Rozner: Whatever happened to Peggy Kusinski?

Peggy Kusinski was driving through a fog so thick even the fog couldn't see where it was going.

Still, she turned the key, tapped the gas and sped forward.

It's dangerous, sure, but that's what you do. Besides, who's going to care? Everyone has their head down, looking at their phones. No one's interested in your problems.

So she kept going to work, kept trying to do her job, ignoring the pleas inside her own head, the ones asking her to step away.

Kusinski was headed down a country road at night with the lights off.

A crash was inevitable.

• • •

For 25 years, Peggy Kusinski was one of the most respected television journalists around.

Kusinski worked hard and asked harder questions for Chicago's NBC affiliate. She looked for stories and angles, understanding a line not crossed, the line between pompom and notepad not so much crossed as trampled all over these days, obscuring what had previously been a sacred and professional demarcation.

But by the fall of 2013, Kusinski was struggling to do her job. One of nine siblings, her oldest sister, Pat Kusinski Smith, was very ill. Pat bravely fought breast cancer for 11 years and around Thanksgiving 2013 she took a terrible turn for the worse.

“I was with her as much as I could be, going to as many doctor appointments as possible,” Peggy said. “When you're the person going through it, just because you're listening to the doctor doesn't mean you're hearing what he's saying, so I always wanted to be there.

“In January 2014, we went to an appointment and I was stunned by what I saw. In just a few weeks since Christmas, she looked so different … and I knew.

“I knew this was it. I didn't know how long. So I told her, 'You say the word and I'll take a leave of absence.'

“She said, 'Yeah, I think it's time.'

“My producer, Geoff Glick, and our vice president at Channel 5, Frank Whittaker, were so wonderful and understanding. There were some days I couldn't even talk on the phone, I was so emotional.

“They would say, 'Can you maybe just go to Bulls practice and get some sound?' My sister was in Highland Park so I would go to the Berto Center (in Deerfield), or go to the Bears in Lake Forest, do the interviews quickly, shoot my standup, leave it for my cameraman to edit, and go back to her house or the hospital.

“I did that for two months.”

Until Pat died in April 2014, leaving behind a husband, a son and a huge number of relatives.

“We're a very close family. It was extremely difficult,” Peggy said. “After my mom died, she ran the family.

“I relied on her for everything. She was my sounding board for work, family, my personal life, my struggle with infertility. She was always there. I was heartbroken.”

Peggy took a week off and returned for Blackhawks playoffs.

“I wasn't myself,” she said. “I thought work would be a great release to take my mind off things. It wasn't.

“I had not … I did not …, ” she paused and searched for the words as she gazed out at the blue sky and brilliant sun bathing Medinah's grand property. “Grief is weird. There are no directions. Everyone's different. There's no road map.

“I went back to work and then … ”

… it happened.

• • •

It was April 23, 2014, when Patrick Kane scored midway through the first overtime against the Blues, tying a very tough series at 2-2.

In a crowded locker room as reporters and cameramen jostled for position, Kane fielded questions. When Kusinski sensed an opportunity, she opened her mouth and words came out.

“Patrick,” she said, “was this your first overtime game-winner?”

Now keep in mind Kusinski had been in Philadelphia for Game 6 in 2010 when Kane's OT goal clinched the Stanley Cup. She had seen him do it more than once, covering dozens of postseason games.

This is a veteran reporter who knows her stuff. To this day, she's not exactly sure what she asked or why.

But Kane looked up to see who it was, and after a short pause chuckled and offered playfully, “I'm going to have to check that. I think I've got a couple.”

The future Hall of Famer handled it like a water-bottle shot, with utter class. The same cannot be said for most of the Western world.

The question's destination was punchline, on a short trip from infamy.

“In my mind, I heard myself asking it in a different way. I don't know,” Peggy said, shaking her head and looking down at the ground. “Was I being kind of sarcastic? I would frequently ask sarcastic questions and the good athletes would pick up on that quickly. Was that what I was trying to do?

“I was in the back of the scrum. All the reporters turned and looked at me. To his credit, Patrick Kane saw that it was me and padded the answer.”

Reporter or not, we've all experienced that moment, that out-of-body experience. The car wreck that happens without you even knowing you were in it — until you roll out the driver's side door, unable to focus, on hands and knees counting incisors and vertebrae.

“I'll never forget looking at my cameraman on the way out of the locker room and trying to figure what just happened,” Peggy said. “I was wondering why everyone was looking at me.

“He was like, 'C'mon, forget it. We have a live shot.'

“By the time I got in my car that night to go home, it was all over the radio, all over TMZ, all over some mainstream national news sites.

“No one called me. No one asked me what happened.

“The social media reaction was horrific. I was vilified.

“And that's when I realized I really screwed up. It was, 'Oh my God, what did I do?'

“The next day we were at the airport heading for St. Louis and a Hawks PR person came up to me and said, 'I want you to know, your question to Patrick last night, that was not you. What's up?'

“I said, 'I'm just not myself. I'm having a tough time since my sister died.'

“He said, 'We got you. Don't worry. No one in the organization is bothered.' That meant a lot to me.

“There were an awful lot of journalists who knew me who did not come to my defense, did not ask me what happened.

“When I walked in the media room in St. Louis, I heard some national writers talking about me.

“I heard on the Score, someone saying, 'Now she's on Twitter trying to address it and it's ugly.' But they didn't call.

“ESPN called me and asked me to come on and I did. I said, 'I don't have a good excuse, but I'll come on.'

“People will look at this as a weakness and I don't care, but I cried all the way home on the drive back from St. Louis. That was my breakdown. I didn't really break down when I lost my sister.

“I just got it all out. I was a wreck. I knew I had come back too soon.

“But what are you going to do? You don't know what to do. There's no rules for grief. You're trying to move on. All of a sudden you can't concentrate on a job you've done for so long.”

And done so very well.

But that doesn't matter to the underbelly of society, the part that spends its days and nights searching for someone to ruin on social media, incapable of experiencing happiness or pleasure, living only to destroy someone or something.

And civilization dies a little bit every day, a few hundred characters at a time.

“I guess I expected a little bit better,” Peggy said softly. “I don't hold it against them. I messed up.

“But some of the trolls on Twitter were horrible. Hawks fans were the worst. Any time after that — for years after that — that I posted anything about the Hawks — stuff from the locker room — they would say, 'Did you ask Patrick Kane if he had any game-winners?'

“I would direct message them and say, 'Hey, do you really want to know the story behind that or do you just want to attack me? Because there is a story behind it. I'm not asking you to feel sorry for me. I'm just letting you know.'

“My kids were great. They were all over social media. They got all the names of all the people who wrote terrible things,” she said with a smile. “I just realized we're all human, we all make mistakes.

“I covered these athletes and coaches for 25 years and I always told myself, 'They're human. They make mistakes.' But not until I made the biggest mistake of my professional life could I really relate.”

• • •

Grief is a strange bird. It can creep up on you at any moment, for absolutely no logical reason — and fire a puck at your teeth.

A song, a commercial, a fire truck, a dog getting to know your tree. Seriously, two plus two equals an ocean of sauerkraut. It makes no sense when it comes over you.

Deal with it or at some point it deals with you.

Peggy Kusinski got hit over the head with her own question, a question that still baffles her and the Zamboni that ran over her.

“Anyone who's gone through the grieving process totally understands,” she said. “It was eye-opening.

“A couple years went by after 'The Question' and I found myself going to work and mailing it in. I was uninterested. I did not care. My work suffered.

“Then, I started complaining. I thought, 'No, no, no, no, no.' I'm not going to be that person. I never wanted to be around the complainers. Nobody likes them. If you hate your job that much, get out. I finally listened to my own advice.

“My contract ran out during the Cubs' World Series run and we agreed I would finish that. I did the parade from Grant Park, the morning show on the platform.

“I knew I was done going to practices and games every day. I walked away.”

Not wanting to completely disconnect, Kusinski continued to work on special projects for Channel 5, the first year putting in 32 days. She's down to seven days.

“It keeps me involved and keeps me thinking creatively, but the day-to-day stress is gone, the stress I didn't know I had for 20 years,” Kusinski said. “I started a podcast with one of my twins. He's 17 and we have a blast.

“I'm getting to do something a lot of people don't get to do, and that's work with one of my kids. I was away from my family for 25 years. It's not easy being away.”

• • •

It doesn't seem that long ago that a Bears head coach was challenged, instead of buttressed by the press corps. Lovie Smith certainly got no rhythm, and Peggy Kusinski was always in the middle of it, such that Smith would frequently let her know through his answers that he didn't much care for her questions.

“I always respected Lovie for treating me that way, like he would anyone else,” Kusinski said. “The Bears' change in policy when John Fox came in was so restrictive to our jobs, it absolutely played a part in my decision.

“That's not whining. I can't do the same job I used to do. It's not fun going to work. Everyone gets the same information.”

In fairness to the Bears, nearly every team in professional sports is doing the same, restricting access, managing the flow of information and delivering propaganda, Pravda-style, to its own website.

“It's not objective journalism,” Kusinski said. “Those who get their information from newspapers or TV or radio are not necessarily the same people subscribing to a team website.

“As a team, you're losing out and it's the dumbing down of the audience. You can't just put out news as the team sees it. That's not news. It's a shame because there's a lot of really good reporters handcuffed.

“There's a lot of cheerleading because on social media you get more likes and follows at the expense of people tuning in because they know you'll get the information.”

While reporters tread carefully in the murky waters, Peggy Kusinski takes deep breaths and long walks, enjoying time with her husband and three children in the Western suburbs.

“It took me until not that long ago to feel OK about my sister and everything that happened,” she said. “Everyone has advice. Everyone means well. All the clichés they offer are true. I've heard it all.

“But it's a physical and emotional pain that you're trying to get over. It just takes time. Nothing anyone says is a cure.

“You just can't force yourself to feel good again after you lose someone. But at some point it starts to get a little better and then you just wake up one day and you're OK.”

As for the Kane question and social media, well, that nightmare will never completely disappear.

“When you're a working journalist, you get so caught up in the social media aspect of your job that it felt so devastating,” Kusinski said. “But what are we talking about, a few idiots on Twitter?

“My pride was hurt. Even now, when someone still gives me a dig, I get a little angry, but a little less so every time.

“What I miss is the camaraderie of the people you work with, the media room, the characters, the people you compete with every day.

“I guess there's no easy time to call it quits.”

Not the best of circumstances, wounded and in pain, but at least on her terms Peggy Kusinski retreated into private life.

It isn't a glamorous place to be, but it is quiet — and happy.

Peggy Kusinski interviews Andrew Shaw of the Blackhawks after Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals in Boston. Courtesy of Peggy Kusinski
  Peggy Kusinski talks last week at Medinah Country Club about her life in the media the last couple years. Barry Rozner/
Peggy Kusinski and her son, Jason, host "The Sportscaster and Her Son" podcast. Courtesy of Peggy Kusinski
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