The worst day of Deke Bellavia’s professional life also probably saved it.
Bellavia’s rambling, confused state during WWL Radio’s postgame show following the Saints’ 24-23 loss to Detroit on Oct. 19 concerned listeners so much that 18 of them made 911 calls, trying to alert somebody that something was wrong.
And it was: He was having a mild stroke on the air, as it turned out. It was diagnosed and treated early enough that it didn’t turn into something with more severe consequences.
As it was, Bellavia was off the air for two weeks and didn’t return to full status for another two.
“I was in a fog, talking about roaches on the wall or something like that,” said Bellavia, now fully recovered, although his beloved Amite Warriors’ 43-14 loss to Livonia in Saturday’s Class 3A state championship game probably didn’t do him any good. “(Broadcasting mate Bobby Hebert) had to keep correcting me from saying that the Saints had won. I knew I was embarrassing myself and letting a lot of people down.”
Spoken like someone who considers his position — sports director at WWL and host of the station’s Saints and LSU wraparound and coaches shows, Sports Talk on weekday afternoons and, until this year, Friday night high school football coverage — a treasured legacy handed down from Hap Glaudi and Buddy Diliberto.
A public trust, if you will, of mangled syntax, including Hebert’s unique observations.
“Sometimes when I get excited, Deke has to translate for me,” the Cajun Cannon said. “That’s why I’m just a conversationalist and Deke’s a journalist. But I look on all of us — Deke, Buddy and all the way back to Hap — as being the voice of the people.”
And to Bellavia, the possibility of not being able to be that voice anymore was his worst fear when doctors at Tulane Lakeside Hospital told him what had happened.
WWL might not require its sports hosts to meet what might be considered sophisticated broadcasting standards, but you’ve at least got to be understood.
“It was the first thing I thought of,” he said. “That’s what happens to a lot of people who have strokes. I was very fortunate it didn’t for me.”
But then again, Bellavia considers where he is as the greatest possible fortune.
It took him 10 years after graduating from Amite to get through college, with stops at Southeastern, Southern, Louisiana-Lafayette and finally LSU while working at WABL in Amite. And while Bellavia considered English his favorite subject both in high school and college, his teachers back at Amite High probably cringe when they hear their town’s most famous native son (although he’s yet to get his own Wikipedia entry) say “ain’t” on the air and offer up other grammatical faux pas.
Plus, there was his appearance. Bellavia topped out at 375 pounds before having gastric bypass surgery in 2008.
Now, with an unasked-for assist from gall bladder surgery that followed the stroke, he’s down to a svelte 203 pounds. (“I haven’t been this small since middle school,” he said.) Combine that with a new haircut, and he’s almost unrecognizable.
“I’m never going to be on ESPN,” he said. “I don’t think any TV station would hire me. I belong on the radio.”
And he belongs in Amite as well.
Bellavia still lives in his hometown in northern Tangipahoa Parish with wife Richelle and daughters Emma, 6, and Jackie, 4 — plus “all of my people, and I don’t just mean my family.” He considers the 70-minute drive to the WWL studios time well spent because he can clear his head for the day’s work ahead.
On the air, Bellavia manages to juggle host duties such as sending segments to commercials, arranging and conducting a wide range of interview subjects and handling call-ins, most of which are from fans wanting to vent, even if things are going well.
“LSU fans grade rough,” he said. “And for them, it all comes down to how they do against Alabama because of (Nick) Saban, and they don’t accept losing to anybody very well. Saints fans are a little more lenient because they remember the Super Bowl, but the statute of limitations is running out. It takes us an hour to get to the call-ins after the game and, when they lose, the callers start lining up 45 minutes before we can get to them.”
It’s being able to get back to talking to those sometimes-distraught callers that Bellavia is especially grateful for these days.
Naturally, his family, plus Bobby, Joan and T-Bob Hebert and WWL’s Diane Newman, Steven Geller, Kristian Garic and Butch Landry receive gratitude for their support.
But Bellavia also has a special place in his heart for the station’s vast listening audience.
“I’ve had so many people tell me how glad they are to have me back,” he said. “But it’s the ones who have come up to me and given me a hug even though I didn’t know them that have really gotten me emotional. They feel good when their team wins and bad when they lose, but they always consider you family.”
Well said, Big Chief.
And welcome back.