Bob VanDerheyden started out calling Rams basketball games as a New Canaan High School sophomore.
The son of the sports director at WSTC-AM in Stamford, he’d always been around radio and loved it.
“I did a lot of things with dad, going around the Little League games and high school football games,” the 1960 NCHS graduate recalled on an afternoon this week from his home outside Scranton, Pa. “And it occurred to me that I’ll do the PA [public address] at the basketball game. So I did a couple of basketball games. And [NCHS Football Coach] Joe Sikorski thought that was pretty neat. So that fall I said, well, why don’t I do the football games? And in those days when I started out in ‘58, I was a sophomore in high school. The Rams played at Mead Park.”
There was only grass at Mead Park field, with a couple of field goal poles and a set of bleachers under a maple tree. There was no electricity, so VanDerheyden had his friend Charlie Young, who owned a New Canaan store called Teletech, bring in a portable PA system, and another friend brought an inverter.
“We set up a couple of speakers, I climbed up into the bleachers and I started to announce the games,” VanDerheyden recalled. “And that’s how it started.”
He would call Rams games for 65 years.
He called Peil Pennington’s touchdown pass to Greg Esty to win a legendary 1967 showdown against Darien, snapping a 12-game losing streak against the Blue Wave.
He called 19 of New Canaan’s 23 state championship seasons.
The bridge between Joe Sikorski and Lou Marinelli, VanDerheyden has been the PA through all but one NCHS football head coaches in the program’s 95-year history (Loren J. Keyes retired when he was in elementary school).
He was the PA at NCHS home games when Kennedy was shot, when we landed on the moon, through the Cold War, Vietnam and COVID.
This month, for the first time in six-plus decades, VanDerheyden is not in the broadcast booth for New Canaan.
The three-hour ride from eastern Pennsylvania has become increasingly difficult for VanDerheyden’s arthritic back “and my family was really getting on me to, you know, ‘Hey dad it’s time to pack it in.’ And so for the last three or four years I’ve been saying, ‘Well, give me one more, I’ll do one more year and that’ll be it.’ And the fall would come and I’d say to myself, ‘I’ve got to go over and do it again.’ And so that kept on. But this year, they got on me and said, ‘You know, you really shouldn’t be doing this any more.’ ”
VanDerheyden said he could still do the job, “but I wasn’t at the top of my game.”
“And so, we all sat down and I agreed, OK, I’ll go to the locker room,” VanDerheyden said, his voice breaking up. “And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve done it with a lump in my throat, because I miss it terribly. But it was time.”
A part of New Canaan football as much as anyone who wore a helmet or carried a clipboard, VanDerheyden has forged a legacy of excellence in the booth, continuity for players and fans, and affection for his hometown and home team.
‘I Still Get Chills When I Hear That Voice’
For NCHS Athletic Director Jay Egan—a Stamford native who remembers “The Voice of the Rams” calling games when he himself played against NCHS as a Rippowam High School student—VanDerheyden is “an important part of the whole culture.”
“For me, personally, he was always appreciative,” Egan said. “Bob was always appreciative that we wanted him back, and I think that says a lot. All the time that he donated, the time that he gave to New Canaan High School, he was always appreciative when we wanted him back.”
Marinelli called VanDerheyden “the Bob Sheppard of New Canaan,” referring to the late great New York Yankees PA (a man who did his job for almost as long as The Voice of the Rams).
“When I hear, either on a film or whenever I hear ‘Down on the field, here come the Rams,’ I still get chills,” Marinelli said, recalling VanDerheyden’s team intro. “I’ve been there for a long time and I still get chills when I hear that voice, because it’s been since I got here back in 1981. It’s just all part of it. It’s going to be very different this year without him.”
New Canaan’s Terry Dinan is working the PA this season, and in the first home game last week used a recording of VanDerheyden’s call, “Ladies and gentlemen, down on the field, here come the Rams” during the game.
Dinan called VanDerheyden “a living legend, a part of the fabric of New Canaan and the gold standard as far as Public Address announcers go.”
“He is also one of the most generous, humble and gracious men I’ve ever known,” he said. “I will really miss hearing his voice and I will miss seeing him in the press box even more.”
Beyond his trademark run-out call, VanDerheyden delighted generations of Rams fans with his “Whoops” call whenever a penalty flag flew. Or whenever a team scored, he always said “As the teams come up the field,” followed by the scoring update.
In the booth, VanDerheyden said he had two rules: Don’t talk too much, and don’t play favorites.
“I was always neutral in my calls,” he said. “I never favored one team over another. And I always tried to talk only when necessary. I’m not broadcasting this thing on the radio—these people can see what’s going on. I just tried to be their extra eye if maybe they couldn’t see where the ball was placed or maybe they didn’t understand the official’s call and I was able to explain it to them. That sort of thing. But don’t play favorites and don’t talk too much.”
‘I May Have Missed Five or Six Games’
About 30 years ago, VanDerheyden had an opportunity to buy some radio stations in northeast Pennsylvania. He worked there for about one year, liked the area and moved there with his wife, Elaine, a New Canaanite herself (and one of the original 16 Walter Schalk dancers). One of their sons had gone into the U.S. Air Force, another had gone off to college and their daughter hadn’t started high school yet, VanDerheyden said.
In the early years after moving, he would get to New Canaan early to visit with his parents on White Birch Road.
“And also, I had a lot of friends in town at that time that I would visit,” VanDerheyden recalled. “We’d always have a couple of beers or something after the game or whatever. And so it was a social thing for me beyond doing the games. But as time marched on, folks started to leave town or die or whatever. So there aren’t many people left there from my youth and from my early days.”
Yet former NCHS Athletic Director Vinny Iovino “kept asking me to come back and Jay kept asking me to come back and I did it because the truth of the matter is, I did it because it was great fun, absolutely a joy to do those games,” VanDerheyden said.
“They kept me young because I was around lots of young guys,” he said.” I love high school football and I got a chance to visit my relatives and my friends in New Canaan. So it made a lot of sense. And I guess through the years, I may have missed five or six games because of—well, at one point in my career, I went out to Park City, Utah. I lived out there for a year. And I’d fly home from Park City to do the games. And then another time, we had a couple of family weddings and that sort of thing. So I missed a few games, but they kept asking me back and. And I just enjoyed it. And it was wonderful.”
The other part of what made the games so much fun was the crew in the booth, VanDerheyden said—namely, Carol and Dave Harvey and Tony Psenicnik.
“We were together in that booth for 30 years, the four of us doing those games, and it got to the point where we just knew what each other was thinking,” he said. “And they were such a big help to me, such an enormous help to me, that it allowed me to continue on. I think if that crew wasn’t in the booth, I probably would have done 60 years and probably stopped because the last five years have been kind of difficult.”
‘The Coaching Is Unbelievable’
Asked whether he has any specific memories of games or plays that stand out, VanDerheyden said, “That’s a difficult question.”
“Having done it for so long, there’s some players that stick out in my mind, but the thing that really changed New Canaan High School football was when Bob Lynch came on board,” he continued, referring to a transformative figure of the program. “Before then, there was no passing game in New Canaan to speak of it all. Every play was a running play. And that’s kind of boring to watch, to be honest with you. But when Lynch came in there he brought the passing game with him and that really changed everything. It also changed the winning record. I think at one point under Bob Lynch, we won like 35 or 36 games in a row. And it was exciting to watch. We’d have 5,000 people at the park.”
VanDerheyden also named specific outstanding players, including Pete Demmerle, Kurt Horton and Brian Sikorski.
He attributes the success of the New Canaan football program to two things: the coaching and the community.
“The coaching is unbelievable,” VanDerheyden said. “That has been the case for years and years. Of course,Lou Marinelli is in his—what, 41st year or something now?—an incredible coach, an incredible motivator of the kids. And the other thing that New Canaan has done is they get behind the team. We’ve got the Board of Education and the administration at the high school and the various institutions, clubs and organizations that the parents have put together to support the team and the program. It makes a huge difference.”
VanDerheyden recalls heading down to the field before games to check in first with Marinelli, asking about who’s hurt and what’s happening and getting a comprehensive and ready rundown.
“Then I’d walk over to the visitor’s side of the field and I could tell by talking to the coach whether this team had it together or not, and a lot of them really didn’t,” he said. “It was kind of sad and I knew what was going to happen that night. I knew that New Canaan was going to win.”
‘It Was Worth It’
Asked whether he has a farewell message for the community—and we note here that, per Egan, something special could be planned for The Voice of the Rams at Homecoming (2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 21 vs. Wilton)—VanDerheyden said, “Thank you.”
“The town let me do it,” he said. “The administration was very supportive. I would just say of New Canaan, it’s my hometown, I grew up there, I graduated high school there, I lived there for a long time, I married a young lady from New Canaan, my kids went through the school system. It’s my hometown and just ‘thank you’ for letting me do this for so long. They could have said, ‘Bob, that’s enough,’ and they didn’t. They let me come back and they let me come back. And I really, really appreciated that.”
VanDerheyden said that even now, he can’t explain why he ended up calling the games for 65 years.
Even so, “I’ve had some moments through the years when I knew that I was doing the right thing,” he said.
VanDerheyden continued: “I had a kid come up to me one time, he had gone through the school system, he went out to college, he came back, and I don’t know whether he came up to the booth or where I was talking to him, but he said, ‘You know, I was sitting in the stands at Michigan State, and I could hear your voice saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, down on the field, here come the Rams.’ ’ And that’s why I did it, because when you hear somebody say that to you, you just go, ‘Yeah, it was worth it.’ Or I’ve had other people come up to me and say, ‘You know, you got a great voice’ and that sort of thing. Or, ‘You helped me understand the game a little bit because you explained some plays to me.’ ”
VanDerheyden said he’s missing his place as NCHS football PA this year.
“I miss it all, I really do,” he said. “But it is what it is. And it was time. It was time.”
Yet at 81, he still owns 14 radio stations with his business partner and works a full-time schedule.
“I’m a person that moves on to other things,” VanDerheyden said. “That’s part of my personality, to move on to other things. I’m a very busy guy. It’s not like I’ve retired and I’m laying on the couch watching the Giants or something.”
He added after a beat, “By the way, did you see that Giants game last weekend?”