John Morales has interviewed some of sports’ greatest athletes, including Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Pete Rose and Jack Nicklaus.
But the former sports broadcaster has a story of his own. The child of Colombian immigrants, Morales worked his way up in sports broadcasting and worked independently with ESPN, Fox Sports and CBS Radio Sports. Yet, after 19 years he gave it all up to serve the Church.
Morales is network correspondent for Green Bay, Wis.-based Relevant Radio. He and his new bride, Cindy, received a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. Morales spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake from his home in Chicago.
Tell me about yourself.
I grew up on the north side of Chicago. We attended St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church. I attended school with the Sisters of Christian Charity. My parents emigrated from Colombia. My father was an attorney, but couldn't speak the language. It was very difficult for him. He started drinking, and by the time I was 13, he left us. Not having a father figure left a huge void. The last time I saw him, he was in a cab headed for Colombia. The last thing I asked him was for $5 to buy a Willie Mays baseball bat. That was the last time I saw him until I was 27.
I attended the Marmion Military Academy and I owe my life to those people. They planted the seeds of who I am today. I was a sports nut. At the age of 11 or 12 I fell in love with baseball and had dreams of being a major leaguer. I was a Cubs fan and used to ride my bicycle to Wrigley Field. In 1972 I was watching the last no-hitter at Wrigley Field on TV. I knew it was going to be historic, and decided I just had to be there. On my way, my bicycle broke in half, so I ran the rest of the way, making it to Wrigley in time for the last inning.
I understand that there was a time when you fell away from the faith?
I never lost my belief in God or my affection for the Blessed Mother. It's like I went on vacation from God.
When I got into college, I started chasing girls. I was looking for love in all the wrong places. That resulted in a pregnancy when I was 25. When my girlfriend consulted me, I got down on one knee and begged her not to have an abortion. In the end, she sought an abortion.
The years when I started broadcasting were difficult years. I was hanging out in nightclubs. I was out there, lost. I made broadcasting my God.
What brought you back?
In 1983, I was working in the insurance business looking for fulfillment. I thought that if I were “rookie of the year” I would be happy, but there was always something missing. That year I met former Detroit Tiger minor league pitcher-turned insurance salesman, Joe Gandolfo. He had taken all of his talent and redirected it to the insurance business. He had sold $1 billion in insurance in a single year. I called him to get some advice, and I met with him in Cocoa Beach.
When I walked into his office, amid all of his trophies was a statue of the Blessed Mother behind his credenza and a crucifix on the wall. I knew he was for real. I wanted to know what made this guy tick.
After talking with him, he said, “Son, you're not at peace with yourself because you've made materialism your god. You'll never be happy until you're right with the man upstairs in your own way. It sounds to me like you want to be a movie star or a baseball player.” I started crying right there in his office.
When I left his office, the sun was shining. That meeting changed my life. He gave me a wakeup call. Shortly thereafter, after watching Bob Costas doing a show, I realized that what I really wanted to be was a sportscaster. So, I took courses with Midwest Broadcasting School. One year later I was covering the Cubs in Spanish for Channel 60. That was the beginning of my broadcast career.
From there I went to doing work for CBS. In 1987, I was asked to do a voice-over for a production trying to raise money for Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico. Seeing that video touched my heart. It renewed my interest in the faith. The Blessed Mother was pulling me by the ear and bringing me back home. I began stopping in to church on my way to the stadium to say prayers.
I also did my first faith reporting for a feature on Fatima for ABC. That opened my heart to doing religious reporting. I realized that you can reach a lot of people through the media. These were all building blocks to working full-time in Catholic media.
By 1993, I got hired by ABC in Houston. When I got down there, I started going to Mass on my days off. I returned to Detroit after a year, and continued going to Mass and saying the Rosary.
After Chicago closed its network, I was out of work for a year. I wondered, “What am I supposed to do?” I was considering the priesthood. A Franciscan friar told me, “Do whatever gives you peace.”
In secular media, I covered some of the greatest moments in the history of sports, and interviewed some of the greatest athletes, which is why I felt at peace about leaving sports broadcasting. I thought, “What more is there to do?”
I had the opportunity to interview with ESPN in 1999 and auditioned on the set. It was as if God was giving me a taste to see what it was like, but by that time I no longer had that desire. I wanted to work in Catholic media. He was redirecting my obsession to do work for the Kingdom.
You've interviewed dozens of sports celebrities. Do you have a favorite?
I have two — one young and one old. Mike Sweeney of the Kansas City Royals has the heart of a seminarian with the body of a baseball player. He touched me with his love of the Lord and the Blessed Mother. The other, Jack McKeon, manager of the Florida Marlins, I was with when the Marlins beat the Cubs. I interviewed him many times during the playoffs. He carries his rosary in his pocket and has a devotion to Therese, the Little Flower. Prior to Game 6, he went to Holy Name Cathedral. The priest said, “I know who you are.” He felt that was a sign that the Marlins would come back and beat the Cubs in Games 6 and 7 [and eventually go on] to win the World Series.
Do you have any favorite stories of athletes?
In November 2002, I went to Rome with my mother. While waiting to meet the Pope, I realized that Mike Piazza, the All-Star catcher for the New York Mets, was sitting next to me. He didn't have a rosary, so I pulled one out and gave it to him to have it blessed by the Holy Father. I'll never forget the look on his face. He was in The New York Times the next day.
What are you doing now?
I'm network correspondent for Relevant Radio and contribute to the “Drew Mariani Show.” Last week we did a video on the priesthood. I feel like the Lord has been using me like a pen. I'm also speaking on sports and giving my pro-life witness, particularly for men.
Tim Drake is based in Saint Joseph, Minnesota.