2018 Sportsperson of the Year: Pat Kelly

Few people can recall the specifics of past Riverhead sporting events quite like Pat Kelly.

Reminded of a particular player, the longtime play-by-play announcer for the Blue Waves football and boys basketball teams goes into an immediate frenzy recalling a moment from a decade or more ago.

Take, for example, when he was recently asked about former Riverhead linebacker Malcolm Cater, who last played high school football nine seasons ago.

“His senior year, [Greg] Meyer got hurt in the West Islip game and he had to fill in [at running back] in the second half …” Mr. Kelly began, going on to describe in some detail the events that followed that afternoon.

For Mr. Kelly, who began calling Riverhead football games in the Rutgers Trophy-winning season of 1988, the vivid memories are an extension of the sheer passion he exudes for the sports and teams he calls for WRIV 1390 AM. In any weather, at home or on the road, you can find him at just about any Riverhead football and boys basketball game, bringing the action to people who couldn’t be there and doing so with his vintage cadence and a bit of gusto.

For his dedication to bringing Riverhead High School sports to a wider audience and his respect and admiration for the athletes and sports he covers, Mr. Kelly is the News-Review’s 2018 Sports Person of the Year.

“He’s just very good at what he does,” said WRIV general manager Bruce Tria. “He’s a natural.”

In his first season of broadcasting games in 1988, Mr. Kelly was the No. 2 man behind legendary Riverhead sports figure Bob Burns. He’d provide the color while Mr. Burns called out 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. More than 30 years later, he’s still at it, missing only a handful of games over the years at WRIV, the only Long Island station still regularly calling high school games.

“Pat Kelly’s a treasure trove of information on Riverhead football and boys basketball,” said News-Review sports editor Bob Liepa, who himself has covered Riverhead sports for more than two decades. “He can tell you stories — often in an entertaining way — of things that happened decades ago, remembering them as clearly as if they had happened yesterday.”

A chemist for the Suffolk County Water Authority, Mr. Kelly had very little experience with broadcasting before he got his shot with the local station, but he’s always had an appreciation of the craft and an aspiration to bring sports to life.

In a 2012 News-Review profile, he recounted attending a college hockey game while a student at SUNY/Plattsburgh, where he held a microphone to his mouth and replaced the names of the college players 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 the tape. He liked what he heard.

Mr. Kelly’s first foray into Riverhead radio came from calling adult recreational softball games for a now-defunct local station before moving to WRIV.

Those who have watched him work or listened to his broadcasts marvel at just how good he is at his second job.

Football coach Leif Shay has said of Mr. Kelly that he doesn’t “know how he does it.” Newsday sports historian Andy Slawson once told the News-Review he believes Mr. Kelly is the “best in the business.”

“It’s fun to watch the master at work,” said Mr. Tria, who added that Mr. Kelly’s willingness to also have an opinion about the action on the field helps set him apart from other broadcasters.

Mr. Liepa agreed that watching the local broadcaster in action is a real treat.

“He’s an iconic figure, known throughout the county for the excitement and enthusiasm he brings to his radio broadcasts,” Mr. Liepa said. “I’ve sat next to him at football games while he’s done play-by-play calls, and it’s really something to observe up close how well he does his job.”

Mr. Kelly admits he roots for Riverhead to win and he even wears team apparel when calling football games, including a sweatshirt that bears his name. The team is also a fan of him.

When he reached 25 seasons on the air, Coach Shay and the Blue Waves presented him with an award. He was also honored with a proclamation from the Town of Riverhead that year as well as profiles from each of the other media outlets that cover the team.

Mr. Tria said the best way to measure Mr. Kelly’s impact comes from the rare instances when the station’s online broadcasts are interrupted.

“I’ll get emails from, like, Vermont,” he said. “It’s actually a lot of fun. It reaches a much wider audience than people might think.”

Mr. Tria, who jokes that he could never call sports himself, is grateful for what Mr. Kelly has brought to his station for the past three decades.

“I always thought, ‘Well, we’ll call football games for as long as Pat is willing to do it,” he said. “I never thought he’d do it for 30 years.”

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Photo caption: Pat Kelly doing play-by-play during the Riverhead boys basketball team’s Dec. 20 game against Connetquot. (Garret Meade photo)