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Pat Kelly, longtime voice of the Blue Waves, to sign off

The voice of the Riverhead Blue Waves has spoken. He said it’s time to call it a career.

After 33 years at the radio station, Pat Kelly is stepping down following this football season as WRIV’s play-by-play announcer for Riverhead High School football and boys basketball games. Kelly, who turned 70 in August, made his decision public earlier this month in an open letter to the community published by the Riverhead News-Review.

“I know the time is right,” he told the newspaper in an interview Friday. “Nothing lasts forever and now is the time.”

If Riverhead doesn’t qualify for the playoffs, Kelly’s final game will be Saturday when Riverhead will host Sachem East at Coach Mike McKillop Memorial Field.

It will be quite a change for Riverhead sports fans who have grown accustomed to hearing Kelly’s familiar voice on 1390 AM, describing the action of their teams. It’s also quite a change for WRIV.

“He’s done it for a long time, longer than a lot of marriages have lasted, that’s for sure,” said WRIV general manager Bruce Tria, who hired Kelly back in 1988. “There are generations of kids who know who he is and have heard him do the games. It’s just amazing.”

As for the work itself, it has been nothing short of a labor of love for Kelly, a former high school kicker for Port Jefferson whose day job is as a senior chemist for the Suffolk County Water Authority.

“Oh, I loved it,” he said. “I mean, let’s put it this way, it is still as much fun to be behind that mic and do it today as it was way back when. It’s just that it is wearing me down a little more … Even walking up the stairs to the press box in Riverhead is starting to be a chore.”

It was an unlikely broadcasting career for Kelly that began by chance one night in 1986 or ’87 when he was at Stotzky Memorial Park and the late Hawk Woodson, president of the Riverhead Women’s Softball League at the time, asked him to call a league game for a now-defunct radio station. “And he shoves a microphone in my hand,” Kelly said. “He goes: ‘This game’s on radio. You know the game. Do play-by-play.’ ”

Kelly’s response was akin to something that would have come out of Ralph Kramden’s mouth: “Hamina, hamina, hamina.”

Kelly went on to do a number of those softball games. When WRIV sought to broadcast Riverhead’s football games in 1988, Woodson, who did a morning sports report for the station, gave management the names of two people. A two-man crew was born: longtime local sportswriter Bob Burns and Kelly. Burns handled play-by-play and Kelly was the color commentator.

Tria liked what he heard from Kelly from the start.

“We stuck a microphone in his hand and he was just a natural,” Tria said. “No professional training, you know, but he had it. He certainly had the ability to paint a picture with words and do the game.”

Kelly’s debut as a play-by-play man for WRIV came later that season. While Burns was away on vacation, Kelly worked Riverhead’s defeat of Miller Place in the Suffolk County small schools championship game, which Riverhead won (earning Riverhead the Rutgers Trophy as Suffolk’s most outstanding team).

Burns stepped away from the broadcast booth midway through the 1989 season, and Kelly became a one-man crew.

Boys basketball joined the WRIV lineup in 1990 and remained for one more season before the station dropped it because it couldn’t get sponsors, said Kelly. Sponsors, however, were found for the 1993-94 basketball season. The following season Kelly was broadcasting from Glens Falls when Riverhead lost to Amsterdam in the state semifinals. Hoops has remained on WRIV’s airwaves ever since.

Kelly has on occasion also broadcast Riverhead softball and field hockey games. “I think we were the first ones ever to do field hockey on the radio in Suffolk County,” he said.

What’s Kelly’s favorite sport to broadcast?

“I don’t know if I really have a favorite,” he said. “It’s just the whole idea [that] these kids go out there and, you know like I said once before, they’re not going out there because they got a seven-figure contract or they can earn an endorsement or earn a commercial spot. They’re going out there because they love the sport and to represent their school. It’s as pure as you can get.”

Kelly has long admired sportscasters like Marv Albert (“Yes!”) and Dick Enberg (“Oh my!”), and may have adapted bits and pieces from them, but he didn’t steal their well-known phrases. For basketball he used “bingo!” In football, when a winning team is about to take a knee in the final seconds, he is prone to saying, “They’re going to the genuflect offense.”

Kelly experienced his own version of a “Heidi Game,” too. The “Heidi Game” refers to a 1968 American Football League game between the Oakland Raiders and the Jets. Many television viewers missed the conclusion of Oakland’s 43-32 comeback victory because NBC cut away from the game to show the movie “Heidi.”

Kelly’s version was a season-opening Riverhead football game at Copiague in the late 1990s. A new employee back at the radio station was responsible for playing commercials and looking at a log of the order in which the commercials were to run. Kelly said the guy was under the mistaken impression that he was to run all the commercials in succession in the first quarter, and Kelly tried his best — unsuccessfully — to let him know that was not the case. So, the first break in the action occurred and the craziness began.

“I was like, ‘No, no, no. You just play one [commercial] and get it back to me. You go to the next one at the next timeout,’ ” Kelly said. “But he said, ‘This says first quarter. I’m supposed to play these in the first quarter.’

“As much as I tried to tell him, ‘I’ve done this so many years, this is how it’s done,’ he wouldn’t do it. So we missed a bunch of the game while he plays four commercials. As we come back, Riverhead scores again. So I figured, OK, we’ll just go to the first commercial of the second quarter, pick it up from there. No, he’s playing all the first-quarter commercials again!”

Kelly’s desperate pleas were to no avail. “The next thing you know, I’m talking and he goes, ‘Pat, relax, we’re doing the news.’ I go, ‘What do you mean we’re doing the news!?’ ”

To Kelly’s dismay, while game action was going on (and Riverhead scored a touchdown on a double reverse), the radio station was playing news.

What was Kelly thinking about at the time?

“What’s going through my head is there are some people alive in this world only because it’s against the law to kill them,” he said.

Kelly, the Riverhead News-Review’s Sports Person of the Year in 2018, has a press box for home games, but that isn’t always the case for road games. Often he relies on what he calls his “PPBB,” Pat’s portable broadcast booth. It consists of a foldable table, cellphone with a headset, battery pack, plus a bag with paperwork and notes.

Tria, speaking of Kelly’s pending departure from the airwaves, said: “I’m happy for him on the one hand that he’s going to enjoy himself and be in the warm weather in the middle of February. Boy, do I envy that. But on the other hand, you know, we’re friends. There’s definitely going to be a hole, not only in the station, but in my life.”

A Hofstra University student, Max Sacco, will pick up the WRIV mantle for boys basketball, “and we’ll see about football” in 2022, said Tria.

Will Saturday’s game be emotional for Kelly?

“Every time I start a game it’s like a switch goes off and I’m focused on the game and I’m just trying to do as professional a job as I can,” he said. “I said this more than one time. I’m not ESPN. I’m not MSG. I’m not Westwood One. I’m not any of those, but it does not mean I can’t try to be as professional as they are. When I say goodbye for the last time, sign off the air and when I know I’m packing stuff up for the last time, we’ll see what happens.”

Does he know what he will say before he signs off?

“No,” he said. “It will probably be spur of the moment. I’m not rehearsing any sort of speech, just what I feel at the time.”

Kelly, who estimates he has done about 720 games for WRIV, will unquestionably be missed.

“I know I’m definitely going to miss it,” he said. “There’s no two ways about it.”