Sitting in the Kennedy Union dining hall, Tom Archdeacon felt different. For one of the few times in his life, he was the one being interviewed and not the other way around.
Archdeacon is a 1972 graduate from the University of Dayton and is a nationally award-winning storyteller. He’s the first one to tell you he’s not really a sports writer, but really a writer of people.
A native of Ottoville, Ohio – a small town of “850 people and two blinking lights” — Archdeacon said he came to UD as a biology major.
Journalism didn’t even appear on his list of potential career fields.
“I was a bio major until I got to organic chemistry, and then I panicked,” Archdeacon said. “So, then I switched to communications, and then I was an English major and picked up an education minor.”
His foray into journalism started with the Flyer News, although his time as a staff writer ended almost as bizarrely as it started.
“I just kind of picked up writing for the paper [Flyer News] on a whim and then I quit the paper,” he said. “Protest or something, I can’t remember. Something about black affairs. I thought they weren’t giving them enough attention. I went from a guy that never covered anything to this radical guy. So, I remember I quit, and there was one black guy on staff and I tried to get him to quit with me, but he wouldn’t quit. So, it was just me who protested and quit.”
Archdeacon explained that his first beat at Flyer News was as the black affairs reporter as the civil rights era was ending. He said the UD campus during the early 1970s was filled with interesting ideas that were completely new to him, coming from Ottoville.
“It was a fun time because it made me think and it was a vibrant time for me because it made me think and rethink all these things,” Archdeacon said. “I came from a small town that was all Catholic, all white, all farmers pretty much and I mixed with all these different kinds of people and I was like Alice going down the rabbit hole.”
“It’s just like all these different thoughts. First, they couldn’t find anybody to cover black student affairs, I had no journalism experience so I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ And, so, I went over to the Alpha Phi Alpha house, the fraternity, and said, ‘Listen, I’m your reporter, and I don’t know anything, so guide me through it.’ And these guys saw this as like fresh snow, boy, and they molded me. They took me to everything, and I learned. And that’s kind of how I took each beat here. I loved it.”
He said his first big interview was with Jerry Rubin, a member of the Chicago Seven. Rubin was a leader of the anti-war movement during the 1960s and 70s, and in the early 1970s he spoke at Dayton in front of Kennedy Union.
“This is one of my first interviews and there are students all over. He’s talking about taking over St. Mary’s Hall and all this stuff and he’s got a loudspeaker and I’m trying to interview him and he realizes I’m this bumpkin, and a plane from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, one of those transport planes, flies over real low, and he screams into the microphone, ‘Everybody down, they’re taking your picture.’
“So like a thousand people hit the ground, and I’m standing there somehow and he makes me get down. So, now, I’m lying down next to him doing my interview. That was one of my first big interviews.”
According to Archdeacon, it took him almost five years to graduate, but it was the best decision of his life. A decision that almost never happened because he was accepted into Notre Dame and thought about attending school in South Bend.
“I started out at Notre Dame,” he said. “I got accepted to Notre Dame and went over there for one day and said, ‘This sucks. I don’t want to be here,’ and left. I came to Dayton, and that was the best move I made.”
Archdeacon said he went home to Putnam County most weekends his freshman year but made up for it later during his college days.
He said he also enjoyed living on Lowes for four years. Archdeacon said he still remembers how beat up his house at 340 Lowes St. was. While talking in KU, he told the story about the first time he saw his house on Lowes.
“We were going to move to 340 Lowes St., and I had lined up the house we were going to move into with some guys from New York, a guy from Pittsburgh and a couple other guys from Ohio,” he said. “I’d lined up the house, so I was the first one to get here back in the summer a week before school starts.
“So, when I get there, the porch is pulled out to the curb with chains around it. They had had a party, whoever lived there over the summer, these guys were drinking and they hooked a truck to the porch with chains and pulled the porch off the front. That was the house we moved to, and we stayed there for four years and it was a wreck, but we loved it.”
During school, Archdeacon said he had to work several odd jobs as a way to help pay his way.
“I worked at a cement plant as a janitor,” he said. “I worked at a restaurant called the Cork and Cleaver. It’s not there anymore. It was on South Dixie Drive. It was a nice place, like a step down from the Oakwood Club or something like that.”
“And I worked as a lawn boy for some rich people in Oakwood. They would allow me to use their car and tried to get me to date their daughter who was desperate for dates and I was desperate for a car, so I said, ‘Sounds like a good trade to me.’”
After graduating, Archdeacon hitchhiked to Miami to get married to a girl he had met at UD. It didn’t work out.
So he stayed in Florida, working as a bartender and a school teacher. After some time though, Archdeacon said he needed to do something else with his time.
“I got into sports at this little paper in Homestead, Florida,” he said. “At the time, I was working at a bar and at a golf course and I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to find something else.’ This paper said they had a sports opening, and I played sports in high school and I worked at the Flyer News. I started out … you’ve seen me type? I type with one finger, it’s pretty pathetic, but I didn’t know how to type. I didn’t know anything, but I started in sports and liked it.”
He then moved over to the Miami News and became a national columnist, covering the Dolphins, Heat and Hurricanes. He also got to cover sports like boxing, his favorite sport.
“Yeah,” he said about boxing being his favorite sport. “And everybody goes, ‘Ugh, how can you do that?’ But I just love it, you know. First of all, these guys are the bravest guys in the world to get in there. Everybody makes cracks about boxers, but it takes balls to get in there. When everybody else gets out of the ring, you’re looking at the other guy with no helmet on. Just try to hold your hands up for three minutes. Or just your arms for that matter. They get tired real quick much less when someone is trying to punch you.
“There is nothing more electric than a fight night. When you’re waiting for a big fight in Las Vegas or Madison Square Garden and the fight crowd is there like the people in the fancy clothes, the pimps and hookers, the gamblers and the movie stars and the big-time athletes. Then you’ve got all the wise guys smoking their cigars. And then all the fight crowd … and then when the thing starts…yeah, I love it.”
Archdeacon has won numerous awards, both at the state and national level, but the award he is most proud of is for being named the top boxing writer in the country.
“The one I’m proudest of, which doesn’t mean anything in the journalism world, is the Nat Fleischer Award,” Archdeacon said. “It’s for the top boxing writer in the country, and I won that several years ago. I’m proudest of that one because boxing is dear to my heart. It’s like a real special deal. I’ve won like APSE, a few of those awards, a lot of state awards and several national awards, but that Nat Fleischer one is pretty cool.”
While in Miami, Archdeacon started hanging around the Fifth Street Gym run by the Dundee family. Angelo Dundee was a trainer for numerous champions, most notably Muhammad Ali, and is inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Archdeacon said he would go down to the gym with a cup of coffee and split it with some of the guys who ran and hang around the gym. That’s where he fell in love with the Sweet Science.
On Nov. 12, 1982, Archdeacon covered a junior welterweight title fight between Aaron Pyror and Alexis Arguello in the Orange Bowl. That bout would become famous for its rather controversial conclusion.
“I was covering boxing down there and I covered the fight, so I was covering them each and every day,” Archdeacon said. “So, I got to know those guys real well. Both those guys came from real tough backgrounds.”
“He [Pryor] says it’s peppermint schnapps. Some people think it’s cocaine,” Archdeacon said. “They don’t know what it was. Panama Lewis was his trainer and he says, ‘Give me the other bottle.’ It was the end of the 12th [13th] I think it was. Going into the 13th [14th] because Arguello had just peppered him pretty good and then he drinks this and comes out like a wild man and beats him.
“I remember they wouldn’t let us in his [Pryor’s] dressing room at the Orange Bowl, right after the fight. But I had covered the Miami Dolphins all those years and the Miami Hurricanes. I knew all the guys there, and there’s another way back into his dressing room through a back door. They let me slip through all these things. I crawled back there and he had just gotten back into his dressing room and he’s lying on the floor grabbing his stomach, writhing in pain from something, whatever he took. So I wrote the whole story of watching him through the shadows of him writhing in pain on the floor.”
The Miami News would fold later in the 1980s and Archdeacon found himself to be a hot commodity, according to former University of Dayton communication professor Larry Lain.
Lain worked on the copy desk of the Dayton Daily News at night during the time Archdeacon was coming back to Dayton from Miami.
“All I can really talk about Arch, very much, is that he was considered a prize catch,” Lain said. He was a big deal at the Miami News. And the Miami News folded. It was in the early 80s, sometime. There was lot of competition to hire Tom. The Dayton Daily News was happy that they sort of won the bidding war.
“We had other people who took it personally if you changed their copy,” Lain continued. “They did their job and we did ours. But Tom was given freer rein because he wrote a more narrative style. He was never intended to be a reporter. He was always intended to be a featured columnist from the very beginning. And that meant more freedom to build a story in a narrative way rather than an inverted pyramid way. Every once in awhile on the copy desk we would say, ‘Archdeacon will never use five words when 10 will work just as well.’ Normally it’s the other way around. Usually, we like reporters who can find a way to use five words in three. But that wasn’t Arch. Everybody really respected what he did because he’s a great reporter that, of all the journalists I ever worked with, he handles quotes better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Archdeacon said he didn’t want to leave Miami.
“I would have stayed there,” he said. “I loved it. But the paper went out of business and I got transferred back, it was a Cox paper and they sent me to Dayton. So I thought, ‘I’ll stick here about six months and then get the hell out of here again.’ And then I met my wife here. Next thing I know, it’s been like 20 years, but it’s been good.”
Archdeacon said he enjoys writing stories that are outside of sports, outside of his comfort area, like his story about Kristy Irvine Ryan after the 9/11 attacks.
“When 9/11 happened, they [the Dayton Daily News] sent a photographer and me to New York, and I like panicked,” Archdeacon said. “Like the AP has 200 hundred people there, and The New York Times has like 200 people there, and we got me and another knucklehead and we’re driving as fast as can to get to New York.
“He’s never been to New York and I’ve gone there for a lot of sporting events, but I’m like, ‘How are we going to cover this?’ … We found there were six people who died that day in the Twin Towers who were UD grads. And we found one, Kristy Irvine Ryan, she was from Long Island and we went out to visit her dad. And we told the story of Kristy Irvine Ryan’s last hours and it was like a love story. Her husband was a musician and they lived in Greenwich Village and they had just gotten married. We told the story of her talking to her husband on the phone, and that was real powerful because felt like it was one of their own here. So it’s stories like that that mean the most.”
Recently, Archdeacon has had some health problems, but that hasn’t caused him to lose his passion for finding great stories.
In 2010, he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. And, in the summer of 2011, he had heart bypass. A kind of one-two combination that could have had him lying on the canvas.
“I got diagnosed with leukemia, chronic myloid leukemia, but it’s a kind they can treat with a pill and keep at bay,” Archdeacon said. “And it’s like the kind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had. But it the scares the living s— out of you. I take this really expensive pill and it keeps it at bay, it builds a little bubble around the stem cell.
“Then, the next summer, in 2011, I had heart bypass surgery from years of being a sports writer and being a knucklehead of eating and drinking anything that I could grab. So, I had a single bypass surgery. Now I feel fine again. I’m not watching my diet like I should. I’m not the poster child for great health, but it makes you kind of realize. I’ve been really lucky. If I would have gotten this kind of leukemia say six-seven years ago … I’d be dead now.”
“I didn’t want to be like this sick guy,” he said about not writing about illness and letting readers know what was happening with him. “But maybe that’s not fair. Maybe I should get out there and be a bigger advocate and be behind the scenes. I didn’t want to wear it on my sleeve, but maybe that will change down the road here. If it wasn’t for research, I wouldn’t be here.”
In all, Archdeacon said he still loves what he does and getting “juiced up” while chasing down a good story like a closer thoroughbred at the Kentucky Derby. Horse racing is another one of Archdeacon’s preferred sports.
For young students, Archdeacon has a simple piece of advice:
“Find some kind of experience that is completely out of your ballpark,” he said. “Just get way out of their comfort zone and try something. Those are the things I remember. I don’t remember going to Timothy’s, those memories are a little hazy, but I remember those things where I got out of my comfort zone and tried to meet some different kinds of people.”