It had been nearly a week for Sean Kelley.
A week since driving the District 13 fire truck to a blaze.
A week since helping around the fire house, making sure things are in place to quickly get out for an emergency.
A week since being a part of someone’s worst day in the best possible way.
And he misses it.
Fighting fires, you see, is Kelley’s second job. A hobby, if you will, that satiates his appetite to do more for the community than to just be on the radio and watch Pelicans basketball for a living like his first job requires.
“I always wanted to be able to use sports, or my job in sports, to affect something else,” Kelley said. “So I’ve always tried to do something along the way on the side. There’s always been that wanting, and it’s not necessarily giving back, but to do something to make somebody’s life better.”
A Romantic Connection
Truth is, Kelley took a circuitous route to get where he is today, a key member of the Saints and Pelicans digital and radio staffs as both the voice of the basketball team and host of the Black and Blue Report online.
Growing up in St. Louis, he followed the Cardinals, listening to Jack Buck. He was drawn to how those announcing the games were “essentially a part of people’s lives.”
“Whether it be listening to a college football game on a Saturday or a summer night listening to a baseball game, those were people that were brought into your life or your car or your home and I thought that was a very romantic connection,” Kelley said.
Though he wasn’t the kid in the upper deck of Busch Stadium calling the action on the field, he was the one staying up late on summer nights listening to Cards games in his room.
“I did the whole transistor radio under your pillow listening to games when the Cardinals were out West,” Kelley recalls.
Yet, he tried to tamp down his first love, heading to Northeast Missouri State where he planned on majoring in finance.
“That lasted until Christmas,” he said. “No. 1 I wouldn’t have been any good at it and No. 2, I just was kidding myself as to not go after what I really wanted to do.”
The Long Road
So, he worked at a Top 40 radio station while at N.E. Missouri State, interrupting the music once an hour to do a weather forecast.
Kelley transferred to Southern Illinois University where his radio career began in earnest, finagling his way into a sports gig at a rock station in Carbondale, Ill.
“All that was was a way to get credentials,” he remembered. “Got credentials for college games and high school games. I did that at night and went to school during the days.”
That, in turn, led to a job at a news-talk station in Columbia, Mo., where he was asked to do sports for the station part time. But there was one catch to the move.
“Thankfully my very loving wife was working radio sales at the time,” Kelley said. “We went almost as a package deal. She was willing to put up with me making $12,000 a year to see where it would go.”
Where it went was much more than part time. He called Missouri baseball games. He called play-by-play for high school football games. He worked his way up to sports director and began doing pregame and postgame duties for Missouri football.
And then the Tulane job opened up.
“I felt like if I could get in the club, then I could advance,” Kelley said. “You can’t really get the big job unless you get in this Division I club. The problem was the job didn’t pay a whole lot. The first year down here my wife worked a full-time job and on my days off, I washed golf carts at Beau Chene Country Club. When I wasn’t doing Tulane, I was at the cart barn at the golf course.”
Eventually, the Hornets found Kelley, bringing him on Tulane off nights to host the studio show before enrolling him as the full-time radio voice in 2005.
But even then Kelley felt the pull to do more, to be someone who helped out the community he lived in.
“He brought (fire fighting) up before and I initially panicked because we had two small children and I didn’t want him to give up chasing his dream as a broadcaster,” Kim Kelley said.
Though the bug was planted, Kelley couldn’t move on it just yet. It would take another 12 or 13 years before he could fulfill that dream.
Catching The Bug Again
Fifteen months ago, Kelley was helping coach at American Legion baseball game in Madisonville, La., when he noticed two fire engines nearby.
“I was like, man, I wonder if they’d be willing to give me information on being a volunteer,” Kelley said.
|A Goodbee Fire Department truck sits ready for use in an emergency. Pelicans radio play-by-play announcer Sean Kelley works with the District 13 group on the Northshore on off days. (Photo courtesy Sean Kelley)|
They were and they did, telling him about a volunteer meeting on the first Tuesday of every month.
But unlike the others interested in volunteering, Kelley’s schedule was hectic. As the radio play-by-play voice of the Pelicans, his job includes copious amounts of travel at odd intervals during the year. He basically only had the offseason to learn and train to be a firefighter.
His tough schedule hardly made those in the fire department blink twice.
“At any given scene there are 400 things that have to be done and we need bodies,” Kelley recalled being told. “I said this is perfect. I can get into this and find my place in the fire service.”
His place has quickly become fully involved thanks to the internet. LSU offers a course that allows entry into other parts of the firefighting profession. And he could study for the Firefighter 1 test while flying from city to city with the then-Hornets.
He also relied on the professional firefighters while spending time at the firehouse when he wasn’t traveling with the NBA team.
“Every time I’d go to work at the fire department as a volunteer, the paid guys, the career guys, were always great about training. They never ever were annoyed at any question,” Kelley said. “… That was one of the things that kept sucking me in. There was no, ‘Well, you’re just a volunteer.’ Or no, ‘Look, I’ve been working all day and I don’t want to teach you or train.’
“They kept teaching almost as if they were as excited as I was at going through the process.”
Kelley took his test and his chief, Lonnie Johnson, said he received a 100.
Impressing Those Around Him
The longer Kelley fights fires, the more he understands just how impressive those who do it for a living are at it.
But talk to those who know Kelley and you realize quickly that his impact is just as impressive.
“I think just by nature, the closer you are to a situation the less you kind of look at it with awe,” Kim Kelley said. “But stepping back, he’s a really cool guy for wanting to do some of the things he does. Whether it be for broadcasting or with firefighting, he has always had a heart that wants what he’s doing, whether it be in a booth or at a fire scene, he wants it to matter.”
And he focuses on everything at once, missing nothing that he has dedicated himself to. In addition to his radio job, he also has taken on a larger presence with the Saints, being a part of the preseason TV crew as a sideline reporter in addition to hosting the Black and Blue Report, a new online radio show.
“He kept his schedule and I didn’t even know he was a firefighter until he walked into my office one day,” said Greg Bensel, Vice President of Communications for the Saints and Pelicans, adding about the firefighting, “It doesn’t affect us at all. It’s a fantastic thing. Mr. (Tom) Benson, when he heard about it, he was pretty thrilled to find out there’s a guy who is a public servant, who is a first responder. It’s pretty neat. It’s definitely unique.”
Said Johnson, the fire chief, “For someone in his profession to come and say, ‘Hey, I want to volunteer and give back to the community,’ that is fantastic.”
Not About Being Unique
But this isn’t a story about being unique. Not for Kelley, who spent much of the past year keeping his second job to himself.
|The helmet and jacket Sean Kelley wears when he's working with the District 13 fire department on the Northshore. (Photo courtesy Sean Kelley)|
He was hesitant, in fact, to have anything written about it. He didn’t want to take away from those he worked with, those who fight fires on a daily basis and aren’t in the spotlight.
To him, they’re the heroes. They’re the ones working two jobs just to make ends meet because firefighters aren’t paid so well. They’re the ones “showing up on somebody’s worst day” on a consistent basis to help out.
“The men and women who do this as their full-time career, the amount of training and sacrifice that goes into what they do, I don’t think most folks know what it entails,” Kelley said.
They can’t do it alone, however, especially in places like District 13, which covers parts of the Northshore. That district isn’t alone. Other than the big departments, like New Orleans or Jefferson Parish or Mandeville and Slidell, areas are covered by small companies filled with volunteers.
And that’s where Kelley said he hopes his story will help out.
“You don’t have to spend a whole year training and achieving Firefighter 1,” Kelley said. “You can become a volunteer at a minimal level and there are things you can do that are a huge help without going all in.”
He later added, “When you work in a small department like District 13, sometimes you’re a one-man band. There’s three stations in the district and two of the three stations are manned by one full-time firefighter at all times. When you’re that guy at that station, you drive the engine, you’re first on the scene, you’re maintaining the station and all the gear.”
Make no mistake, though. Kelley is fully aware of just how unique his situation is.
“There is something cool about you’re interviewing NFL players and coaches or you’re getting off of a private chartered jet after an NBA road trip and the next day you’ve got a helmet and bunker gear on and you’re driving a fire engine,” he said. “That’s pretty crazy if you stand back and think about it for a second. But that’s kind of just who I am. That would seem odd to somebody else. That seems perfectly normal to me. So, I guess that makes me a little nuts. I kind of like that.
“I kind of like that.”