Author’s note: As the associate editor for GOOD Morning Wilton, I have the incredible good fortune to meet extraordinary people of Wilton who are making our community a better, more vibrant place. And sometimes, like today, I have the delightful opportunity to shine a spotlight on someone I’m lucky to already consider a friend. As a spectator at local sporting events, I have been impressed by his objective commentating; as a parent, I have been thrilled to hear him announce my daughter’s name on the soccer field; and as a middle-aged runner huffing and puffing up Range Rd., I have been encouraged to keep going, thanks to my friend and neighbor, Franey Donovan.
You may not know his face, but if you live in Wilton, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Franey Donovan. After all, Donovan has been the announcer for a good number of Wilton High School sports for over 25 years.
“It all started back in 1993 I believe. Elizabeth and Susanne, my two youngest daughters, were playing basketball in town and a family, who we knew from both Our Lady of Fatima and youth sports, approached me about their interest in upgrading the basketball program,” Donovan recalls. “They were looking for some help in up-leveling the games and I was happy to help.”
While sports is pretty much in Donovan’s DNA–he’s been an athlete and a coach–he had no experience announcing. But an unwavering willingness to help is also in his genes, so he jumped in and the rest as they say, is history.
“I asked the legendary Tom Fujitani for some advice after I agreed to announce at the basketball games and he simply said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just be yourself and you will be fine.’ And so I’ve done just that. I’ve focused on remaining objective, announcing the facts–who made what play, that kind of thing–and I guess it’s worked out,” says Donovan.
Indeed it has. Donovan was so successful in his first go at announcing both the boys’ and girls’ basketball games that he was asked to announce at the football games a short year later. His presence was eventually requested by the soccer, baseball, and lacrosse teams, underscoring Donovan’s inherent knack for telling the stories of the athletic fields.
Fast forward to today and Donovan is still going strong. Earlier this month he was honored by the Wilton Football Boosters for his service; a plaque was commissioned in his honor proclaiming the Veterans Memorial Press Box “The Home of Franey Donovan—The Voice of the Warriors.”
“I had absolutely no idea that this was coming. I was doing my usual pre-game thing, checking in with our coach and our kids, then meeting with the visiting team to review the roster, confirm the pronunciation of player names, and explain our overall protocol, what to expect in terms of the flow of the game, etc.,” explains Donovan.
“Then, once I returned to the Wilton bench, there was all this buzz around some pregame recognition. Athletic director Chris McDougal was asking me if I knew anything about it, Wilton Board of Ed member Glenn Hemmerle was asking why we all had to be in the bleachers at 6:45. Something was definitely up, but no one seemed to know what.”
Donovan wasn’t rattled. He just told everyone he would handle whatever came his way.
So, he started in with his welcome to Fujitani Field and an overview of the FCIAC Code of Conduct. Then he saw Brian Colburn from the Wilton Football Boosters, then his wife Barbara and all four of his daughters, Kerry Donovan Byrnes, Meaghan Donovan, Elizabeth Donovan, and Susanne Donovan Armitage, and then, last but certainly not least, all six of his grandchildren.
“At that point, it became a bit of a blur,” says Donovan. “A few cheerleaders unveiled the plaque that was attached to the press box and it was just incredible. It took my breath away, I was completely stunned. Sure, it’s been a long time, but I never expected that kind of recognition.”
Donovan may have been surprised, but those who have had the pleasure to get to know him and see him in action over the years sing his praises–a testament that this recognition was most deserved.
“Donovan’s professionalism adds so much to the experience of watching the basketball games,” says Wilton parent Cathy Reif. “Honestly, during every game I think about how lucky we are to have him. He’s truly beloved by all.”
“Not only is he the voice of the warriors, he’s also our biggest fan,” adds Reif’s daughter, Kaitlin, who has played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse for Wilton High School. “He’s taken the time to really get to know us. To him we’re not just names on a roster, we’re people he cares about and he wants us to succeed.”
Maura Connolly, another Wilton parent, can also speak to the interest Donovan has consistently extended to the young athletes of Wilton, including her five children who have passed through Wilton High School in a variety of sports.
“We consider Franey a family friend. He has offered support and advice to several of our kids. Franey has been there with hearty congratulations for FCIAC championships and also kind words when a big game doesn’t go our way. He acted as a sounding board when one of our sons was making a college decision and my daughter said recently that Franey told her to ‘keep playing hard and smart,’ which has become her mantra. There are countless times he has made an impact on so many students with his words in a most helpful and constructive way.”
As Donovan reflects on his tenure as “the voice of the Wilton Warriors,” he is quick to share that it has never felt like work, rather, “it’s been so much fun to spend time with these talented kids/athletes/students, and a privilege to get to know all of their great families.”
Highlights over the years have been many and when asked about favorite seasons, Donovan compares it to asking a father–or grandfather–which child is his favorite. “They have all been my favorites,” he exclaims.
That said, there have been a few moments that stand out, like the 2014 Wilton High School girls basketball state championship team, coached by Jacqueline Porca. “That season was loaded with one great thing after the other. The starting line-up was a great group of girls, four seniors and one juniors, and they all played so well together.”
Another special memory is when Donovan served as the FCIAC announcer for the basketball playoffs at Fairfield University two years ago. Ridgefield prevailed over Wilton after two overtimes and Donovan calls it “by far the best boys basketball championship game.”
“It was such an exciting game, sold-out and the noise was just deafening. The atmosphere was incredible and it was a thrill to be part of it.”
It was a thrill for the athletes as well. Drew Connolly was a senior on the team that faced Ridgefield that night, and describes it as “the most significant game I ever played in.”
Despite the significance, Connolly was hard pressed to come up with anything in particular that Donovan might have done differently that day. He even asked his teammates if Donovan had approached any of them differently and they all came to the same conclusion that, for the most part, the game was business as usual.
“Of course it was the same,” Connolly explains, “because this is Franey we are talking about. No matter the stage, no matter the stakes, Franey was a constant, calming presence for a group of 15 skittish kids stepping onto the court for the biggest game of their lives. He approached me with the same joyous smile, reached out to me with the same caring hand, and greeted me with the same supportive, ‘Hard and Smart,’ as he did before every single game I ever played. I know in my heart of hearts that Franey, on this day, took it upon himself to provide me and my teammates with a stabilizing backbone in the heat of our nervousness. I am sure that Franey would have done anything to win that game, and we collectively wish we could have done more to get him the win he so deserves. Regardless of the outcome, however, Franey was the first one there picking us back up, a cerebral calm in a storm of messy emotion.”
Thankfully, Donovan is willing to stick around a while to support up-and-coming Wilton Warriors in future championship games. He says he’ll be there “as long as they’ll have me.”
As the proud grandfather of six children, four of whom live in Wilton, Donovan thinks it would be an incredible thrill to see his grandkids come up to the varsity level in a sport in which he announces. While Donovan’s granddaughter, sophomore Lilly Byrnes already competes at the varsity level in gymnastics, there are no announcing opportunities; 8th grader Michael Byrnes, 6th grader Abbey Byrnes, and 5th grader Will Byrnes are all emerging basketball players, so chances are good Donovan’s dreams of calling out his grandchildren’s names at the Zeoli Fieldhouse will come true!