In 1964, Dick Jonckowski was standing outside Williams Arena, trying to figure out how to get in to watch his beloved Gophers, when the Michigan team bus pulled up. The great Cazzie Russell stepped out.
Jonckowski asked, "Mr. Russell, do you mind if I carry your bag?" Russell said, "Who cares?"
Jonckowski did. He carried the bag all the way to the Michigan locker room, then sneaked behind the Wolverines bench and stayed there all game.
"Nobody said a word," Jonckowski said. "Just unbelievable."
As he grew up, Jonckowski found a more reliable way to access Gophers games for free. Williams Arena, which celebrated its 81st birthday last Wednesday, has featured just two public address announcers in its history. The first was Jules Perlt, who retired in the mid-1980s. The second is Jonckowski, the self-styled "Polish Eagle," who has worked the mike at Gophers basketball and baseball games since 1986 and spent 10 years working Gophers football games, all the while relishing his prime location and access to successive generations of Gophers athletes and coaches.
Athletes leave or retire young and coaches get fired. Our sporting fixtures so often are the people behind the scenes, or behind the mikes.
"I remember listening to Julie, and he had such a distinct voice," Jonckowski said. "He had a nasal tone. He'd call out, 'McHaaaaale!' I used to imitate him all the time. We'd play our back-yard games, and I'd pretend I was doing the public address."
Some kids dream of game-winning shots, others of introducing the starting lineup. Jonckowski, 65, has fallen into the latter category ever since -- as a kid growing up in New Prague -- he started finding his way into local sporting events, like a Forrest Gump with a home-run call.
In the late '50s and early '60s, Jonckowski became a Boy Scout usher at old Memorial Stadium and in Williams Arena. His father's cousin was in charge of the Boy Scouts, and once he discovered his relative, he gave Dick a prime assignment -- working behind the bench. Thus, he found himself with up-close-and-personal access to the Gophers' two Rose Bowl teams.
"And in basketball, I usually had a place close to the floor," Jonckowski said. "I had a good deal."
He made $60 a week in public relations for the Muskies and Pipers in the American Basketball Association, where he worked with Bob Casey, who would become the legendary misspeaking Twins announcer. "Bob gave me a lot of advice," Jonckowski said. "I always wondered if he made those mistakes on purpose."
Jonckowski even worked as a head field usher for the Vikings in the '60s and '70s. "They put me on the field, and I was kind of a hot dog," he said. "So somebody said, 'Let's put Dick's name on the back of his jacket, with three stars.'
"Bud Grant used to go crazy, saying, 'Jonckowski is in all of our game films.' I caught 112 field goals in 17 years, and seven passes that were thrown out of bounds. That was a great deal for me, because everybody knew who I was from those crazy days."
Jonckowski emceed numerous Gophers charity events for former athletic director Paul Giel, and when Perlt retired, Giel told Jonckowski he would be a leading candidate to replace Perlt. When Jonckowski struck up a friendship with Clem Haskins, he pushed for Jonckowski and the rest is Williams Arena history.
Jonckowski is ebullient by nature. He began his career in radio, but after working "for an alcoholic" in Ladysmith, Wis., he returned home to work at KSMM (AM-1530) in Shakopee. When the station went to a religious format, Jonckowski became a guest speaker and emcee, offering the motto "Laugh and Live Longer." "I've done 30th birthday parties, mock weddings, bowling banquets," he said. "Whenever they need somebody, I can fill the bill."
He does laugh a lot. He used to tell jokes to Haskins before Gophers games. After developing the same relationship with Dan Monson that most people in Dinkytown had -- nonexistent -- he began telling jokes to Tubby Smith before games, to "loosen him up."
The first: "I told Tubby before his first game, 'My wife ran away with my best friend, and man, do I miss him.' Just crazy stuff like that. Tubby will come over before every game and say, 'Give me a quick one.' I try to make him laugh, help him relax."
He knows his role.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. • firstname.lastname@example.org