I am absolutely crushed to report tonight that a good friend is gone. Popular News-12 sports director Bill Gonillo was found dead at his home in Woodbridge this afternoon. He was 44 years old.
As of Sunday night, there was no word on the cause of death, although it must be noted that Bill was a diabetic.
I heard through email late Sunday night that News12 opened its 10 p.m. broadcast with an emotional announcement of Gonillo’s death. Stunned, I immediately called Mike Quick of the Madison Square Garden Network and News 12′s parent company of Cablevision, who confirmed the terrible news.
“As of 7:30 this afternoon,” Quick said. “Fairfield County sports changed forever. He was the best.”
I can’t bare to read or write these words.
I knew Gonillo for a little over 14 years, way back when I was a senior at Amity High School and an intern at Yale University’s sports information department. Back then, Gonillo was a young play-by-play announcer for Yale Football on WELI.
The University of Hartford graduate had worked for almost every other station in the state, doing his share of Whalers games and Celtics games.
But beginning in the late 1980s, he was mostly known for being one of the driving forces behind WELI’s now powerful high school football broadcasts and, of course, becoming the face of News 12 sports, where he had been the anchor for more than a decade.
Charismatic, jolly, affable, lovable. Bill was selfless to a fault, incapable of saying a bad word about anyone. That is, except for the many jabs he took at himself, be it for his often harried and slovenly appearance, his enormous waistline and his legendary inability to stray far from buffet tables.
(The running joke, of course, was that if you wanted Bill at your press conference, you’d better find a good caterer and lots of help).
Gonillo was all of these things. He was a character. And everybody who knew him loved him for who he was.
Above all else, it wasn’t a Connecticut high school sports event without Gonillo in attendance. For more than 20 years, he tirelessly covered young athletes from all over Fairfield and New Haven counties.
Billy on his way out of DeLuca Stadium off to another assignment
A typical Bill afternoon would be showing up to a game lugging his massive News 12 camera on his right shoulder (and a hot dog in his left hand). While chatting with everybody he met on the way in, Bill would try to catch some quick highlights then jet out of there to hit two or three more games on his way back to his office in Norwalk.
If you were playing a game somewhere on his route home, Bill would stop to get a few clips. Guaranteed.
That wasn’t the most amazing part.
Somehow, with mere minutes left to airtime, Bill would burst into the News 12 offices, simultaneously splice together the highlights, call all the newspapers to get all the final scores and slip on a shirt, tie and jacket so he could make himself presentable for the thousands who tuned in to see the sports video they couldn’t get anywhere else. What you didn’t see was that Bill was wearing mustard-stained shorts and sneakers beneath that desk.
I remember thinking I was big time when Gonillo called the Connecticut Post office to get scores from me. I would kid him all the time for leaving me in Woodbridge back in 1993 when I was supposed to hitch a ride with him to cover a Yale-Princeton football game.
Just a week ago, I was all fired up about heading to my first high school football game of the season. I called the one person who I knew would be as fired up as me: Gonillo.
Of course, Bill never picked up his cell phone so I had to wait for his callback.
“Where are you going?” I asked him.
“Oh, I’m going over to the Fairfield Prep game at Wilbur Cross,” Gonillo said.
“Awright, Bill! I’ll be there, too. I can’t wait to see ya,” I exclaimed, and I meant it. He was one of those people who so personable he just made work a happy place. I was thrilled whenever I could share the sidelines with him. It just made a great day better.
“Bill,” I said, frowning. “Why are you coming all the way to New Haven? What are you nuts???”
“I’ve got to get Fairfield Prep highlights and then hit Milford on my way back to the office,” Gonillo said. “Throw this together and go on the air, and then head over to the Central-Greenwich game.
“I know. I’m crazy.”
When I arrived at Wilbur Cross I met Quick on the sidelines and told him Gonillo was en route. Sure enough, Gonillo came sauntering in, that massive camera attached to his shoulder like a second head.
“He’s great, isn’t he?” said Quick as we watched Bill make a beeline for our position on the Fairfield Prep side. “Nobody works harder than him.”
Nobody–not me, not anyone at the Register, Hour, Advocate and especially nobody at other local television stations–cared more about local sports than Bill Gonillo.
He took his shots, stayed maybe a little bit longer than he should have, and got the heck out of Wilbur Cross just so he could fight his way through I-95 traffic back to Norwalk in time for his spot on the 5 o’clock news. I remember being disappointed when he left the game and thinking how fortunate we were to have him around.
That was the last time I saw him.
Quick wasn’t exaggerating. Gonillo was the best.
He was a one of a kind.
And now a Connecticut icon is gone with his passing, and local sports will indeed never be the same.
I’m going to miss ya, buddy. We all will.
The sidelines won’t be same without you.