Media

Paul Sferruzza, who as ‘Tank’ became WBCN’s sports authority, dies at 67

He died in his Dover, N.H., home on Nov. 25 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 67.

MAEDA, Wendy GLOBE STAFF
Sportscaster Paul "Tank" Sferruzza and Charles Laquidara after they both left WBCN for WZLX. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Growing up in Dorchester, Paul Sferruzza loved listening to the radio, but didn’t envision it as a career.

“I was just a kid who went to high school to be a baker,” he told Boston magazine in 2014. “I had never been to college for anything.”

A part-time side job screening callers at WBCN-FM led to a friendship and great chemistry with the station’s legendary morning disc jockey Charles Laquidara, who nicknamed Mr. Sferruzza “Tank” and put him behind a microphone doing sports reports during his show “The Big Mattress” in the early 1980s.

“Tank” was a nod to Mr. Sferruzza’s physique — he weighed somewhat north of 500 pounds in those days — and to his on-air presence.

“When you turned the mic on, we had to lower the volume,” Laquidara recalled with a chuckle. “His voice really boomed.”

Mr. Sferruzza, who helped innovate some hallmarks of later-day sports talk radio, died in his Dover, N.H., home on Nov. 25 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 67 and had lived in various places in Greater Boston before moving to Dover a little more than a year before he died.

“I think it was groundbreaking because back then in the early ’80s, there wasn’t a lot of sports radio,” Carter Alan, a former radio colleague who wrote “Radio Free Boston: The Rise and Fall of WBCN,” said of Mr. Sferruzza’s years with Laquidara. “On a rock station you didn’t have a lot of sports input, so he was a pioneer in that regard.”

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And at a time when it wasn’t the norm for professional athletes to negotiate deals to appear regularly on sports radio programs, Mr. Sferruzza hosted some of Boston’s biggest stars on WBCN. Instead of money, the draw was spending time with talking with Tank, who befriended players, coaches, and owners with his down-to-earth style.

“Tank walked in one day with this young guy with a real southern drawl,” Laquidara recalled. “He says, ‘Hey Charles, this guy’s going to be more famous than anybody you know.’ It was Roger Clemens. He was a rookie from Texas. Tank says, ‘Hey, can you be on every week with us?’ He hadn’t even pitched a game yet. Roger said, ‘Well, sure.’ ”

A magnet for athletes wherever he went, Mr. Sferruzza was just as popular when he and then-WBCN colleague Bill Abbate went to cover the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

“We broadcast every day,” Abbate said.

“Everybody knew him, everybody gravitated to him,” Abbate added. “Everything that you hear about Tank’s generosity is absolutely true. His heart was as big his legend.”

The youngest of three siblings, Paul Sferruzza was born in Cambridge in 1953. His family eventually settled in Dorchester.

His father, Paul Sferruzza, worked in a furniture store. His mother, Irene Mucci, worked at a hair salon.

“I’m just a working-class guy from Dorchester, not the rich kid-type from Wellesley and Dover,” Mr. Sferruzza told the Globe in 2001, after he had left WBCN to join Laquidara, who had previously left the station, at WZLX-FM (100.7).

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“I’m the ultimate underdog, doing OK for myself,” Mr. Sferruzza said then. “I grew up a fat little kid, just watching sports on TV and reading all the newspapers about sports teams. I never really played any sports, although I loved them.”

He went to Boston Trade High School and later took a few courses at a broadcasting school, but his most appealing trait in person and on the air was his genuine nature, former colleagues said.

Mr. Sferruzza’s accent was pure Boston, never bland and polished.

At a time when sports broadcasters tended to be guys wearing blazers, Laquidara said, Mr. Sferruzza was unmistakable, and unmistakably real.

Mr. Sferruzza was driving a taxi cab at night when he started out screening calls on WBCN’s listener line during the days in 1977, he recalled in the 2001 Globe interview.

Laquidara saw something special in him.

“When you’re at a sports bar watching all the TVs,” Laquidara said in an interview, “he’s the guy down at the end of the bar who knows as much or more than the coaches and yells, ‘He screwed up!’ ”

Laquidara thought listeners would hear themselves in Mr. Sferruzza’s commentary, and in his voice: “I felt like people could relate to him: ‘Man, he’s one of us. Let’s go barbecue with Tank.’ ”

“He had this amazing presence about him that was genuine and without pretension,” said Abbate, who in recent years had a show on WXRB-FM, 92.5 The River.

Four years ago, Laquidara visited Mr. Sferruzza and they reminisced about the beginning of their professional relationship, which flourished after a strike at WBCN.

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After the strike, “you asked me to go for work for you because you said you didn’t have a brain, and I did,” Mr. Sferruzza joked in the video interview with Laquidara, which is posted on YouTube.

“Every now and then I would have to correct you on the air because you’d go, ‘Oh, the day’s Tuesday, it’s 7:30, and I’d go, ‘No, it’s Thursday at 8 o’clock,’ ” Mr. Sferruzza added.

Mr. Sferruzza went on to cohost a sports show on V66, a local music video station, and with Abbate he cohosted pregame, halftime, and postgame shows for the New England Patriots in the mid-1990s.

But Mr. Sferruzza’s fame rested mostly on his work as a sports reporter and director for WBCN and WZLX. Colleagues never knew which sports star they’d run into who had become friends with Tank — Clemens, Bill Russell, Kevin McHale, Larry Bird.

“He could talk to anybody. That’s a real special trait,” Alan said. “When you’re talking to people who are used to getting fawned on, it’s not easy to get through to them. Tank was really good at getting through those defenses and finding out the person behind the façade.”

Mr. Sferruzza was also “really family oriented,” Abbate said. “They meant the world to him. That was big part of his life.”

A celebration of life will be announced for Mr. Sferruzza, who leaves his siblings Joseph of North Carolina and Joann of Carver; and his partner, Elaine K. Pridham, with whom he lived in Dover, N.H.

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They had known each other since 1988 and reconnected about three years ago.

“We took a big chance for our ages and said, ‘There’s not a lot of time to be had and we should get together if we want to be together,’ ” she said. “I think we believed that we had more time together.”

Though he had spent his life in more urban areas, Mr. Sferruzza felt at home in Dover. “He just took great delight in seeing this little city,” she said.

And when doctors told him he didn’t have much longer to live, “he said, ‘I had a good life. I had much more than I thought I’d ever have, growing up in Dorchester. I’ve met a lot of people and done a lot of things I never thought I’d do,’ ”Elaine recalled. “If we can get to the end of our lives and say that, it’s quite a gift.”

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