clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Meet the Tony Romo of Cornhole

With sports shut down during the COVID-19 quarantine, a new game emerged in the American consciousness: cornhole. And ace analyst Trey Ryder made it that much more watchable.

Alycea Tinoyan

At first glance, cornhole on TV seems pretty basic: person, camera, bag, hole. Then you hear the voice of Trey Ryder, the cornhole color analyst. Ryder is the rare sports announcer who can predict the future. “A lot of people have described him as the Kirk Herbstreit of cornhole,” said Jeff McCarragher, his play-by-play partner. “But I like to call him the Tony Romo.”

Last month, at a tournament in Philadelphia, a cornhole player named Lester Price faced a tricky shot. Two of Price’s turquoise bags hung over the top half of the hole. One of his opponent’s red bags hung over the bottom half. On ESPN, Ryder used a Telestrator to draw an X on the precise spot where Price’s next bag should land—a spot that would coax Price’s three bags into the hole and give him the maximum score.

Price, whose COVID face mask had a skeleton design, threw his bag high in the air. It landed on the spot Ryder had picked out and, sure enough, all three of his bags went in the hole. Someone must have said a happy cuss word, because the broadcast was muted.

Ryder is modest about such prophecies. What he says on TV, he told me, is common knowledge within the “cornhole community.” But this is what analysts like Romo do: They convert a sport’s mysteries into sound bites for the masses. Or as Ryder put it: “What I try to deliver is: ‘He’s going to put the bag right here.’”

If you’ve flipped on ESPN during the pandemic, you’ve probably seen cornhole. The network’s thirst for any live sports helped elevate it into the tier of poker and darts. This spring, the American Cornhole League had held just one of its four national events when the virus strangled the country. “We had to all get together as a team and say, What the hell are we going to do?” said Ryder, who doubles as the ACL’s media director.

Unlike the NFL or NBA, cornhole couldn’t forsake even part of its commitment to its bratwurst and baked bean sponsors. Stacey Moore, the ACL’s founder, proposed something fairly radical. Rather than paring back, cornhole would return during the pandemic with more tournaments—a series of regional qualifiers held in empty arenas. ESPN, which had just about squeezed every bit of content out of The Last Dance, agreed to televise the first tournament on May 9. Cornhole returned the same day the UFC did.

ESPN televised a second cornhole qualifier on the weekend of May 16. And another the weekend after that. The network wound up airing all seven ACL tournaments; on five of those weekends, all the coverage ran on the main network, or “E1.” Without exaggeration, Ryder called it “the greatest exposure we could ever ask for in the history of our sport.” Recently, Ryder said, a pro was recognized by the staff of the Best Western in Erie, Pennsylvania. They upgraded his room to a suite.

Ryder, who is just 26 years old, had a path to the microphone that Romo or Cris Collinsworth would recognize. He was a very good player who only summited his profession when he became its analyst.

Ryder grew up in Massachusetts and North Carolina with a sports-mad dad named Eric. When Trey was young, Eric nudged him to follow in his footsteps and play football and baseball. Trey preferred using his brain to analyze sports from afar. When he went to Clemson, he majored in chemical engineering.

When Trey was 15 years old, he and Eric stumbled across a cornhole tournament at a minor league baseball game. “We got our butt kicked,” Eric said. With that prodding, father and son hewed to their traditional roles. Eric dove headfirst into the growing sport—the ACL was founded in 2015—until he was good enough to go pro. (He’s currently one of the top players in the Carolina Conference.) Trey was satisfied with playing local games in Charlotte.

“If you put me against any average joe, I’m going to win,” Trey said. “But you put me against a pro and they’ll beat me 21-2, 21-3 almost every time.” Even so, cornhole became Trey’s abiding passion. When he and his wife Shelby got married, attendees at the wedding signed cornhole boards instead of a guest book. Shelby became a fine cornhole player herself. “You marry into it and start playing,” Eric said. “I see that a lot.”

In 2016, ESPN showed an American Cornhole League event on its digital channels. A year later, the ACL put out a call for color analysts. Eric thought his son would be perfect. Here was someone who wasn’t the world’s best cornhole player but knew everything about the sport. Two weeks after Trey announced his first tournament, ESPN gave the ACL a time slot on linear television.

As it turns out, cornhole is not an analyst’s sport. Ryder usually has about five seconds to make a point, less than one-quarter of the time allotted to football announcers. In 2018, producer David Harris presented Ryder with a Telestrator. “My eyes just lit up like I got a Christmas present,” Ryder said.

Now he could sketch out cornhole strategy in real time. On TV, Ryder frequently uses the term “airmail.” Airmail is to cornhole what a swish is to basketball. A “bully bag” is a bag that’s thrown to shove an opponent’s bag out of the way. A “four-bagger” is when a player sinks all four bags in a round. A “flop shot”—the specialty of 22-year-old phenom Noah Wooten—lands on the board and hops over an opponent’s bag on its way to a hole.

Neither McCarragher nor Harris knew any of these terms when they came to cornhole. “He’ll say, ‘Oh, what a flop shot,’” Harris told me. “I’m like, ‘Flop shot?’” It hardly mattered, because Ryder could pre-analyze the action, drawing a bag’s path before it even took flight. “Even though it’s not a difficult shot, it almost adds this ‘wow’ factor to it,” Ryder said.

Ryder paired his scribbling with subtle observations. During a recent match, he noted that a player threw his bags with a particularly high arc. This caused vibrations on the board that might knock in his opponents’ bags, if they were hanging on the edge of the hole. You don’t have to be a major cornhole player—reader, I was not—to find Ryder making you an expert in the way the World Series of Poker turned everyone into card sharks 20 years ago. Pretty soon, you start to talk like Ryder: I understand why he wants to push that bag, but personally I’d go airmail.

Ryder has a certain stature within the cornhole community. McCarragher and Ryder usually sit 15 to 20 feet from the players. When COVID-19 banished crowds from the matches, a funny thing happened. Players started being able to hear Ryder’s commentary in real time. As they contemplated a tricky shot, the voice of Cornhole Romo was booming out across the arena, explaining what the player should do.

“Sometimes,” said Harris, “they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re reading my mind, Trey.’” Or the player finds that he and Ryder have opposite ideas about what he should do. Occasionally, the player will rethink his strategy. This is like Andy Reid choosing a fourth-down play, hearing Romo’s take on CBS, and thinking, You know what? Let’s go with Tony’s idea.

Ryder has two jobs as the cornhole color analyst. First, he wants to convince viewers that the sport is relatable. Let me say: mission accomplished. Cornhole players have names like McGuffin. They hail from cities like Hamlet, North Carolina. Their mandatory face masks sometimes look like translucent American flags. They wear earbuds.

Cornhole players can drink alcohol while they play. They have normal jobs. (“Lester actually works as a roofer during the week.”) At least when I watched, matches were threaded with commercials for the Egg Pod, Alien Tape, and a supplement that promised to “rev your libido.”

When you watch NFL games, you rarely see a Patrick Mahomes pass and think, I can do that. “Whereas in cornhole,” Ryder explained, “if someone throws a four-bagger and you watch it on TV, you’re probably elbowing your buddy, ‘Hey, remember when I four-bagged you at that tailgate?’”

At the same time Ryder is trying to make cornhole relatable, he’s trying to convince viewers to take it seriously. “I want it to feel like a professional sport,” he said. Partly, he does this with the Telestrator. Partly, he flashes another Romo-esque quality: He gets giddy when he witnesses greatness.

Last month, in Philadelphia, a cornholer named James Baldwin sunk an astonishing 38 of his final 40 bags. At one point, his opponent, Jamie Graham, landed a bag in front of the hole to try to slow him down. Baldwin sent a bag flying over Graham’s bag and airmailed it into the hole. “Oh oh oh!” Ryder said on the telecast, cackling with glee. “Not even a hesitation.”

You know the way Romo talks about Mahomes, whose talent he can describe but not, at some deep level, comprehend? That’s the way Ryder talked about Baldwin. “He’s probably thinking in the back of his mind, My God, I’ve never even done this before,” said McCarragher. In those moments, Ryder transforms from prophet into fan.

In May, at a qualifier in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Ryder found himself analyzing the game of another player he revered: his dad. Eric Ryder, who’d recently recovered from esophageal cancer, made it through to the TV portion of the event. Cornhole players often get nervous when they play “under the lights.” But Eric Ryder found that hearing his son’s analysis was soothing, like they were having a conversation in the backyard.

It was a twist on the Ryders’ father-son dynamic. Trey never developed a cornhole game as great as his dad’s. But now he had a platform to explain his dad’s greatness to the world. “Who’d have thunk,” said Eric, “that he’d be the one calling everything on TV?”

Stadio

Champions League Brings the Noise

NFL

Are Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury Finally Hitting Their Stride?

The Ringer NBA Show

John Wall Trade Rumors, the Aaron Gordon Extension, and a Wos Rant

View all stories in Sports