NAPLES — When Joe Klimas arrived on Marco Island in 1974, it was to assist in the development of the city’s first youth center.
But his love of sports changed his direction. Over the next 39 years he would become the voice of sports for generations of area athletes as a TV and radio broadcaster.
Due to illness, Klimas, 74, is retiring. His last and only football broadcast of the year will be the Coconut Bowl between Naples at Lely on Nov. 2.
Klimas, who has been battling lung cancer for four years, dubbed the game his “Farewell to Football 2012,” and said that vision problems and climbing bleachers to the press boxes will keep him from broadcasting, though he didn’t rule out doing some basketball games this winter.
But regardless of what the future holds, Klimas has left an indelible mark on the sports scene in Southwest Florida.
A UCONN MAN
Klimas first caught the sports bug as a top high school athlete in Branford, Conn. He starred in football, basketball and baseball.
He played quarterback and defensive back for the University of Connecticut in his freshman year in 1955. Saying he became disenchanted with school, Klimas joined the Navy for a four-year hitch.
Klimas returned to UConn in 1960, playing football two more seasons, this time as the team’s quarterback, punter and kicker.
In 1962 he joined the Indianapolis Warriors in the United Football League as a quarterback and punter. He also played on two minor-league football teams, but there wasn’t much money in pro football in those days.
He joined the Branford Parks & Recreation staff, which led him to Manchester, N.H., to take part in its recreation department and its Model Cities program. His experiences led to an offer to join the Marco Island Youth Center in its infant stages.
JOE GOES ON THE AIR
The Marco position just wasn’t the right fit, Klimas said, so he joined the WRGI-FM station in Naples in August 1974 to do morning sports. He did his first football game when Lely traveled to Key West High School.
“That’s when I got my first scolding,” he remembers. “I kept calling the Key West team the ‘Conches,’ instead of Conchs.”
He moved to WNOG/AM 1260 and Palmer Cable Television in 1976 where for 15 years he did tape-delayed television broadcasts for football games in Collier and Lee counties, along with a nightly sports segment on the 6 p.m. news. His popular Joe Klimas Sports Center television show included a popular segment, “I Klobbered Klimas.”
“On Monday I would announce my NFL picks for the coming week, then the viewing audience had all week to make their choices,” he said. “Those who beat me got an ‘I Klobbered Klimas’ T-shirt. We saw quite a few of those shirts around town. That was really the point, it was a great promo.”
His daughters, Kerri and Kristi, picked against him, even though they weren’t football fans yet.
“That’s how Kristi became a Seattle Seahawks fan,” Klimas recalled. “She picked the Seahawks three weeks in a row and beat me each time. From then on she was a football fan. She loves to tell that story.”
KLIMAS AND MILLER TEAM UP
From television, Klimas moved back to radio with WSGL-FM and WCNZ-AM to continue broadcasting high school football and basketball games of the week with longtime friend and color commentator Troy Miller. Last year they even broadcast their games over the internet on swflalocalnews.com.
Miller and Klimas teamed up in 1987 to do the football games on cable TV. They continued on with radio broadcasts. Miller was the producer.
“1987, what a beginning,” Miller said. “I came from down from Indiana and Joe was one of the first people I met. I remember thinking before I got here that ‘I hope I get a legend.’ And I did.”
It was a good thing they hit it off because Miller said, “I have been married for 19 years and I’ve had more Friday nights out with Joe than my wife.”
Lely High was the big gun in area football in 1987. The Trojans went all the way to the state championship game, which was played at Lely against Live Oak-Suwannee.
“By the end of the football season we were using three cameras and excited about covering the game.” Miller recalled. “With coach Merv Ward, Lely beat teams it wasn’t supposed to, but fell to a bigger and faster Suwannee.”
Miller summed up his thoughts of Klimas, saying, “He’s just a good man, has a good heart and is all about the kids. Joe believed that sports was a firm way to build character.”
INTERVIEWING BIG STARS
In the 1980s. Klimas snared interviews with some of the best boxers in the world after an invitation from Jay Edson and Bob Arum of “Top Rank Boxing” to do interviews at Las Vegas boxing extravaganzas. They included fights between “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler against Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard against Roberto Duran, Leonard against Hearns and Tommy Morrison against George Foreman.
“It was a real honor to cover the Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fight,” Klimas said.
It was not the “No Más” fight where Duran gave in, but the fight Duran won. On June 20, 1980, Duran captured the WBC welterweight title by defeating Leonard in a 15-round unanimous decision. The fight would become known as the “Brawl in Montreal.” In November 1980, Leonard took his title back in the “No Más” fight when Duran shockingly quit fighting in the eighth round.
In the hey days of Marco Island and the Mackle Brothers of Deltona Corp., Klimas was on the scene for the Tony Lema Memorial Charity Golf Tournament, which drew tour players, athletes and celebrities to the Marco Island Golf and Country Club, now the Island Country Club.
Lema, a tour golfer who won the 1964 British Open, had been representing the club for a year when he died at age 32 in a plane crash.
From 1967, for two days every year for 14 years, it was a VIP party.
Terry Bradhsaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers, golfers Miller Barber and Arnold Palmer, baseball’s Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford and singer Perry Como, to name a few, chatted with Klimas.
Daughter Kerri was one of 14 youth caddies who carried stunt man Evel Knievel’s golf clubs. Each carried one club.
Some of the top players in the world were on hand for the first and only Beau Venturi Home Golf Outing in 1999 to raise money for a new home for the Shelter For Abused Women of Collier County. It was put on in memory of Ken Venturi’s wife, Beau.
Venturi, who lived on Marco Island at the time, was the 1964 U.S. Open champion, longtime CBS Sports golf analyst and re-designer of the Eagle Creek layout. He shared the limelight with Marco’s 97-year-old Gene Sarazen, the first golfer to ever win all four majors. Sarazen too supported the Naples shelter through the Gene and Mary Sarazen Foundation.
The event reached its goal of $1 million.
Friend Jim Nantz, who remains a top commentator, was on hand to announce the players as they came to the first tee at Eagle Creek Country Club.
“Golfers Greg Norman and Nick Price landed by helicopter on the driving range,” said Klimas, who also has been the voice of the Ace Group Classic Champions Tour event for its entire 25-year run in Naples.
Over his career Klimas “gave back” every chance he got.
“He served as an announcer for just about any charitable event,” wife Barb said. He joined Vin DePasquale for the Great Dock Canoe Race for the past 36 years, hosted the “Waiter-Waitress Race” at the Taste of Collier for 15 years, Christmas in Cambier Park, Southwest Florida Junior Golf and the late Stan Gober’s annual cancer fundraiser in Goodland.
He takes particular pride in the Southwest Florida Golf Charities, its first president of the Bill Owen Classic.
In its 20th and last year in 2009 the charity surpassed its goal to raise $1 million, topping it by $300,000. It was started as a means to raise funds for county high school golf programs, then it added scholarships. The event advanced to helping many local charitable organizations, including the Beau Venturi Home and Avow Hospice.
“It really was Irv Sherwood who deserves the credit for its success,” Klimas said. “He did an outstanding job and I was glad to play a role in its success.”
Klimas not only served on the board, he was the master or ceremonies of the awards dinner each year and often did interviews.
“Joe was always faithful, came to all meetings,” Sherwood said. “The fact that he and Barbara were very good friends of the Venturis eased the path to ask Ken for a favor or two.”
Barbara worked for Ken Venturi as his assistant for 27 years, many of those while Venturi was a golf commentator for CBS.
“Barbara is a very special person to me,” said Venturi, who now lives in California. “We worked together for 27 years and watched the (Klimas) children grow up.”
With the right breaks, Venturi thinks Klimas could have gone a long way in broadcasting.
“Joe was very fair to players, to the (golf) game and very knowledgeable of the sport. I enjoyed his voice, it was great for sports. I feel if he had gotten the right breaks he could have gone a long way.”
Klimas has also served as a member of the Winged Foot Scholar-Athlete Award selection committee since its inception in 1990.
“I really like that we are able to recognize student athletes from all the high schools (in Collier County),” Klimas said.
Klimas says of himself, “What you see is what you get.”
Apparently Barbara Heinonen liked what she saw. On their first date, July 2, 1967, they agreed to get married. And they did, on Dec. 2, 1967.
Barbara is proud to say that her husband made sure athletes of varying abilities were recognized on his radio and TV shows.
“He recognized as many kids as he could,” she said. “It wasn’t just the stars. He’s even done some of their grandkids. They still call him Mr. Klimas.”