Former UConn player finds new game on the air

By TERESE KARMEL
Willimantic Chronicle Features Editor
April 2, 2005

 
Colleen Healy

   She was a small kid from a small town, but against all odds, pushed herself, took risks and by any standards, finally hit the big time.

   Many of you probably recognized her voice this past season on WILI-AM and WTIC-AM radio broadcasts of UConn women's basketball games, where Colleen Healy relied on her depth of knowledge, playing experience and her Irish wit to add color commentary to Joe D'Ambrosio's play-by-play.

   Sometimes her humor, which has been her greatest asset since the early days in Mrs. Buckland's finance class at St. Mary's School, got listeners through the dark times. Other times, her analysis helped them understand that perhaps this year was not going to be a mirror image of past UConn women's basketball triumphs.

   At any rate, no one - not even Colleen Healy, herself - would have predicted she'd end up as one of the top sales people and speakers for Merck & Co. as well as broadcasting women's games, based on her early days as a kid trying to find a niche in the rough and tumble world of Willimantic.

   "A lot of people doubted me," she said. "But it made me even more hungry to show people anybody can do what they want. Just because I was a kid from Willimantic, I was no dumb jock. I was determined."

   If the women's team had repeated its past three years of glory, Healy would be in Indianapolis broadcasting the Final Four. 

   WTIC had decided to go with Healy (former player Kara Wolters also did some commentary) until the end, a decision which indicated a measure of her improvement from the early games when she said she made way too many mistakes.

   Her broadcasting partners, D'Ambrosio, announcer Bob Joyce and WILI-AM radio personality Wayne Norman, who does the statistics and is also a Willimantic guy, were tough on her but it only made her better.

   "I began to feel like 'one of the guys,' just like growing up in Willimantic with the fellas I played baseball with: Bob Turner, Robby Larned, Alex Coriarty, Kevin Young, Timmy Strand.'"

   Healy said if the UConn women had made it to the Final Four, she would have felt honored to do "color" for the greatest tournament in women's sports.

   "Perhaps next year," she said.

   Healy's most recent connection with UConn is her second involvement with the college down the road from her Willimantic home.

   In 1994, she graduated cum laude with a communications major.  But her route to the degree was far more circuitous than to the radio gig, which she got hooked up with from a suggestion by the UConn Division of Athletics.

   After graduating in 1989 from Windham High School where she starred in both softball and basketball, she accepted a full scholarship at the University of New Haven, a Division II school. After a semester, she knew it wasn't the right spot for her, so she quit school.

   "I drove home in the middle of a snowstorm and my car died on the highway," she recalled of that journey back to her parents' High Street home.

   When she arrived home, she was not greeted in the holiday spirit. "My mom went off on me and that sent me upstairs crying," Healy said.

    Later when she talked to her dad and suggested she might work for a while, his reaction was swift and to the point: "If you go to work, you'll never get back into school."

   Her father did what he could to make sure she stayed in college by calling Eastern Connecticut State University softball coach Jeff Anderson.

   "The next day, she registered at Eastern and that afternoon, she was practicing basketball," John Healy said. In spring 1990, she helped the softball team win a Division III national championship.

   Several men have had profound influences on the life of Colleen Healy.

   Her father, and her older brother, Chris, also an athlete, are two; Anderson, the beloved Eastern softball coach who died of cancer at 33, is a third.

   "Willimantic is a tough, broken down factory town," said Healy, who now lives in Cromwell. "Jeff Anderson gave me a chance. He always told me to make the most of my life."

   But Healy wasn't satisfied being a big fish in a little pond. After a semester at Eastern, she told her dad of the next rung on her ladder of dreams, to go to UConn and play Division I basketball.

   His first reaction was to question her sanity but then after thinking it over, told her "If you think you can make that team ... if you don't give it a try, you'll second guess yourself the rest of your life."

   And so once again, he threw his support behind his daughter.

   But UConn was a team on the move and the chances were slim she'd earn a spot in a program that was stretching its long limbs throughout the country for top recruits.

   So she did the next best thing: she became the team manager. "So I did a lot of swallowing of my pride and filled water bottles for a year," she said.

   She had given up three years of eligibility in two sports at Eastern for this brass ring; she was going to stick it out and by hook or by crook, make it.

   Because she was friends with some players, she said, she always felt part of the team.

   As manager, she went to New Orleans for UConn's first Final Four in 1991, and experience so unexpected that she compared it to "a great big party."

    Her first success on the court, though modest, was as a walk-on, playing with UConn legends such as Rebecca Lobo [Rushin], Wendy Davis and Meghan Pattyson [Culmo].

   "We had 20 days of hard practice. I kept coming and changing into my uniform," she said.

    Healy stuck out her initial season in that role, barely playing.

   The next year she set her sights a little higher and then one fall day prior to the 1992-93 season, as she was walking into the training room, she passed women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma working out on the exercise bike.

   "'You need to go speak to (women's athletic director) Pat Babcock,'" he said.

   "'Oh, oh, I'm in trouble,'" she responded. "'No, you have to sign papers. It's a good thing,'" he said.

   Papers. To a walk-on athlete, that could only have meant one thing: a scholarship. 

   "At that point, I realized everything was worth it ... I can't thank coach enough. He really appreciated the underdog," Healy said.

   And for at least one season, Colleen Healy played on the team of her dreams.

   This past season, she was back with them in a different role, not as the backup who got into the game when the starters fouled out, but as a frontline voice of the Huskies.

   Her radio commentary has drawn praises from her colleagues.

   "She has been terrific this season," said D'Ambrosio. "She's adapted to radio really easily ... and as she became more comfortable, her personality has really begun to show. We have had terrific times working together and I hope she stays with it because she has a knack for doing the job."

   Norman also praised Healy - and the community that gave her a start.

   "She really brings the perspective of a former player," he said. "She's able to succinctly describe what teams and players are doing without getting too technical." 

   He's particularly proud of her "Windham connections," pointing out that in his role as the Colleen Healy for the men's games (also with D'Ambrosio), the UConn radio broadcasts have a strong local flavor.

   Healy brings the same sense of humor to her broadcasting job as she has to most things in her life.

   She recalled a moment during a UConn-Notre Dame game, on a freezing night in Storrs, when she gave incorrect half-time statistics.

   "Apparently my brain froze on the way to the game," she told her audience.

   "Because I cracked a joke, it may have made it better," she said. "Hey, I'm doing this for fun. I know I'm not a professional so when I make a mistake, I'm just being human."

   Personnel decisions about next season's broadcasts won't be made for several months, but Healy will certainly be in the running although she knows she'd better keep the day job.

   "I'm not looking for a career change ... this could never compensate for my job," she said. But to be behind the mike, to reach so many listeners from throughout the state and region is a plus for Healy and for her home community.

   "I'm proud that I'm from Willimantic," she said. "I like to speak about it as much as I can. When I lived there, I woke up with Wano," she said, referring to Norman's morning show. "He still mentions my birthday on the Birthday Club. I went to school with Ken Valliere," she said referring to the Windham girls basketball coach whose team just won a state championship.

   "A lot of kids who live in Willimantic don't know where they're going to end up. They're worried about opportunities," she said. "But they have to believe in themselves and be around the right people."

[Colleen was the first UConn walk on to be awarded a basketball scholarship by Coach Geno Auriemma] 

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