There was a handoff during this year’s Thanksgiving football game between Naugatuck and Ansonia so smooth it almost went unnoticed. Yet it may have implications that reverberate for decades.
The exchange actually happened in the press box at Ansonia’s Nolan Field as WATR-AM (1320) radio announcer Bob Sagendorf passed off the play-by-play microphone to his understudy, Chris Saunders.
Sagendorf, 64, decided his 25th Ansonia-Naugy game broadcast with color commentator Steve Gessick would be his last football game. He plans to phase out as a play-by-play announcer for good during the high school basketball season.
“You just reach that point where you say, ‘It is time for someone else to do this,’” Sagendorf said. “We have an opportunity with young Chris Saunders, a talented young man who went to Sacred Heart High School, and I don’t want to lose him. So we will give Chris the opportunity, and I will be there to mentor him. But it is also time to sit back and enjoy life.”
Gesseck said he loves the game too much to retire and will return to work with Saunders.
Sagendorf began broadcasting high school sports in 1975 with Gary Miller and George Schuster at WOWW radio in Naugatuck, which became WNVR. He did football broadcasts with Gesseck and future ESPN icon Chris Berman in 1978 and 1979.
He did his first football game, Naugatuck vs. Jonathan Law, with Gesseck in September 1976. They have broadcast games for 27 years with their partnership interrupted for parts of three decades when Sagendorf worked for CBS and ESPN.
Since returning to WATR in the early 2000s, he’s added a host of different responsibilities to his work. In addition to being the sports director, he is now the director of traffic and scheduling.
“I will be running some of the business operations, so that takes a great deal of my time, as well,” Sagendorf said. “It is another reason I have to pull back because I can’t fully prepare for a game the way I always have.”
Sagendorf worked at CBS Radio for nine years, then left to develop the infrastructure for ESPN Radio, where he stayed for another 12 years, nine full-time and three as a remote producer for sports coverage, including Super Bowls, Final Fours, World Series, the golf majors, the NBA Finals and two Olympics.
“It was a great run,” he said.
Sagendorf was lured back to his roots in high school sports, where he felt in some ways his broadcasting career was launched by former Naugatuck football coach Charlie Bertero.
Sagendorf, a 1972 Naugatuck High graduate, suffered a neck injury prior to high school and couldn’t play football for the Greyhounds. Bertero, however, inspired him to go into sports broadcasting.
“Charlie took me under his wing and really mentored me,” Sagendorf said. “He would have me take 35-millimeter photographs of formations. I became his scout in the sky. I learned my football through Charlie.”
Sagendorf’s announcing career nearly ended prematurely with what he calls his “medical malady,” a period from 2011 to 2016 during which he had a benign brain tumor removed. As a complication from radiation, he lost one of his vocal cords and suffered paralysis on the right side of his esophagus and a temporary loss of his voice.
“I had to have reconstruction of my throat, reconstructive vocal cord surgery,” Sagendorf said. “I was still producing broadcasts as the executive producer and sports director, but my voice that you can hear now was only possible after 20 procedures.”
While his reconstructed voice sounds a little raspy, he feels blessed.
“I feel very fortunate that I was able to come back for two years and do this. It has been so much fun, and we have such a great listenership. We had listeners from 18 states check in with me (on Thanksgiving),” he said. “I have also received hundreds of touching notes over social media about my career. It’s been a good one.”
Sagendorf’s broadcasting career isn’t quite over. He will split play-by-play duties this basketball season, with Saunders eventually doing the majority of the broadcasts.
Giving up his microphone is bittersweet.
“You reach a point where you say it is time,” Sagendorf said. “I have two beautiful granddaughters now living in Brooklyn, N.Y. I want to be able to go into New York on a Friday and see my granddaughters. I want to spend more time with (my wife) Janet and travel a little bit on the weekends. I would also like to just be able to go to a game and sit in the stands and root for my alma mater.”