(December 9, 2016) STAA member Alex Benzegala is the new morning news anchor and play-by-play talent at KGGF 690 AM in Coffeyville, KS. The personal challenges he’s conquered to get there, overcoming stuttering and life-threatening depression, are nothing short of remarkable.
Here is Alex’s account of his inspirational journey and how play-by-play became his saving grace.
Every word is worth reading.
I truly believe that to become the best broadcaster you can be, you need to start in places like Coffeyville and work as hard as you can with a grateful heart.
My road as a broadcaster has been a challenging one. I called games for free for 10 years before getting a job. I always thought that since I have a speech impediment called stuttering, no one would ever hire me so I never even tried to find a job.
I totally gave up on my professional broadcasting dream last summer, and after 10 years, I decided I probably would never get paid for sports broadcasting and I was totally fine with that.
I had just accepted a job as a Teach For America Corps member, and taught 2nd grade at Herronville Elementary in Oklahoma City last summer and was placed at Herronville for the 2016 school year. My vision was to serve as a teacher and impact students for two years, and continue serve as a play-by-play voice of a high school. However, teaching was by the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
One thing I learned from broadcasting is that you have to be prepared. I worked so hard on my lesson plans, that I spent two weeks working non-stop trying to perfect the first day of school. I stopped sleeping, stopped exercising and didn’t even want to eat anything. I thought that was normal, and that every first year teacher did that. By the time the first day of school began in OKC on August 1, I had become a very irritable, and the joy I once had for education had turned to anxiety and depression. I realized that I could barely survive teaching, much less broadcast on the side. I had just barely survived TFA’s rigorous Summer Institute training, and was starting to doubt my purpose as an educator.
I went into the first day of school feeling prepared and I gave it everything I had. I woke up at 5 am to get to the school, and of course I forgot my lunch and that was the beginning of the worst 10 days of my life. I went to school and it was a disaster. I couldn’t figure out how to get the copier to work, and I realized that I spent so much effort on just the first day, that Day 2 didn’t even make any sense. I had no plan, and I got scared. Things started to spiral out of control. I didn’t know where to put a new student who missed the first day; One kid put another kid into a choke hold. I said to myself, “Alex, you are a terrible human being, but you are even a worse teacher. It’s time to commit suicide.
I read a book to my kids to finish the day, stuttering on every word because I was so stressed. During an all-staff meeting, I cried my eyes out. No one said anything. That was a sign that I had to kill myself that evening. When the assistant principal told me I did a good job these last two days, I didn’t even care.
I called the suicide hotline, but I didn’t get the answer I wanted. All I wanted was to be a good teacher, an excellent broadcaster and a better human being, and I felt the opposite. I drove to a gas station, and walked to a bridge. I called my mom to tell her this was it. The next person I called was my girlfriend to tell her that I’m leaving, and she wouldn’t take that. For some reason, only God knows why, I walked back to my car and drove straight to the hospital where I was fed, and I slept well for the first time in days. In the middle of the night, I was taken in a police vehicle to Red Rock Behavioral Health Services where I was diagnosed with severe depression, and I stayed there for 10 days for the hardest days of my life.
For the first time in my life I felt trapped. I couldn’t exercise. I had to eat when the staff told me to eat. I had to take meds at the same time. I lived with drug addicts, schizophrenics, alcoholics and homeless people. It was so hard. A man who suffered from schizophrenia broke into my room and I thought was going to kill me. I hid under my bed, and in that moment, I prayed to Jesus Christ. I didn’t know how I got there, but I promised myself then and there that I would whatever it took to take control of my life and tell people my story, so they don’t have to go through the Hell I went through.
The fact that my girlfriend drove 45 minutes every day is the only thing that gave me hope through that darkness.
I somehow got through those 10 days, and as soon as my girlfriend took me home, I packed my things into my car, met with my principal and told him had to leave to take of myself. I left my loving girlfriend and drove 14 hours to a safe place, Fargo, North Dakota. I got a job the next day as an assistant at a preschool, and retook my volunteer job as radio voice of the West Fargo Sheyenne Mustangs. I didn’t know what else to do, but try to rebuild my life one day at a time. I dedicated myself to being a better friend and focused on the one thing that that i’ve never been depressed doing: broadcast a football game. I dedicated myself to the craft, and tried to be the best I man I could be while doing so.
After the season, I realized I actually am a pretty good broadcaster, so I emailed Jon Chelesnik at STAA, and I prayed that he would work with me. He got my talent page going, and I started to feel confident that maybe I could be a professional broadcaster.
I knew that I need to be with this girl who saved this crazy boy’s life, so I emailed every single radio station in the OKC and Tulsa area. Out of the 30 or odd so stations I emailed, I only got one response. It was John Leonard, a GM of a four-station cluster of stations in Coffeyville, KS. They were interested in hiring a co-host of their morning show and play-by-play voice of the local high school and community college. I jumped at the opportunity, scheduled a phone interview, prepared like a mad man for it, and I rocked it. I just told them the truth about my speech impediment, and obstacles and heart break have made a better, kinder man. Because that’s the truth. I did everything they asked of me to the best of my ability, wrote three news articles, and a great sports piece about the Seahawks win over the Panthers. I also crashed my car last week, so I did all of this while getting rides to work from loving friends. My pastor who sold me the car I totaled, cared for me so much he drove to me to the radio station for which I’ve called football so I could read and record four news stories. I got a ride a home from the station manager, because we have a great relationship since I broadcasted for free without any complaint.
I was exhausted, but I saw an email from John Leonard to call him immediately. I called him, and he offered me my dream job, and he didn’t even care that I stutter. It was a miracle, and I look forward to trying to prove that is the best decision he has ever made.
If that story doesn’t make you believe that there is a God, I don’t know what will. I don’t know how I’m getting to my dream job since I don’t have my car, but I will find away. I also plan to marry that girl that saved my life on that dark day in OKC, and try to make her the happiest woman in the world. My purpose in life is to tell people that suicide is not the answer, and my life proves that.
I struggled through school, and my parents feared that I wouldn’t graduate high school. So they home-schooled me in high school. The rough part is that my best friend, Sam Stewart died of leukemia the summer before my 9th grade. The last thing he told me was to chase my dreams, but I had none. So I started homeschooling and went to Peninsula High School for electives and sports. The first class I took was called radio broadcasting. I went to high school at one of the only high schools in the country with a radio station built inside of it. As a person who stutters, I don’t know why that class excited me since I could barely talk.
The first day of school freshman year changed my life. The teacher, Leland Smith, barked at me and made a remark about why I wasn’t at homeroom, not knowing that I was homeschooled, and the kid he was talking to would one day take a long and difficult road to a career in broadcasting. For some odd reason, I was still chosen to deliver the student news that day. I was so scared, but forever reason, when that mic turned on, my speech was pretty good, and the other kids said I did a good job. From that day on, I new I loved radio.
That winter, I really wanted to make friends, because it was hard to do being homeschooled. I tried out for the freshman basketball team, and wanted to make the team more than anything I ever wanted in my entire life. I also felt like my excellent effort would get me a spot on the roster. After the tryout, Coach Kerry Yousey called me into his office. He said he loved my effort, but I was not chosen for the team. I was crushed. I thanked him anyways, but ran as fast as I could to wait for my mom to pick me up. I cried all the way home. That was one of the many moments of my life that I didn’t want to live anymore.
But I kept broadcasting, and I begun a close relationship with Mr. Smith. When I thought I gained his trust, I decided to ask him if I could broadcast the varsity basketball games on radio. To my shock, he said yes. He told me to be at the next game, and be ready to learn. I learned how to fill in a spotting board, went up to the broadcast booth, and was terrified. A college student and PHS alumnus called the first half, and I was scheduled to call the 2nd half with my friend Jordan “Jet” Moore. When we got on air, I started stuttering like crazy, but eventually settled in a little. Broadcasting with a speech impediment was harder than I thought.
After the game, I felt a weird feeling. I didn’t think I did a good job, I stuttered. But for some reason it was really fun. Peninsula had a loaded team, and they were poised to make State with the leadership of star Scott Cashman and the shooting ability of Michael Chopp, so I agreed to keep doing it, even though I was awful. By the end of the year, Jet and I started to find real chemistry, he was really smart and had a great voice. I had an awful voice in my mind, but I had passion and heart. Jet would call the 1st half, and I would do color, then we flopped and I did play-by-play and he did color.
Peninsula that year fell one point short in the district playoffs of making the state tournament, falling to Mount Rainier High School in an absolute heart breaker. After that game, I knew I needed to broadcast for the rest of my life, because that game was so fun, even though the good guys lost. I also started to dream of calling a game in the state tournament with my friend Jet next year at the Key Arena in Seattle. I was only a freshman, but for the first in my life, I think I found something I loved.
I was so stoked for my sophomore year. I started to make more friends, mostly because of my promising track year as a freshman and my membership in the school newspaper. But what really got me going was the thought of calling a game at the Key Arena at State that year. It was the last time the game the tournament was going to be at the Key, and I knew that. However, first-year head coach Kerry Yousey (the guy who cut me) and the young Seahawks had an awful start, starting 2-8. There was no way this team could make state. Somehow, they starting to catch fire, winning the league on a game winning 3 by senior Jake Hohbein at the buzzer. I did the play-by-play on that one as a 15 year old, and me and Jet just yelled for maybe 10 seconds. The Hawks were going to the playoffs.
The Seahawks were heavy underdogs in the state playoffs against 5th ranked Renton. But that wasn’t the worse part for me. Jet caught sick with strep, and I had to call the game alone! Remember, i’m still a scared kid with a stutter, but I loved the team and did my job. I watched a lot of film on Renton and prepared harder than ever because I was really scared Jet wasn’t there in case I stuttered.
For some reason, I didn’t stutter one time that night, and it gave me so much confidence. It was a great game. The Seahawks nearly upset Renton, and I started to believe that Peninsula could make State. More importantly, I started to believe that maybe I could be a professional play-by-play broadcaster after all.
There next game, I thought the Seahawks would steamroll Clover Park. Not the case. Peninsula played terribly and was clearly outplayed for the majority in the game. But one of my friends, a fellow sophomore, got a couple of huge offensive rebounds late, and the Seahawks got only trailed by two. I called the action as point guard Gene lee was holding the ball for the last shot. With three seconds left, Rudy Martin curled off a backscreen and hit the game winner at the buzzer. Rudy then looks at me, screams at me and gives me a high five. This season was becoming unreal.
The win set up a winner-to-state rematch with Mt. Rainier, the team who knocked off Peninsula, and I didn’t think we had a chance. I watched so much film for that game, that I knew Mt. Rainer’s team inside out. That game, the Seahawks played the best game I have ever watched a high school team play. They dominated a great Mt. Rainer team lead by all state star Alfie Miller. The Seahawks made history, becoming the first Seahawks team to make State since 1995. And I was a part of it.
That run was unbelievable, and I want you to imagine my excitement knowing that I was going to call a state tournament game at the Key Arena in Seattle. Unfortunately, Peninsula drew state power and national powerhouse, Rainer Beach. But the experience was unreal. Broadcasting at the Key Arena was a different animal. I walked out of the tunnel with the team, and stood in awe at that big jumbotron in the middle of the arena for at least five minutes. I was actually going to broadcast a ball game in the Key arena. Right then I knew, I was born to be a sportscaster.
Peninsula got destroyed by a better team, but the whole experience had me dreaming big. My favorite part is that I was quoted in the Seattle Times story on the game the next morning. It said, “the Peninsula radio guy was saying the game isn’t over until it’s over, but it was definitely over. 78-39 Beach.” I was happy because I knew for a fact that I said that.
Anyways, that experience turned into an absolute obsession with sportscasting. I called over 70 football and basketball games in high school for two schools, and I knew was a lifelong calling.
My love for broadcasting had me dreaming about college. I earned the prestigious Clay Huntington Sports Communication Scholarship my senior year, and I had to give an acceptance speech in front of 1,000 people at the Tacoma Dome. I sat next to future NBA star Isaiah Thomas, currently of the Celtics. Little kids would run up to ask for his autograph. I couldn’t help but wonder if kids would ask for mine one day.
I also sat with WSU Cougar’s radio legend Pat Robertson. He told me broadcasting is a great career, and to always try your best. I wish I would have picked his brain more, but I was still a shy kid with a stutter so I stayed mostly silent until it was my turn to speak. Here’s the problem: I was the first person to talk at the entire banquet, and I was scared to death of those 1,000 faces staring at me. I tried to rush through it as fast as I could, but I stuttered on my mentor Leland’s Smith first name.
I was crushed.
Mr. Smith wasn’t even there, but I felt like I let him down, even though no one ever said anything to me about it.
It was time for college, I was headed to Concordia college in Moorhead MN, and I still had my broadcast dream in my heart.
As soon as I got to campus, I talked to SID Jim Cella, and I got my first job, as the voice of the college hockey team. The first game of the year, he told me to just go to the arena and watch the game. He lied to me. As soon as I got to the arena, I he told me to put on the headset and broadcast the game. I immediately started crying. I not only put zero preparation into the broadcast (number one sin of broadcasting) I had never even watched a full hockey game before. Hockey isn’t as popular in Seattle as it is in Minnesota, and I had no idea what to do.
I tried to call it as best as I could but it was terrible. I stutter more when I’m nervous and it was a bad speech night. I figured Cella would fire me then and there, but he did the opposite. He said I did a good job. I laughed and told him to never do that to me again. That night I pulled an all nighter and the game the next day was much better.
I didn’t call any basketball on live radio in college because hockey is where I could get the experience of live reps in. Hockey is hard for me because of the speed of the game, but I love the intensity.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I decided to do something insane for a person who stutters. I contacted the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League and asked if I could call their games. I had an interview, I pretended that I didn’t stutter, and I was hired as the first ever radio voice of the Force.
I was pumped. I was a professional.
For two days. I gave it everything, but broadcasting on the top station in Fargo while being a college track star and taking a full college workload was really hard. I gave it my best and traveled to Cedar Rapids and Dubuque Iowa with the team. I studied hard, and really tried, but I made too many mistakes.
I got fired.
I was riding my bike to the coaches show 10 miles from campus when I got the call. I was deeply hurt and I felt I hadn’t been given a fair shot. It didn’t matter. I failed myself and my college, and I told myself that I never wanted to call another live game again. I called football games and basketball games for Concordia on my recorder for the next two years, but my dream was done. I didn’t want to be a broadcaster anymore.
I decided to dedicate my senior year of college to being the best 400 meter runner in Concordia College history and honor my friend Sam by breaking 50 second in the 400. I was ranked 16th all-time entering my senior year. For the first in my life, I was ready to follow my late friends words, and I turned my senior track season into a dream come true. At one point, I had the best 400 time in the MIAC, was ranked top 50 in the country for Division 3 in the event, and finished the year ranked 4th all-time in school history in the 400. My sprint coach, John Marsh, said I was the most inspiring athlete he ever coached in his 40 years of coaching track and football. I was also rewarded for my hard work with awards and newspaper articles. I was voted MVP, Most Improved and captain.
I was chosen to speak in front of 500 people at the school’s athlete awards program. I gave a passionate rendition of my favorite Ray Lewis speech, called the “Pursuit of Greatness.” I also spoke for 30 minutes during my senior track speech, all without stuttering. It was a good speech too, and I really enjoyed the stutter free speech.
To top it all off, the major newspaper in Fargo, The Inforum, put me on the cover of the sports page with a picture of my friend with his favorite quote “Today I’ll Be Kind To Every Living Creature.” I was on top of the world.
I fell back to earth.
After I graduated, I wasn’t sure what to do. I put everything into track, I didn’t really plan post graduation at all. I was so confident that I defeated stuttering, that I got a job as a customer service agent in Fargo. I was taking 80 calls a day, and I quickly fell into depression. I was stuttering a lot in my opinion, and I hate failure more than anything. I quit after 4 months. my confidence that being a track star had created quickly eroded and I was lost.
I went back home to Gig Harbor, WA broken and defeated. I didn’t want to live without track or broadacasting, and it was the first time in 8 years that I didn’t have at least one of those passions.
I decided to join STAA, but it didn’t help me feel better. I talked to CEO Jon Chelesnik on the phone. I really wanted to impress him with fluent speech but I stuttered on that phone call. After I hung up, I was drenched it sweat and started hyperventilating. I lost the only chance I would ever get at becoming a professional broadcaster.
I was crushed. Again.
I was depressed for 7 months, and I didn’t want to be a failure anymore. I was trying to commit suicide in a non-painful way, when a teammate from Concordia told me to come back to Fargo. I told my parents to take me to the train station, and I went back to Fargo.
I lived in my friend’s apartment for two weeks and prayed a lot. I started to develop a plan to get back to broadcasting. But I didn’t ever want to get paid because I feared being fired. I started work at an elementary school as an Americorps Literacy Tutor and I fell in love with educating children. I was barely surviving financially, but I was happy.
At the same time, I felt I was close to being a broadcaster again. I heard about the Fargo Invaders, and shot them an email asking if they had a play-by-play guy. They said no. I basically told them to give me a chance and I would work really hard to get them on radio. They said yes, and I got re-energized very quick. My dream was on again.
I emailed every big radio station. Most of them didn’t reply, though I did meet with three stations. They all admired my passion but turned me down even though I offered to broadcast for free.
Months had gone by and I was getting frustrated, but I found KNNZ 89.1 FM in town, a non-profit station very few people know of. KNNZ agreed to do the games in exchange for 100 dollars from the Invaders. I didn’t get paid, but I did what I always do. Prepare like crazy. I memorized each player name, their previous playing experience and a fun fact. I called my first live football game since my senior year in high school. It was a long five years to get to that point.
I had so much fun that year doing my dream job for free, and I started to believe in my abilities, even though I stuttered. I had some confidence, so I wanted to take my talents to the high school level. I had a clear target: West Fargo Sheyenne High School.
WFSHS opened the school in 2014, and I had a hunch they were going to get good quick. I was right. After a 3-6 year 2014, they opened a brand new season, and I had a feeling it was going to be a magical ride if I could be the first radio voice of the Mustangs.
Sheyenne offered to pay KNNZ again to do the games, and again I called the games for free. I didn’t care though, I had a feeling people would know my name soon if I worked hard and took care of business. The Mustangs took 3A football in North Dakota by storm, and I was the only person in the city of Fargo to be the voice of a high school. And you better believe I’m proud of that. Sheyenne finished 7-2 in the regular season, and made the state semi-finals. I was one game away from calling a game in the Fargo Dome, home of 6-time FCS National Champion North Dakota State. I knew I was closing in on the dream of being a professional.
The thing is though, my love for children kept growing, and my depression and stutter was being contained. I was happy working at a school for at-risk children. A few of them suffered with depression, and of course I loved them because I secretly have had that off and on my entire life. Speech therapy really helped my stutter and my depression because I really worked on accepting the fact that I stutter and that’s ok. I also was happy that I was the voice of the Invaders and Mustangs, and those honors made me feel special.
One day in February of 2015, the special education teacher was sick, so I offered to teach a lesson. I taught a lesson on forgiveness, and told them that I was working on forgiving my father for not being in my life. I told them about how I have forgiven myself for stuttering, and that it’s not my fault. I felt that I built a special rapport with the kids that day.
That’s when I decided to throw away the dream of broadcasting and replace it with being a teacher. I already proved to myself to myself that I am a great play-by-play guy. All I wanted to do was make an impact on kids, and that’s why I chose to apply for Teach For America.
I got accepted to an organization that only accepts 15 percent of it’s applicants. I knew that I needed to work like crazy to be a great teacher. I was very happy and depression-free for about two years as I packed my bags again for the summer of 2016, knowing in my heart i’m a darn good educator.
I just love calling ball games, regardless if I stutter or not. I’ve gone through so much pain in my life, that broadcasting a ball game is a safe place. I’ve never felt depression on the air, only joy and excitement. I may stutter, but my “dear mama” call is what defines me.
I think what changed my life is an experience I had while getting my pregame show ready for a game this Fall. I had gone through as hard of a summer as most people will ever have. I was getting ready to go on air when a lady walked up to the press-box. “Who’s Alex Benzegala, the voice of the Mustangs?” I was concerned that she was going to be like ‘you’re terrible,’ because again, positive self image is hard for me. My broadcast crew of three all turned to me and I smiled. “I’m Alex, ma’am.” To my shock, she said the following. “I’ve been listening to every single second of every single game you’ve broadcasted in the last two years. I just wanted to match a face to the beautiful voice I hear every week.”
I was stunned. Surely, she’s heard me stutter, right. What is this lady talking about?
I said, “Well ma’am, I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to the broadcasts as much as I have calling them.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “We all love your dear mama phrase after a touchdown. Keep it up.”
I thanked her and smiled to my crew — all friends who know the hurt i’ve been through.
“That’s why I do this for free,” I said with tears in my eyes.
I’m obsessed with trying to conquer stuttering. I’ve read articles after articles and have been taking speech therapy for many years. But I will never be defined by the stutter. Ever. I am defined by my heart for others and for my passion for educating children. That’s why I’m waking up at 7 in the morning to go to play with kids for nine hours. They love me for who I am and for the love I give them every second of every day.
My body will be in Coffeyville next week preparing as hard as I can to be the best damn broadcaster I can be. But for the next two days, my heart is with the most loving kids a man could ask. I’ve almost lost my life over and over again do to suicide, but these kids have given me so much joy that I know I will never be in that place again.
Do you know why? Because if I ever feel that low again, there are literally hundreds of people in Fargo who love me and I will take me back with loving arms. I promised each and every one of them that I am chasing my imposssible dream and will make them proud, and if I fail, I will work at a pre-school for the rest of my life and broadcast for free again until I’m in my 80’s hopefully.
I don’t broadcast for money, and I never will. I broadcast because somewhere, someone wants to commit suicide right now, and it is my job to tell my story of my hope to that person.
There are so many people that have found success because of stuttering. Why? Because their passion defines who they are, not some stupid speech impediment that doesn’t really matter.
Ed Sheeran doesn’t let a stutter stop him from being a multi million dollar recording artist. John Stossel is one of the best TV broadcasters in the country. How about Vice President Joe Biden? Bill Walton is a color commentator for ESPN and he overcame stuttering. So why not me? I’ve spent a long time trying to find a play-by-play voice who also stutters, and who has achieved his impossible dream of being a voice of a Power Five conference. Do you know why I don’t think I’ve found him? Because I’m starting to believe that person is me. I’ve gone through hell, as you now know. But I believe God put me here to reach millions some how, and I promise to continue to try and save lives with my story.
Wish me luck, I plan on serving with the people of Coffeyville, KS, in a way that only I am uniquely equipped to do. I am a champion who has fallen. But I am also a champion who has risen with grace and humility. I have no reason to hide what I’ve gone through, because it will all make me a better man, husband and hopefully father. Somewhere, there is a kid like me out there who stutters and is broken and suicidal because of his speech or his perceived inadequacy. He needs to know that he can do anything he sets his mind to, and I hope my story helps him find his voice.
I am the most blessed man in America right now.
I need to make some flash cards now for Coffeyville Community College basketball in a couple weeks. I haven’t called a basketball game on live radio in six years. But I still believe I have the formula to be excellent at it. Preparation+Purpose+Perspective=Excellence
Alex Benzegala, hopefully the first professional play-by-play broadcaster in America who stutters.
(Visit Alex’s STAA Talent Page).