a newscast’s comic relief. He’s a relative rarity in local TV sports: a sports anchor who goes after news. Monica Kaufman, WSB’s anchor diva, recently said Kalil was the one person she’d choose from a rival station to do news with.
“He’s considered more than a guy who reads the scores, ” says Len Pasquarelli, senior NFL writer for CBS SportsLine.com. and former football writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “(WXIA) trailed so much in the ratings early on, I always thought Fred felt compelled to do (wacky) stuff to be different, which he’s very good at. But I think Fred tries harder to break news than the other guys.”
That balance between being memorable and responsible has resulted in a kind of hardworking, Average Joe presence that’s earned Kalil seven local sportscaster Emmys since he arrived at WXIA in 1992. Creative Loafing recently named him its critics’ choice for TV sports anchor.
“He has more personality than any of (the other local sports anchors), ” says Chris Dimino, sports talk-show host on 790 the Zone. “Fred’s like the neighbor you borrow the lawn mower from and spend 15 minutes talking to him when you do it.
“He’s the same off-camera as he is on: goofy, but not goofy in a bad way. His conversations range from what the Braves did last night to Big Ten football to something that’s not sports-related. He has that Everyman mentality.”
Kalil, who grew up outside South Bend, Ind., and played linebacker as a non-scholarship walk-on at Indiana University, says he has always approached sports as fun.
“People I trusted when I was starting out used to tell me, ‘It’s just sports. It’s not brain surgery.’ ” He points again at his head. “Who knew I’d get to do both?”
Hospital visit, then surgery
Kalil had headaches for weeks before his surgery. Bad ones. On Tuesday, Aug. 15, he went to an early evening Mass at Christ the King Cathedral in Buckhead (it was a Catholic holy day), then anchored WXIA’s 9 p.m. newscast on AT&T Broadband’s TV33.
When he finished at 9:30, his head was killing him. He called his wife, Carla, who asked if he’d eaten anything. He hadn’t. So he ate and immediately got sick. When he had to tape a segment for the 11 p.m. news three times, colleagues told him to get to a hospital. He’d been running around all day and some thought he might be dehydrated.
“You could tell in his eyes it was a debilitating-type headache, ” sports producer Roger Manis says. “He sat there holding his head.”
Kalil drove himself to nearby Piedmont Hospital, figuring he’d get some intravenous fluids and leave (”A little halftime IV, ” he says of a common football practice). But he underwent a CAT scan and something pea-sized showed up. Not sure what it was, doctors scheduled brain surgery the next day. Kalil never left the hospital.
“I didn’t even have time to validate my parking ticket, ” he says.
When he woke from surgery the next evening, he recited for the doctor the names of childhood friends and their phone numbers. He felt fine until someone handed him a mirror.
“I started crying, ” he recalls. “It was scary. The scar was pretty gruesome, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I have a wife and two children and I didn’t know what was going to happen with them.”
But doctors assured Kalil as well as a dozen friends from the station, who turned the surgeon’s appearance inside a Piedmont waiting room into a kind of impromptu news conference, that the cyst was benign, and his recovery would be complete.
Kalil was soon back in form: He recited comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s routine about a Southern brain surgeon so relentlessly (”What we’re goin’ to do is saw the top of yer haid off . . .”) that friends at WXIA had Foxworthy, Kalil’s neighbor at the Country Club of the South in Alpharetta, call his hospital room and do the routine for him over the phone.
WSB sports anchor Chuck Dowdle, who flew to Atlanta from a vacation in Maine the day after the operation, was worried until he arrived at Piedmont’s intensive care unit with former University of Georgia football coach Ray Goff. When Dowdle told Kalil he looked great, the anchor turned his bandaged head to Goff, rolled his eyes and said, “He’s a lyin’ (son-of-a-gun), isn’t he?”
“That’s when I knew he was fine, ” Dowdle recalls. “That’s Fred.”
The therapy begins
But that wasn’t the end of it for Kalil. He went home after a 10-day hospital stay and started therapy. “Toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life, ” he says.
While his long-term memory was largely intact, his short-term recall virtually vanished. When therapist Peyton asked him on Mondays what he did over the weekend, Kalil drew blanks. What did he have for breakfast? He had to think.
“I’d take the newspaper in with me so I could sneak a look if she asked what day it is, ” he says.
For someone whose livelihood depends on an ability to recount events off the top of his head in front of a camera, this was trouble.
“His personality and his intellect and his wit — that’s his job, that’s what he does, ” Dowdle says.
There were physical problems, too. Kalil’s left side was weaker than his right, and balance sometimes was a problem; once he just fell down at home when nobody was around. He hated using a cane.
But his doctor and therapist assured him things would get better (”Oh, yeah, when?” he asked), and slowly they did. Kalil remembers about a month after surgery waking up and telling Carla what day it was — and being correct. “And I thought, ‘All right, we’re off to a good start, ‘ ” he says.
“From day one, we were told there would be a positive outcome, ” Carla adds. “They couldn’t say, ‘In one month, everything will come back.’ They just said it takes time.”
Those who’ve known Kalil a long time aren’t surprised by his recovery. They say he’s the same intense, focused, likable guy he’s always been.
“He’s exactly the way he was in college, ” says Tim McVay, WSB-TV sales director and an Indiana graduate assistant when Kalil tried out after playing for a three-time state championship team in high school.
“He was Rudy, ” McVay adds, referring to the title character in the biographical movie about a Notre Dame walk-on. “I don’t mean he didn’t have athletic talent, but he was an undersized linebacker playing against Big Ten linemen, who always gave it everything he had. You’ve got to be an innately tough kid to want to do that.”
Adds Lee Corso, Kalil’s Indiana head coach and now an ESPN analyst: “He was one of the toughest, most competitive kids I ever had. His only problem was he was slow. He wasn’t big enough to be that slow, and he wasn’t fast enough to be that small. He’s that same kind of competitor today.”
Kalil sums up those days: “I walked on and was carried off.”
Now he’s just glad to be back.
“This is like everyone’s nightmare, ” says Peyton, paging through Kalil’s hospital file in the therapy room. “You read this and say, ‘Whoa, this could happen to any of us.’ It’s major life-changing.
“Fred has had his life interrupted, but I think he’ll be able to return to his old life completely. He’s luckier than a lot of patients I see.”
Kalil shakes his head — the one with the hidden zigzag scar and titanium plate. He enjoyed spending more time at home with his kids — family is his chief outside interest — and he worked hard at therapy.
But he’s glad to be back at the station, where he’s returned slowly: working behind the camera, attending Falcons practice, going to a Georgia game with Dowdle. He’s done simulated sportscasts to practice, talking while a producer shouts in his ear.
“The doctors said be patient, so I’m going to be patient. I’m going to wait until I’m right, ” he says.
He pauses. He doesn’t point to his head this time. Doesn’t have to.
“It has been a wild ride.”