On Christmas Eve 2012, Kenny Williams was bursting with anticipation. He was going to propose that night to his girlfriend of a little over a year — WMAQ-Channel 5’s freshest face, anchorwoman Zoraida Sambolin — after midnight Mass at Holy Name Cathedral, the church where her parents were married 51 years earlier. “I blew it, though,” laughs Williams, the executive vice president of the Chicago White Sox. “I was excited all day and pulled her aside after dinner and asked her in my office at home. She knows I can’t save a surprise for long. But the next day, we went to the church, kneeled before the altar and I asked again the way I had intended — she pretended to be surprised.”
On July 3, the couple will wed in a romantic, midsize ceremony. (They’re keeping the details private, but “the goal is for everyone to fall in love again,” Williams says.)
While the proposal itself was premature, Williams and Sambolin had taken their sweet time leading up to it. For both, the relationship came as a complete surprise — a second chance at love they never expected to have.
Appropriately, it was the White Sox that brought the couple together on Sept. 13, 2010, when Sambolin was hosting a charity event for the team’s manager under Williams, Ozzie Guillén. Both admit they were immediately captivated by each other. “The first conversation I had with her, I knew I needed to run fast or I’d be in trouble,” Williams laughs. But for Sambolin, the timing wasn’t right. “It wasn’t until the following year that we reconnected and could even think about something such as lunch. But lunch turned into lots of lunches,” Williams says.
The first conversation I had with her, I knew I needed to run fast or I’d be in trouble.
— Kenny Williams
Even then, though, neither was looking for love, having both been in long marriages previously. “I had just decided that relationships weren’t for me, that I was just going to float through life and be single and just worry about me,” Williams says. “And it’s almost as though God said, ‘Oh yeah? Really? I know you’re not ready for this, I know the timing’s not right for her either, but here you two go.’ It was a setup in the highest form — I had no chance.”
Since then, the two have merged not only their lives, but their families: Williams’ three adult sons, ages 23, 25 and 27, and Sambolin’s two kids, 10-year-old Sofia and 15-year-old Nicolas. Despite having previously proclaimed she wasn’t a baseball fan, Sambolin is coming around to the game. “I’m learning the game because I want to understand,” she says, “but what I love about baseball is the culture — it’s a family culture.” Williams chimes in: “She’s picking up on little things. Most people just try to learn the game, but being the newswoman she is, she asks questions about the players and their stories and the behind-the-scenes kind of thing.”
Sambolin, a born-and-raised Chicagoan, has always had such curiosity and zeal. “I’m very passionate about this city that we live in and I want it to be the best place it can be,” she says. So it’s fitting that she got her start here, hosting shows on PBS and Telemundo before anchoring NBC’s local weekend show and, eventually, moving to the weekday broadcast in 2007. After a stint in New York, where she co-hosted CNN’s “Early Start” for two years, she left CNN in January to return to Chicago and, serendipitously, a spot opened on the news desk back at WMAQ-Channel 5 a few months later. She re-debuted on the network’s morning show alongside co-anchor Stefan Holt in April. “Returning to NBC mornings has been like returning home,” she says.
Williams’ path here began in 1986, when he was pulled up from the minor leagues to play centerfield for the White Sox. His major-league run was relatively short-lived, and by 1992 he was working in the front office for the South Side team, becoming the Sox’s first African-American general manager in 2000 and moving to executive vice president in 2012. He helped bring a World Series title to Chicago in 2005, the team’s first since 1917. Though he kept his personal life largely private, Williams garnered quite the reputation on the field — he became known for confrontations and making aggressive trades. Sambolin, though, fell in love with his off-the-field persona. “There’s a whole other side of Kenny that people don’t know,” she says. “They look at him a certain way and talk about him a certain way because it sells, but there’s a softer side, a funny side, a quirky side.”
It’s a side that Sambolin saw firsthand in May 2013, when she announced on air that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. After undergoing a double mastectomy, the usually private Sambolin took to Twitter to not only show the world the strength of her and Williams’ relationship, but to encourage other couples battling one partner’s disease. “After the surgery, there are these drains coming out of your body [that need to be changed],” Sambolin recalls. “I tweeted a picture of [Kenny helping change my drains]. The reason I did it is because I wanted to raise the expectations: This is what happens. Not only one woman but several counseled me not to allow him to help, because it’s just not a way [your significant other] is supposed to see you.”
But Williams — who went with Sambolin to every doctor’s appointment — didn’t even think twice about sharing their story. “When you’re in positions like we’re in, if you can show a different side to the men, then you can raise women’s expectancy levels in such situations,” he says. “It’s a moment when you can teach people that intimacy comes in many different shapes. It’s easy to be in love and to be passionate and compassionate when things are going great, but when you have a little bit of a trial, does the person you think is going to take care of you actually stand by you?”
Now that Sambolin is healthy again, the two are beginning to plan their future. So what’s in store for them? When asked that question, it’s the one time they don’t echo each other’s thoughts or finish each other’s sentences — yet their differing responses demonstrate the balance in their relationship. Williams answers first, taking the laid-back approach. “You know, you wake up in the morning and go about your day as best you can, you try to raise your children and do the best you can by them and by each other and try to have some laughs along the way.”
Sambolin counters with a little pragmatism. “Well, I do see a plan,” she says. “I feel like of my time on Earth, part of it has to be [spent] making it better — with Kenny, that’s part of our journey together. I’m hoping that in the coming years, we’ll see what we can do to make this a better city, a better place for kids on the South Side and the West Side. That’s what I see for us, trying to make it a better place. It’s kind of an obligation, you know?”
For the moment, both Sambolin and Williams are content enjoying each others’ company and helping each other become the best versions of themselves. A year and a half after Williams’ only-slightly botched proposal, “I can honestly say I’m the best man I’ve ever been,” he says. “I would like to think I’m a better partner as this stage of my life, but we all have flaws. Hopefully before my time is up on this Earth I’ll [be able to say] I’ve corrected them, but I suspect I’ll still be a work in progress,” he jokes, adding: “I’m glad she likes projects.”
We quizzed Williams and Sambolin on their newlywed knowledge, asking them to guess each others’ responses to a series of questions.
SPLASH: Outside of the White Sox, what would you say is the other’s favorite sports team?
Kenny Williams: You’re gonna get this wrong.
Zoraida Sambolin: For me, the Bulls.
KW: Bulls, I got that right.
ZS: And for him, the Chiefs, because his son plays for them.
KW: Bzzz, wrong. I’m an Oakland Raiders fan, I grew up there. I love my son, I’ll root for my son — but he’s not gonna be in the NFL forever.
SPLASH: Favorite movie?
KW: You could have given me 1,000 guesses — 10,000 guesses — and I wouldn’t have gotten that. What’d you say for me?
ZS: For you, anything with blood, guts and gore — or a romance.
KW: But you have to have a specific one. ‘The Notebook.’
ZS: Those are the two sides of Kenny.
SPLASH: Who takes longer to get ready?
KW: It’s not even close.
ZS: We got that one right!
SPLASH: Favorite color?
ZS: [Points at Kenny] Blue. [Points at herself] Red.
KW: Orange! When did it become red? When I met you, it was orange. I have it in my phone right now what your favorite color is, are you kidding me? [Gets up to look for his phone.]
ZS: [whispering] It really is orange, he’s right. It’s evolved! I was thinking orange or red, but I think more red these days. This is my problem! This is why he would get none of these right.
KW: [coming back] I’ve got my phone somewhere and I’ve got a whole list of your favorites.
ZS: Yes, yes you’re right.
Roberto Cavalli: floral jersey dress, $935, Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan; Saksfifthavenue.com; Jewelry: Oromalia: hoop earrings, $4,950; Palmiero: ring, $32.750; A. Marek, 3021 Butterfield, Oak Brook; Amarekfinejewelry.com
Saks Fifth Avenue Collection: linen jacket, $1,198; Isaia: multi-check dress shirt, $450; Etro: pocket square, $110; All available at Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan; Saksfifthavenue.com
Tom and Linda Platt: dress, $1,970, Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan; Saksfifthavenue.com
Jewelry: Rina Limor: black and white flower drop earrings, $11,500; Oromalia: diamond and leather bracelet, $18,500, A. Marek, 3021 Butterfield, Oak Brook; Amarekfinejewelry.com
Saks Fifth Avenue Collection: suit, $1,298
Charvet: tie, $220
All available Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan; Saksfifthavenue.com
La Petite Robe by Chiara Boni: gown, $830; Rodo: clutch, $625; Jimmy Choo: heels, $1, 595; All available at Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan; Saksfifthavenue.com
Jewelry: A. Marek: diamond crescent hoop earrings, $15,600; diamond pebble bracelet, $18,200; pave bangle bracelet, $35,000; Palmiero: ring, $32,750; A. Marek, 3021 Butterfield, Oak Brook; Amarekfinejewelry.com
Corneliani: velvet convertible jacket, $1,795; Ermenegildo Zegna: dress shirt, $375; Brioni: pocket square, $125; DeLaRentis: black velvet slippers, $328; All available at Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan; Saksfifthavenue.com
Pants: Williams’ own
Photographer: Simon Perry
Stylist: Heidy Best
Hair: Ashlynn Raquel for Factor Artists
Makeup: Brenda Arelano
Shoot coordinator: Katerina Bizios