‘The best there is,’ Pat Kelly on 25 years calling Riverhead football

BILL LANDON PHOTO | Pat Kelly has been calling Riverhead football games for 25 years. The voice of the Blue Waves was at West Islip for last Tuesday's boys' basketball game.
BILL LANDON PHOTO | Pat Kelly has been calling Riverhead football games for 25 years. The voice of the Blue Waves was at West Islip for last Tuesday’s boys’ basketball game.

Bruce Tria knew he needed to broadcast high school sports for WRIV to live up to its billing as Riverhead’s “hometown station.”

COURTESY PHOTO | Pat Kelly on the sidelines of Riverhead football game.
COURTESY PHOTO | Pat Kelly on the sidelines of a Riverhead High School football game.

After all, nothing says hometown like high school sports.

At first, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He and former morning deejay Lou Koulias traveled to Smithtown West High School one afternoon in the mid-1980s to deliver the very first broadcast of Riverhead Blue Waves football on 1390 AM.

“It was a total train wreck,” Mr. Tria recalled in an interview last week.

If he was going to do this right, he needed to seek out someone else who could do it. It was not an easy find. He was looking for someone who knew sports, could keep up with the tempo of the games and who had a voice people could stand to listen to for more than two hours at a time.

Pat Kelly knew he was all those things, he just needed someone to give him the chance to prove it. Decades later, Mr. Kelly, who earlier this month wrapped up his 25th season broadcasting Riverhead football games, is now known simply as the voice of the Blue Waves, but he’s done it all these years with almost no prior experience as a sports broadcaster.

While attending college at SUNY/Plattsburgh, Mr. Kelly recalls attending a college hockey game armed with a tape recorder. As he watched the action, he held the microphone to his mouth and replaced the names of the college players on the ice with the NHL players he knew so well.

“Esposito brings the puck to center ice, gives to Bucyk …”

He then went back to his dorm room and listened to his pseudo broadcast. Not too shabby, he thought.

After graduating, Mr. Kelly began a career in science — he currently works as a chemist for the Suffolk County Water Authority — and any dreams of becoming a broadcaster went on hold. It wasn’t until one day in 1986, when he was in attendance at a local softball game at Stotzky Park, that Mr. Kelly got his first chance to call a game on the air.

He had been moonlighting as an umpire in the league, but there were no games for him to call that day. He was hanging out with his late wife, Marisa, the official scorekeeper, when Hawk Woodson, a former WRIV sportscaster, approached him about broadcasting the game on the now defunct WPTZ radio station.

“He just stuck the mic in my face and said, ‘Here, you know these teams,’ ” Mr. Kelly recalls.

Later, after Mr. Woodson got word that Mr. Tria was looking for a broadcaster for high school sports games, he recommended Mr. Kelly.

“Pat had no real experience,” Mr. Tria said. “He was just a natural. He just always had it.”

That’s a statement that’s long echoed through Riverhead.

After a recent playoff game, Blue Waves football coach Leif Shay said of Mr. Kelly, “I don’t know how he does it. I’m a football coach and I couldn’t do that.”

Shooting the breeze with reporters before Riverhead football’s Long Island Championship game Dec. 1, Newsday high school sports historian Andy Slawson called Mr. Kelly “the best there is.”

In his first season of broadcasting games, Mr. Kelly was the No. 2 man behind legendary Riverhead sports figure Bob Burns. He’d sprinkle in color while Mr. Burns called out the play-by-play.

It wasn’t until Mr. Burns went on vacation one week that Mr. Kelly got his first shot at calling games on his own for WRIV. It’s been a love affair ever since.

“We’ve lasted longer together than most marriages,” Mr. Tria joked.

In his time as the voice of the Blue Waves, Mr. Kelly, 61, says he’s seen it all.

Among his favorite stories of football games past, Mr. Kelly, who has also been calling boys basketball games since 1990, recalls the tales of two games against Miller Place.

The story of the first game actually begins the night before the players took the field. As Mr. Kelly arrived at Miller Place High School to set up his equipment in the press box, he noticed a fire truck leaving the parking lot. When he walked the field, he saw it was soaking wet.

“I thought, ‘What do they have a drainage problem, I don’t recall it raining recently,’” he said.

Though he says the former Miller Place coach insists “to this day” it isn’t true, Mr. Kelly believes the team had the local fire department wet the field to neutralize Riverhead’s scrambling quarterback. The Waves won anyway, he says, 6-3.

The other old yarn Mr. Kelly likes to tell of a Riverhead-Miller Place game was a Halloween showdown where all sorts of bizarre occurrences happened. A shanked punt, a 12-men on the field penalty and a failed fourth-and-long when the Miller Place coaches thought it was third down all helped Riverhead to a victory that day.

“Spooky stuff was happening that Halloween,” Mr. Kelly said.

The broadcaster has become such a fixture at Riverhead sporting events — Mr. Tria estimates Mr. Kelly’s missed just six football games in 25 years — many folks consider him an honorary member of the teams.

He even wears a Riverhead football sweatshirt with his last name on the back when he calls football games from the chilly press box above Coach McKillop Field.

He freely admits that when he calls the games, he’s rooting for Riverhead to win.

“I definitely do,” he said. “But I’m also quick to point it out when Riverhead benefits from a bad call by the refs.”

He also says he’s questioned coaching decisions on the air over the years. There’s no doubt, though, that Mr. Kelly feels a part of the Riverhead football family, and at no time was that more important to him than in the years after his wife of 25 years died and he became a single father to his two daughters, Jennifer and Kimberly, and his young son, Michael.

Marisa Kelly was diagnosed with cancer in October 1998, and she died the following April, just two months after that year’s boys basketball season ended.

“I don’t know how I would have gotten through those winter months without being able to get away for a bit to do the games,” he recalled. “My son was just seven years old when she passed. I had to be the dad and the mom for a lot of years. It was very therapeutic to be able to go on the air.”

Mr. Tria said there was never a time where he thought Mr. Kelly might hang up his headphones in the years after his wife passed.

“He made it very clear that wasn’t going to happen,” Mr. Tria said.

In fact, it might be another 25 years before Mr. Kelly actually does call it quits. Now relocated to Manorville and remarried to his wife of 16 months, Joan Kelly, he says only moving out of state would prevent him from calling Blue Waves games.

And he points to two longtime sports figures as the best reason why he shouldn’t retire.

“Bear Bryant retired from coaching football and he was dead within a year,” Mr. Kelly said. “[Former Mets broadcaster] Bob Murphy was a similar story. When you give up something you love this much, it kills you … I’ll give it up when they pour dirt on me.”

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