The last time they talked on July 1, Paul Sponheimer had called Bob Kelo to wish him a happy 60th birthday. Late Sunday morning, he left Kelo a more somber text.
The text would be left unanswered.
“Mike Briggs, who played for me, his dad died,” Sponheimer, the retired long-time football coach at Seymour High School, said Monday. “Bobby and Mike were very good friends. They played together in high school. So I texted him at 11:15. Little did I know four hours later I was going to get a call.”
Kelo’s neighbors in Fort Myers, Fla., hadn’t seen him in recent days. His car hadn’t moved. A wellness check was done out of concern.
Bob Kelo was found dead at home.
“He was a legend in Seymour,” said Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, whose 105th District includes the town. “He was a role model as a teacher and especially as a coach.”
“Not only did Seymour lose a legend, the entire Valley did,” said Jason Southard, Coast Guard assistant athletic director for media relations. “He was a great guy.”
A check of social media showed words of condolences from up and down the Naugatuck Valley amplifying their words.
Sponheimer coached Seymour football for 29 years before retiring in 2008, winning 210 games, four state titles and seven league titles. At his side, was an imaginative, head-strong offensive coordinator.
“As far as any success I had in football, I can only share it with Bob,” Sponheimer said. “He was the only constant with me all the time.
“To me, he wasn’t a coach. He was a brother. When we left the office, we didn’t just leave each other. My daughters, they called him uncle Bobby.”
On Sunday, it would be Sponheimer’s task to notify Kelo’s mom Jackie and sister Debbie in Virginia of his passing.
“That was not an easy call,” Sponheimer said softly. “Sunday was a very long day.”
Kelo was a terrific offensive coordinator, to be sure. And he was much more than that. He was a terrific baseball coach who amassed a 438-241 record over 30 years, winning the Class M state championship in 2007, while reaching five other state finals and 11 semifinals. Kelo twice was named New Haven Register’s Area Coach of the Year.
“He was all about the kids,” Sponheimer said. “Not just with football and baseball, he was a phenomenal teacher. A math teacher, who helped so many people, males and females, on the math part of SATs. He was always there the extra hours. He didn’t tutor people, but he tutored people. It wasn’t for dollars. He wanted kids to do better.”
Kelo was tough. And he had a soft heart. He was disciplined when it mattered. And he lived life to the fullest. That’s how legends are born in small Valley towns and that’s how they remain legends. Sponheimer met Kelo when he was a junior at Seymour High. He had returned home as an assistant coach and Kelo was on the football team.
“I started picking him up, going by his house, if he was going late and missed the bus,” Sponheimer said. “It became a ritual, bringing him to school. His sister wasn’t far behind. Debbie was Seymour’s first All-State softball player.
“Bob became a volunteer with me when he coached the Pop Warner team and was going to college. I knew the family basically through the fire department. His dad was a big fireman. Bobby’s whole family would come and spend Christmas with my family at my house.
Kelo’s dad Bob, who retired as a lieutenant after 27 years in Hamden and was chief of Citizen’s Engine Company No. 2 in Seymour, passed in 2016
“Yeah, we go deep,” Sponheimer said. “Deep and far.”
Southard likes to say he was Kelo’s sports information director before he even knew what a SID was.
“He took me in as a freshman,” said Southard, who has been at Coast Guard for a quarter century. “I hung out with a lot of athletes, wasn’t a very good athlete, but they were all my friends. Coach Kelo found out I knew how to do a scorebook.”
Kelo was freshman basketball coach as well as varsity baseball. So it started there and before Southard knew it he was Kelo’s baseball guy. Kelo introduced him to Sponheimer. He became Sponheimer’s football guy. He did the scorebook. He did the stats. He called the New Haven Register and Hartford Courant with results. He wrote articles for the old Evening Sentinel.
“I just saw coach Kelo in March,” Southard said. “He’d be introducing me to people he knows from Florida and was still joking that I was the one guy who didn’t play for him but was the only guy he could never replace.”
Then he’d give the distinctive Kelo laugh.
“He was such a positive influence on so many young people at Seymour,” Southard said. “I never played for him, so he was never really hard on me, but he demanded a lot of his players. He’d bust their chops to make them better. He could be a hard ass. But once you graduated, he was your buddy. He was your guy.”
Serious. Smart. Demanding. Very demanding. Those were the words Sponheimer used to describe Kelo as a coach.
“I can still hear him,” Sponheimer said. “‘OK, let’s do it again. We tried it your way. How about trying it my way?’ With a few other choice words thrown in.”
As deep as they bonded off the field, the two didn’t talk much after kickoff.
“When there was a 4th-and-1 was about the only time he talked to me on the field,” Sponheimer said. “Otherwise he was running the (offensive) show. Fourth-and-1, he’d go, ‘Big guy, what are we doing?’ I’d say, ‘You got something, right?’ He’d go, ‘You know the answer to that.’”
Kelo had something.
“Whether it was the fake where we would get under center, but wouldn’t really get under center … there was something,” Sponheimer said. “He loved to throw the ball. He thought running an option was throwing the ball, which was a good thing as far as I was concerned. I like to shorten the game as much as possible.
“When we were on offense, I’d pay mostly attention to the offensive line. He’d correct lineman, wide receivers, running backs and quarterback. All 11 guys. I’d be like, how did he see everything? It was because he knew exactly where people should be when the play ended. If they weren’t, he’d say what are you doing?”
As far as folks wondering aloud why the Wildcats were or weren’t throwing the ball, Sponheimer swears Kelo wore headphones only so he didn’t hear anybody else.
“I stopped wearing headphones,” Sponheimer said. “He wasn’t listening anyway.”
The discipline, the aggressive style of play, that carried over to baseball.
“Their socks were going to be a certain way,” Sponheimer said. “Their uniform was going to be a certain way. He had people scouting before it was really widespread. Just as he liked aggressively throwing the ball down field, if he knew a pitcher or catcher weren’t holding a runner on, his boys were off and running.
“If you screwed up mentally on the field, you almost wished there wasn’t a third out. You knew you had to go back in the dugout and face him. He had a voice that bellowed from the third base coach’s box at French Park. People two streets away knew when Seymour had a home game.”
After Sponheimer retired from football, Kelo initially did the same, but went back as an assistant at Oxford High for a few years. He retired as baseball coach the same spring in 2015 that he left teaching. Kelo moved to Florida.
“Coast Guard (baseball) goes to Fort Myers for spring break and he’d call me in January to find out when was my off day,” Southard said.
Southard’s classmate Justin Tanner, who played football and baseball for Kelo, would come over from Orlando and the three would enjoy their time together.
“Let’s me tell you, coach Kelo knew the spots,” Southard said. “He knew where to go. He knew every bartender, every waitress.”
Kelo’s last game as coach was at the other end of the state on May 30, 2015. Seymour was eliminated, 2-0, from a Class M play-in game in Killingly. Southard, who lives in Montville, made sure he was there.
“I knew it could be his last game,” Southard said. “That’s my guy … Sunday was such a sad day, terrible news. First thing I thought when I heard was, ‘Oh man, how is coach Sponheimer doing?’ They were so close.”
“Bob wasn’t someone with needs and wants,” Sponheimer said. “He had a pair of shoes, he was happy. Happiness was an important part of him. He was a happy person. He enjoyed life. He lived, OK? He lived until the time the Big Guy took him and there will never be another Bobby Kelo.”
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