Weigel Winner: Tim Weigel's Son's Journey

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Posted by chicagomedia.org on June 07, 2009 at 17:25:33:

Weigel winner: A Son's journey

Rafer making name for himself 8 years after famous father died

June 7, 2009

BY JIM O'DONNELL | Chicago Sun-Times

It is a tale of renewal. It is a parable about peering deep into a merciless night and finding reasons to shift peers and thrive.

It is a sports story as compelling as if a son of Secretariat was suddenly found looming boldly on a fast track toward even more encompassing thoroughbred glory.

At its fore stands Rafer Weigel. He is 38 going on 25, able to leap formidable professions in a single bound and currently having the time of his life. Weigel is the sports anchor on the Atlanta-based ''Morning Express With Robin Meade,'' the peppy recyclable on HLN -- the CNN network formerly known as ''Headline News.''

The supremely telegenic Meade -- a former Miss Ohio and once an Emmy-winning reporter at WMAQ-Channel 5 -- continues as one of the ascending princesses of broadcast journalism. Since February 2008 -- after all of three years dedicating himself to the pursuit of TV excellence -- Weigel serves as one of the essential accelerants and comic relievers in Meade's dawning court.

For Weigel -- Evanston-born and eclectically bred -- such a happy pace was unthinkable eight Junes ago. That was the month that his father, Tim -- one of the most memorable and well-liked local sportscasters in America -- passed away at age 56. From diagnosis to end, his surreal battle with brain cancer lasted 53 weeks.

Until that monumental passage, Rafer Weigel had been nipping at a major-league acting career. His credits included underbilling to Jenny McCarthy on her NBC sitcom ''Jenny,'' a co-starring role alongside William Shatner and ''Will and Grace''-bound Eric McCormack in the cult wiener ''Free Enterprise'' and the third male lead behind the brothers Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez in ''Rated X'' -- Showtime's dark recall of San Francisco's porn-torius Mitchell Brothers.

But after his father's farewell, a new picture began to fly through Rafer's grief-stained window:

''When may dad passed away, that's when I became incredibly passionate about following in his footsteps,'' Weigel said. ''That's when it really clicked in. The reality is that it was always something I wanted to do but I think it laid dormant for the most part when I was acting.

''Truthfully, the acting all began in high school because it was one of the few things he couldn't do. He was a great athlete, a brilliant man, a scholar. When I was a teenager and I got up there on stage, I saw how impressed he was with it all, so I stayed with it.''

But plays and planets have such a way of altering plans.

* * * *

From the cradle, there was little question that Rafer Weigel was pedigreed for some form of performance art. Grandfather John Weigel was a big-band announcer -- most notably for Lawrence Welk -- and later a broadcast executive. Grandmother Virginia sang professionally with Tommy Dorsey. Her showstopper, according to Tim, was ''Pennies From Heaven.''

Mother Kathy Worthington -- the first of Tim Weigel's three wives -- possessed world-class mellifluousness during an impressive run as a news anchor at WGN-AM (720). Younger sister Jenniffer would follow Rafer from Evanston High School to the theater department at the University of Illinois and inherit her mother's superb on-air voice before carving her own niche as an Emmy-winning broadcaster, author and playwright in Chicago.

The swirling master of it all was Tim. A star athlete at Lake Forest High School, he later started in the same football backfield at Yale that included Calvin Hill and Brian Dowling -- ''B.D.'' of ''Doonesbury'' fame. College chums included future president George W. Bush, Gene Siskel, Mike McCaskey, former New York Gov. George Pataki and Oliver Stone.

After Yale, Tim Weigel would blueprint upward dabbling. A run teaching school in inner-city New Haven bled into a job as a waiter, where a chance encounter with Yale president Kingman Brewster prompted a perch as a reporter with the local daily. Graduate film school at Northwestern followed, and then a job as a college football writer at the Chicago Daily News.

One afternoon, a local radio executive called Weigel's apartment and was so impressed with the message on his answering machine -- a crescendoing chunk of slap-schtick football rah-rah -- that he offered the young sportsman a part-time gig. Within two years, Weigel had ditched quill and scroll and was helping to anchor sports at WMAQ-Channel 5. His presence on Chicago airwaves would continue almost uninterrupted for close to 25 years.

From the son's chair, Rafer watched -- and listened and learned.

''My father said to me from an early age, 'You can accomplish anything you want as long as you're willing to work hard enough to do it,''' Rafer recalled. ''I've never forgotten that. On top of that, simply being around him and his friends -- an ever-expanding bunch that ranged from Mike Royko to the bartenders down at the Billy Goat and beyond -- was a special education in itself. You could never tell who'd turn up for a party or cookout at the Weigel household. His personal hero was Mike Royko, and I still consider Royko to be the most fascinating conversationalist I've ever been around. Simply being exposed to those sorts of people helped me along so much.''

But the media fast track to ''Morning Express with Robin Meade'' would begin on the saddest weekend of Rafer Weigel's life.

* * * *

The end was so sadly near for Tim Weigel.

''I was at his house writing an essay thanking the city of Chicago for all it had done for him and meant to him,'' Rafer said. ''We knew the inevitable was about to happen at any moment. One of the last people who came to say goodbye was [Sun-Times columnist] Rick Telander. I asked Rick to look at what I was writing. He read it and told me he'd like to run it in his column. My dad passed away a couple of hours after that and then shortly after, I met with [then-Sun-Times sports editor] Bill Adee, and he asked if I wanted a shot to freelance for the Sun-Times. I said 'Yes.'''

Despite his Hollywood niblets, Weigel's acting jones was fading. ''I enjoyed performing, but I hated the business,'' he said. ''Success is so arbitrary. Really, you are constantly auditioning, depending upon other people for a living, and your life becomes endless interviewing.

''One of the final moments for me out there came when I went into an audition and saw Hal Linden, Charles Shaughnessy from 'The Nanny,' the red-haired guy from 'Thirtysomething' and then five or six guys who I'd been at every other audition with for the past five years. I met my wife, Tiffany, through the business, but after that waiting room with those guys, I knew I was done.''

Still, there were dues to be paid. Weigel's work at the Sun-Times led to the Los Angeles Times. While there, he began to accept freelance TV work in San Diego. ''Three days a week, I would drive the 122 miles round-trip,'' he said. ''That was a character builder.''

Finally, in February 2006, he was hired by KOVR-TV in Sacramento, Calif. Late in 2007, word began to filter west that ''Morning Express'' was looking for a new sports foil.

''I've never wanted a job so badly in my life,'' Weigel said. ''They wanted a high-energy storyteller who could interact with Robin. That's how the audition was structured. It was so nerve-racking, although she was so nice. She was the only one who had any idea who my father was.

''The screen test lasted about 90 minutes with Robin, and then there was some stuff on my own.

''Two weeks later, back in Sacramento, I got the call that I got the job,'' Weigel said. ''Somehow, somewhere, I know my father had something to do with it.''

* * * *

Now his routine is regularly irregular. Weigel is up at 2:30 a.m., Eastern time, and at the CNN/HLN broadcast complex by 4 a.m. Along with Meade and primary colleagues including Bob Van Dillen (weather), Jennifer Westhoven (business and finance) and Richard Lui (politics), the fast-paced four hours begins at 6 a.m. in Chicago.

The strip's most recent audience numbers placed it second with a bullet among morning cable news shows behind ''Fox & Friends.'' All polled in-house said the on-air rapport among the ''MXP'' crew is real. ''We couldn't fake it,'' Weigel said. ''We're together too much.''

Added Meade: ''Rafer has a pulse for what connects emotionally with our audience. That's very important. You can get sports scores from any channel. But you can only get the human element behind the score if you have a good storyteller. That's what Rafer is. He can make someone really care about the subjects. And I know that his father would be very impressed with his son's talent, work ethic and team mentality.''

Almost every morning, mother Kathy catches at least the first hour of the show and immediately e-mails her son. ''Her messages are generally, 'Love the suit, the tie looks good, slow down,''' he said. ''Always -- 'slow down.'''

He and Tiffany -- married since 2002 -- are expecting their first child in November.

On his desk, Weigel has three mementos of the past: ''I have a picture of my father and Jenny and me sitting at Wrigley Field back when we were kids. I have a brick from Chicago Stadium that he bought me when I was in my 20s -- the only bit of sports paraphernalia that he ever bought me. And I have a picture of Chicago Stadium.

''But every morning when I'm pulling in the lot, I look up at the big 'CNN' sign and I can't help but think of my father and mother and the rest of the family and all that's happened to bring me here. I love working with Robin and the others, and I hope they'll have me for a long time. But I miss my hometown, too. Who knows? I love Chicago. If it were ever to work out there at some point in time, fantastic. But on my bizarre career path, the only reason things have come along is because I focused on what was right there in front of me at the time.''

Be it story, parable or simply a marvelous tale of thoroughbred renewal.

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