By Matthew Florjancic
Sometimes, all a person needs to do is dream.
WKYC Sports Anchor Jim Donovan always dreamed of being a sportscaster like the ones he grew up listening to and emulating in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts.
And through the nurturing of his father and an intense drive to succeed mixed with a passion for sports, Donovan has been living out his dream for more than 30 years, a career that will be honored at the 16th annual Greater Cleveland Sports Awards Thursday night.
STARTING WITH A DREAM
Donovan’s journey to the top of his profession started long before he ever moved to Cleveland. In fact, it started with a dream growing up in his hometown of Boston, where he and his father, Jim Donovan Jr., had season tickets to the Bruins’ hockey games, and a Christmas wish for a tape recorder.
“At first, when they gave me a tape recorder, I was doing the games off the television set and I turned the volume down, but I realized I didn’t have the crowd and I didn’t know if my timing was right,” Donovan said. “My dad was a real sport, and I lugged a big tape recorder to Section 77, Row F, Seat 13 at The Garden and I would call the Bruins’ games, and then, I would send it out, all the cassette tapes to all of the sportscasters, all the play-by-play guys, and I would ask them their opinion of what I was doing.
“I would go to Boston Garden, and I would go for Celtics games and everything, and as much as I admired the guys on the floor or on the ice, I would always look up into the broadcast booths and say, ‘God, that would be the greatest job in the world to be able to do the games at Boston Garden or in a broadcast booth.’ I just had an incredible desire to keep doing it.”
Donovan says the inspiration to get into broadcasting came from hearing the calls of legendary Boston sportscasters Johnny Most (Celtics), Fred Cusick and Bob Wilson (Bruins), Gil Santos (New England Patriots) and Curt Gowdy, Ken Coleman and Ned Martin (Red Sox), and it has driven him ever since.
“Each team had a legendary guy doing play-by-play, so I was always exposed to it, and I sound old now, but it was not the age where every game was on television,” Donovan said. “In fact, very few were on television, so you listened to the games on the radio, and these guys were just masters. They really were, and they all had different styles. When I would go to the Boston Garden, I decided that I really wanted to get the feel of what it was like to do the games.”
JOURNEY TO CLEVELAND
After graduating from Boston University, Donovan started his career as a sports director for WJON Radio in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where he also did play-by-play and sports anchoring for WVMT Radio and WEZF-TV.
From there, Donovan moved onto Burlington, Vermont, where he was Satellite New Channel’s play-by-play announcer for basketball and hockey games. Also, Donovan was the play-by-play announcer for the Vermont Reds, a minor-league affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
When Donovan moved to Cleveland, he thought it might be the big-city experience necessary to eventually return to Boston. However, at Channel 3, Donovan not only served as the sports anchor for the nightly newscasts, but also, was an NBC announcer for the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, and Atlanta, Georgia, respectively.
In addition, Donovan broadcasted World Cup games for ESPN in 1994, regional NFL games for NBC from 1987-1997, and was a television play-by-play announcer for 20 Cleveland Indians baseball games from 2006-2008.
After getting several opportunities to build on his accomplishments, Donovan, an Emmy-winning sportscaster who served as the national host of the Soap Box Derby and Cleveland Marathon, settled his family in Cleveland and never looked back.
“Really, as a kid growing up in Boston, I always thought that I would have to leave Boston after school and go out and kind of earn my way to get back to Boston, and to be quite honest, that was always my goal, to get back to Boston and get a job and be back home,” Donovan said.
“It was very important to me. In my early years here, I was along that road that, ‘All signs point to if there’s an opening in Boston, I can go back there.’ I don’t know what happened. I signed a couple of contracts here and got great opportunities here. Channel 3 gave me great opportunities. It opened up a road for me to get to NBC Sports and do football and the Olympics and a number of other fun events.
“Channel 3 gave me an opportunity to do Browns preseason games, and the opportunities that Cleveland gave to me were just amazing, and then, it really kind of clicked at some point. People really took me in, and leaving Cleveland really never entered my mind all that much.”
BECOMING VOICE OF THE BROWNS
Another unforgettable opportunity came Donovan’s way in the mid-1990s when the NFL announced the Browns were returning to Cleveland as an expansion franchise in 1999 after the original team moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens in 1996.
Following several rounds of auditions, Donovan was named the Browns’ radio play-by-play voice.
“I really always wanted to be the voice of a team,” Donovan said. “When I took the TV job, I was really worried that I had taken the wrong route because I was taking myself away from what I really wanted to do. I really wanted to do play-by-play, but it was good money, it was a good job and I was hoping it would open up other opportunities, but there was no guarantee, so I was really kind of worried about that.
“When the Browns left, I was still doing a lot of games on NBC at the time, doing regional games, and then, when the announcement came that they would be back in three years’ time, I kind of said to myself, ‘I think this is the chance to live out that dream of becoming the play-by-play voice of a team,’ and imagine, to become the play-by-play voice of the Cleveland Browns.
“I just constantly, for three years, zeroed in on that. I would go to local college games and take a tape recorder and call the games. NBC would send me tapes of Notre Dame, and I would take it into a studio, put it up on a video board and call the game so that I could keep my rhythm. It was destination give it all, go all out to try and get the Browns job. It was an incredible feeling when it all fell into place.”
After wanting to be like the broadcasters he looked up to at Fenway Park and Boston Garden, Donovan will take his place among the best to have ever plied their trade in Cleveland, as he will be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards Thursday night.
A 31-year veteran Cleveland sportscaster, Donovan will be presented with the award.
“When I first came to Cleveland, I would’ve never thought I would’ve been here 31 years,” Donovan said. “I was thinking 31 days to be quite honest with you because I really didn’t know a great deal about doing television at the time.
“I was doing a lot of radio. I didn’t know that I could actually do the job. I knew the stakes were very high. There was a lot of turnover at Channel 3 at the time, so I didn’t know I was going to make it 31 days, believe it or not, but it’s a real honor.
“When you come from out of town and you come into a city, sometimes, you only think you’re going to be there a couple of years at best, and so, to be here 31 years and have everything that’s happened to me here in Cleveland, it’s just really amazing.”
Follow Frank Macek on Twitter @frankmacekwkyc