Getting in the game
For these Johnnies, landing a job in pro sports wasn't about making the cut on the field. But it did mean putting in long, hard hours proving their passion, commitment and abilities. They all agree: It was worth it.
August 17, 2011
By Shawn Fury ’97
Story originally seen in the Saint John's Winter/Spring 2011 magazine
The good news for Trent Kirchner '00: He works in a big city at a job he loves in the most popular professional sports league in the country. The bad news? His boss is a Tommie.
Kirchner serves as the assistant director of pro personnel for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. In addition to scouting opponents, Kirchner searches for players who could one day help the Seahawks. He came to Seattle to work with Seahawks general manager John Schneider, Kirchner's friend and mentor and a 1993 UST grad.
Bryant Pfeiffer '94 also owes a bit of gratitude to St. Thomas. Pfeiffer-Major League Soccer's vice president of club services-credits his work with the inaugural Johnnie-Tommie 3-on-3 basketball tournament for giving him invaluable experience that played a crucial role in his post-graduation career.
While Kirchner and Pfeiffer operate behind the scenes, hundreds of thousands of viewers watch Anthony LaPanta '90 work. LaPanta appears everywhere on Fox Sports North, handling play-by-play duties for the University of Minnesota hockey team while working in the studio for the Minnesota Wild, Twins and Timberwolves.
Kirchner, Pfeiffer and LaPanta are just three of hundreds of Johnnie grads who work in sports. Saint John's graduates coach high school basketball and college football. They're directors of athletics and semi-pro baseball owners. They edit the sports sections of newspapers and write columns for fantasy football websites.
Like many Johnnies, Kirchner, Pfeiffer and LaPanta all knew they wanted to work in sports long before they stepped foot on campus, and all three plunged into sports the moment they stepped off.
Persistence pays off: Trent Kirchner '00
Trent Kirchner '00 attended school in Fulda, a town of 1,300 in southwestern Minnesota three hours from Collegeville and a million miles from the NFL. By the time Kirchner arrived in Collegeville, he was set on having a life in sports. Although he researched sports agents and spent a summer working with the Twins, Kirchner focused on football, his first love. With no connections, Kirchner embarked on a massive letter-writing campaign, the type people usually do when trying to stop wars or save TV programs. He mailed letters to everyone: scouts, general managers, coaches.
He asked for advice and insight. He asked how they earned their positions. "But I never asked for a job," Kirchner says. "I knew the second I did that, they'd throw it away." Some wrote back, most didn't. Kirchner savored any information he received and saved all the responses, even the ones offering no help at all. By his senior year, Kirchner needed a bold move. He set his sights on the NFL Scouting Combine, which takes place each February in Indianapolis. Coaches and executives attend the event, making it fertile ground for an aspiring employee. Kirchner skipped his Friday class and drove south, even though he didn't have a pass and didn't really know anyone. On the drive down, he picked up team media guides, enabling him to match faces to the names on his letters. The Combine takes place in a dome and only authorized personnel are allowed on the field. But the bathrooms sat outside the secure area, so Kirchner approached the NFL people as they walked to the restroom and told them his story. He didn't get far. Kirchner's most substantial conversations occurred with a security guard. But on his second day, Kirchner spoke with Arizona offensive coordinator Marc Trestman and found a receptive audience.
Trestman told Kirchner, "Hold on, hold on. You mean to tell me you drove down from Minnesota just to talk to people? That's so awesome."
Trestman's quarterbacks coach didn't arrive until the next day, so he told Kirchner to go to his hotel for the coach's security badge.
Kirchner breezed through the security line, passing the guard he'd become friendly with. "I held up the badge, and he just winked at me and said, 'Man, I'm so happy for you. Congratulations.'"
Kirchner was inside-the dome and the league. It was then that he introduced himself to John Schneider, who also admired Kirchner's tenacity. After helping Schneider and the Kansas City Chiefs at the Combine, Kirchner returned to school, graduated and accepted an internship with Seattle.
After serving as the college scouting coordinator for the Washington Redskins, Kirchner worked as a pro scout for Carolina from 2002 until early 2010. That's when Schneider hired Kirchner for Seattle. Kirchner-whose wife, Jessica, joined him in Seattle from Carolina at the end of the year-travels about every other week during the season, scouting opponents and potential free agents. He often arrives at the office by 6:30 a.m. and stays until 9 at night, breaking down hundreds of hours of tape.
It's a long way from Fulda and Collegeville. Today Kirchner receives letters from students, and he's now the one handing out advice. They can follow in his footsteps. All they need is talent, a little creativity and a lot of persistence.
A borrowed security badge wouldn't hurt, either.
Sportsman and salesman: Bryant Pfeiffer '94
In 2010, Bryant Pfeiffer '94 spearheaded the creation of the National Sales Center in Blaine, which trains sales agents for Major League Soccer. The students sell real MLS tickets to real customers while Pfeiffer and his team record and instruct them. When the 45- day program ends, Pfeiffer and his team "play matchmaker" with MLS franchises. "What happens at most teams is sales leadership hires someone locally, maybe a kid out of college," Pfeiffer says. "The team gives them an entry-level sales position and gives them two to five days of training and throws them into the cubes and says, 'Go figure it out kid.' We try to fast-forward that progress so the salespeople can make a much quicker impact."
The students shouldn't worry about the credentials of the center's architect.
Following college graduation, Pfeiffer worked as an unpaid intern with the Timberwolves, a position he turned into a full-time sales gig. Within a few years, Pfeiffer led the NBA in ticket sales. He became the team's senior director of ticket sales, before leaving for Major League Soccer in 2007. Think selling soccer in America is tough? Try selling Timberwolves tickets during the J.R. Rider era, or when apathy set in after years of first-round playoff exits.
But selling and sports were always passions for Pfeiffer, who originally wanted to attend a Big Ten university. Visits to a few big schools proved something of "a turnoff" and then Saint John's entered the picture. He appreciated the sports tradition and loved a school where "you're less of a number and more of a name." While he credits SJU coaches Jim Smith and Bob Alpers with introducing him to people who helped him along the way, Pfeiffer didn't rely on anyone else when he seized his biggest opportunity. As a senior, Pfeiffer organized the Saint John's portion of the first Johnnie-Tommie 3-on-3 basketball tournament. He volunteered after talking with a Tommie grad who worked with the Wolves and dreamed up the idea. Pfeiffer recruited teams, raised funds, found sponsors and solicited door prizes. More than 50 squads participated, with the champions from each school playing in the Target Center.
That entrepreneurial effort gave Pfeiffer an edge. It became his calling card and led to the Timberwolves, where he rose through the organization. Now, as VP of club services for MLS, Pfeiffer's department acts as a consulting group for the league. Pfeiffer speaks with everyone from salespeople to owners, helping with marketing, sponsorships and mentoring. He travels to New York, Seattle and points between, spreading the soccer gospel while working with each franchise. Although the most recent World Cup captivated the U.S., soccer here has never had the popularity of football, baseball and basketball. Pfeiffer believes that can change, perhaps by the 2022 World Cup. "We think that by that time for sure, if not sooner, we will absolutely be in the conversation of mainstream fans."
In the meantime, Pfeiffer-who has three kids with his wife, Julie Reissner Pfeiffer, CSB '94-stays busy with the league's current concerns and the sales center. It's a full schedule, but he still makes time to play in the 3-on-3 event that bears his fingerprints.
"The tournament's something I'm really proud of," he says. "It's not the biggest thing or a life-changing thing, but it was neat that it was something a student had the opportunity to create entrepreneurially."
A man for all sports seasons: Anthony LaPanta '90
Turn on a Minnesota sporting event and chances are Anthony LaPanta '90 is on the television. But it took a lot of time and energy for the Emmy-winning LaPanta to reach this stage of his career.
LaPanta always dreamed of being a broadcaster, from the time he was 7 and called "play-by-play" action for Wiffle Ball and electric football games. Sports played a big role in bringing LaPanta to Collegeville- specifically, the school's football team. When LaPanta-a Totino- Grace High School grad-received his driver's license, he often drove with a buddy to Saint John's. They attended the game, played touch football, grabbed a sandwich and headed home. LaPanta eventually enrolled at Saint John's, even though the school didn't have a communication major until after he graduated. "It felt like the right place to be," he says. "It just kind of felt like everybody up there was happy."
LaPanta started dating his wife, Margo Wallin LaPanta, CSB '90, his senior year and left school prepared for the often-brutal world of broadcasting. Everyone had different advice. "Some people told me to go to the biggest station and take whatever they'll give you, even if it's sweeping the floors, just so you have your foot in the door. Others said do whatever you need to do to get on the air, even if it's doing the weather."
LaPanta instead listened to those who insisted he needed play-by-play experience. He approached public access TV stations in the Twin Cities, asking if they needed a broadcaster. Eventually he called volleyball, football, wrestling and basketball, making $50 a week but gaining experience. He called everything, including the world championships for ringette, a sport that's a little like hockey and unlike anything LaPanta had ever seen.
A devotion to lower-profile gigs played a key role in earning higher-profile jobs. A KFAN executive called LaPanta, asking him to broadcast MIAC football games. He explained that he'd attended the state high school hockey tournament and was impressed when he heard LaPanta treat the Class A third-place game "like the Stanley Cup Finals."
"That supported what I always believed," LaPanta says. "You always do the best job you can, and you never phone it in just because in your perception it doesn't seem like it's the biggest event."
Now he works the big events for Fox Sports North, calling play-by-play for one of the elite college hockey programs, playing point guard on pregame shows and directing traffic on the postgame dissections of the Twins, Wild and Wolves. But even today LaPanta savors his time with amateur sports. To him, there's nothing as exciting as broadcasting an intense high school hockey game. In 1999, the same year he called Twins games on the radio, LaPanta worked the radio for the SJU football team, ably balancing MLB duties with Division III football. LaPanta's connection to Saint John's remains strong. He has two sons and two daughters, and they all visit the campus, taking part in familiar traditions: the games, the woods, the hike to the chapel.
LaPanta also works as an assistant with the Totino-Grace football team and has coached youth football and summer baseball. "We don't get a lot of free nights," LaPanta says, "but it's all good. I couldn't imagine doing anything different."
Especially since he's imagined this life since he was 7 years old.
And he's not the only Johnnie living the dream in pro sports. Kirchner says his wife, Jessica, tells him she's jealous that he can wake up every morning and say, "Man, I can't wait to go to work. And that's really a blessing."
LaPanta and Pfeiffer know the feeling.
Shawn Fury '97 is the author of Keeping the Faith: In the Trenches with College Football's Worst Team.