CHICAGO — He had one of the best seats in the house for nearly four decades; and while most Bears fans have never seen his face, they've likely heard his voice. If Soldier Field is home, Bears public address announcer Jim Riebandt is where the heart is.
“I try to share the excitement I have as a Bears fan, sort of partnering with the fans to make it like a game day experience,” Riebandt said.
For 38 seasons, he’s been the man behind the mic at Soldier Field. It all started at a family dinner in the mid-1970s. Riebandt’s parents invited DePaul University administrator Father Tim Munster, and young Jim Riebandt had a request.
“You know, Father Tom, I’d like to be the P.A. voice of DePaul basketball," Riebandt recalls saying. "I remember he looked me in the face, a direct Irishman, he said, ‘Well, what’s your experience, Jim?’ I have no experience.”
He would get it. As a student at Notre Dame, he had been a student radio sportscaster, and when the time came for DePaul to replace its P.A. announcer, Reibandt was ready. He was a natural, and his star rose with DePaul’s ascendance to the elite of college basketball.
When the Blue Demons were the city’s hottest team, Bears General Manager Jim Finks attended a game. Afterward, Finks approached Riebandt.
“Jim Finks had come to a DePaul game, and he came down and he goes, called me kid. ‘Kid, you’ve got this crowd in the palm of your hand, when this guy goes, you’re going to get it, so just don’t blow it,” Riebandt remembers.
Initially he was the back-up to Chet Coppock, a figure who almost invited imitation.
"When I first started, I’d do a Chet tribute, tried to mock him. He called me up and said, ‘kid, you don’t have me down,’” Riebandt said.
Sportscasting duties eventually forced Coppock to step aside, and Riebandt has been there ever since he took the mic.
“I give the basics: down, distance, ball carrier, tackler, pass receiver – and intermittently, you can comment on certain qualities of play. It’s information sharing, but you need to do it with some sort of style," Riebandt said.
He’s become a fan favorite for his interactive intonations.
“Good enough for a Bears … and then the crowd chants really loudly at times … first down," Riebandt says. “The idea was to get something to help a drive going to make it more infectious, more exciting.”
It’s quite a contrast from his other gig working as a contract lawyer. That training that gave him his best skill: learning the rules. His knowledge of the NFL rule book is said to be unequaled. That’s a skill, but he says his voice is a gift.
“I have natural clarity, Some people have a beautiful baritone. Some people have a really nice voice, but to be clear – I don’t slur words – a lot of people run quickly, I think it’s a gift," Riebandt said.
He's had few embarrassing moments, like misidentifying the most recognizable Bear of all time.
“Chuck Forman had carried like 25 times for the Vikings, and Payton carried and I just said Forman the ballcarrier, That’s when you used to have the windows open in the old press box – and some guy yelled up, ‘what are you looking at," Riebandt said.
He learned you can make a mistake, you just don’t make a mockery.
“Keith Van Horne offered to pay me some cash if one time I would call him, ‘Wally’ because he hated being called Wally, and I didn’t do it, thankfully," Riebandt said.
When Walter Payton eventually set the all-time rushing record at Soldier Field, it was Joe McConnel’s radio call that would be forever attached to the highlight. In fact, that tape is saved at the Hall of Fame.
But for the people inside of the stadium who actually witnessed it, it was Riebandt who made it official.
“We waited until Joe made the call, then Kenny Valdesari says, ‘Say it Jim: With that carry, Walter Payton has established a new NFL rushing record – and the crowd went berserk," Riebandt said.
The game that stands out to him is one he described but didn’t actually see: the "Fog Bowl." Bears PR man Ken Valdesari arranged for the NFL stats crew to have a walkie-talkies and radio the action to an Andy Frain usher standing next to Riebandt.
“He was describing the play, and as he described it, I re-described it," Riebandt said.
“Vern Lundquist on CBS made the comment, ‘I don’t know how this P.A. guy is doing it, but he’s calling the Game, and I can’t see a thing and he’s two booths away from me," Riebandt said.
A more threatening weather system brought the game to a standstill in 2013. Chicago was under a tornado warning, and suddenly Riebandts’ responsibility changed from riling up the crowd to calming them down.
“There was a specific announcement to vacate the stadium and go to places of shelter. I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m giving this announcement. If I’m the last guy here, I’ll take the blow for the team," Riebandt said.
He says his hardest moment was a kick in the gut to all Bears fans: the Double Doink. It was so painful, he simply let the silence speak for itself.
“I couldn’t announce it. I took my headset off because everyone knew it was no good. I put it down. I shake hands with my spotter, my producer, and I walked out. I couldn’t do it to the guy,"
Now after 38 seasons, it’ll be up to someone else to make those calls. Riebandt is retiring at age 69.
“I thought it would be a nice symmetry with the 100th year. It’s been such a part of my life, but it’d be nice to give someone else a chance,” Riebandt said.
His will be a voice forever linked to a venue, the sound of Soldier Field.
“the crowd felt I was one of them, and as a fan, I gave the perspective and sort of participated in the happiness, and shared in the despair, and through the sound of my voice, making it a collaborative effort, that was one of them," Riebandt said.