Gesseck talks about his career covering local sports

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Fifty years ago this spring, Ray Legenza needed a scorekeeper for his Naugatuck High baseball team. It was the midst of the Greyhounds’ glory days — they went 84-2 from 1970-73, including the legendary 64-game winning streak — and yet the previous book guy left the pencil for someone else to hold.
The high school junior who picked it up had been cut by Legenza two years prior as a freshman. That spring, he started keeping score at ballgames and calling in scores to all the local papers.
Soon after, he started writing for the Naugatuck Daily News and sports editor Don Pascale, and the rest is history.
Now, after 50 years of being up close to high school sports, Steve Gesseck has called it a career. The Naugatuck native retired from his longtime role as the color analyst for football broadcasts on WATR-AM, calling his final game in the Greyhounds’ Class L quarterfinal loss to Masuk on Nov. 30.
Kyle Brennan, who broadcast with Gesseck for five years, caught up with Gesseck at the Corner Tavern to look back upon his career. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

How did you end up broadcasting?
My junior year [at UConn] in 1975, I was covering a football game in Milford at Foran High. Bob [Sagendorf] was doing color commentary at the time. The guy who was going to do play-by-play never showed up. Five minutes before the game, Bob said, “Here, you’ve gotta do it with me,” and handed me a headset. I said, “Do what?” and he said, “You have to go on the air with me.” I said, “I can’t do that.”

Which station was this?
WOWW, and then they changed to WNVR. Chris Berman was doing traffic there as his primary job, but he and Bob did a show, “Calling All Sports.” I was just keeping stats for them at the time for broadcasts. Chris never came through on his promise. He said, “If I ever make it big, I want you to be my stat man.” I guess he didn’t make it big. That lasted until the mid-’80s, and then Bob went onto his job with WCBS [Radio in New York], so my radio career was pretty much over.

At what point did you decide to give up writing?
It got to the point where stories were getting tough to write, especially Thanksgiving Day stories. You grew close to these guys throughout the season, and it felt like you were part of the team, so it was tough writing those stories at the end of the year. The last game I did for the paper was [Naugatuck’s Class LL semifinal loss to] Greenwich in 2001.

So, then what?
That was going to be my last game. The next season, Bob was back in town and we started doing radio in 2002 with WATR. Then we did games on CPTV and then CTSN, football and basketball. We worked with Bird’s Eye Sports, Waterbury Public Television. A lot of them didn’t come with paychecks — at least not for me, but maybe Bob had some. Even the ones you did get were pretty small.

What was your strategy as an analyst?
I wasn’t the technical analyst. I tried to paint a picture for the parents who didn’t know football. I’d talk about what was going on in layman’s terms. The first few years were definitely a challenge. I’m not one to speak in front of a crowd. I eventually found it was simple: I was just talking to the guy next to me about the game. By keeping years’ worth of scores from all over the state, it made it easier for me to relate it to other things.

What’s your fondest local sports memory?
The 1981 state championship season [for Naugatuck football]. Naugatuck, Xavier, and New Britain were all unbeaten. We were in the press box at Central Connecticut, and everybody was saying that Naugatuck shouldn’t even be here. At the end of the game, those people weren’t around anymore. I remember Craig [Peters, the Greyhounds’ legendary coach] before the game telling the team, “They’re going to line up 100 kids on their sideline. But our 11 that are going to be on the field will be better than their 11.” Sure enough, they were.

Why retire now?
I’ve spent 50 years covering high school sports. I noticed during this season that I was losing my voice during some broadcasts. I was ready to leave a few years ago when Bob announced he was leaving, but I didn’t want to leave Chris [Saunders] out there [on play-by-play] by himself, so I stayed on or a few years. Even when you [Kyle] were doing games, I was ready to announce it. Naugatuck just never had wins [on Thanksgiving].

You announced your retirement during this year’s Woodland-Seymour game, and sure enough, Naugatuck beat Ansonia the next morning for the first time since 2010. You were always good at staying neutral, but you couldn’t hide it this year, could you?
This year on Thanksgiving Day, I think I was pulling a little more [for Naugatuck] than usual.