SOMEWHERE ON A WINDING ROAD JUST OUTSIDE ITHACA, N.Y. — It was right about here, at the edge of some small town smack dab in central New York, on the side of a quiet country road. It was a splendid morning, with autumn colors spilling across the landscape as if from a Rockwell sketchbook, while the two pals motored along to a football game at Cornell.
“A camel!’’ recalled Bernie Corbett, who makes his living spotting things in an instant and talking about them on the radio. “We saw a camel. Couldn’t believe it. To this day, I still have trouble believing it. A camel! I know that sounds crazy, but . . .’’
Mike Giardi saw it, too. The ex-Harvard quarterback was at the wheel that day. Someone else is always driving whenever Corbett is in a car. He learned to drive in his teenage years, never felt comfortable with it, was involved in a bad accident, and decided right there he would find other means to navigate life. He is 55 now and comfortable with how he gets around.
“We both saw the camel,’’ confirmed Giardi, Corbett’s radio sidekick for nearly 20 years of Harvard football broadcasts. “But it was one of those things — as it was happening, neither of us said a word.’’
Giardi kept driving in silence. A minute or two went by, Corbett recalled, before either said anything.
“Finally, I turned to Mike,’’ he recalled, “and I said, ‘Uh, so, did I just see . . . ?’ ’’
“Yeah, a camel, right?” said Giardi. “That was a camel! What the heck is a camel doing out here?’’
Years later, after recently driving by the same spot with a Globe reporter after another football game at Cornell, Corbett is sticking to his story. He doesn’t know why a camel would be on the side of road in central New York, or why it would find its way into what he incessantly refers to as “my crazy life.’’
“Maybe they’re just more lenient with their camel laws in central New York state,’’ mused Corbett. “Or maybe someone in Greater Ithaca is into exotic animals. Who knows?’’
Corbett also is the longtime voice of Boston University hockey. Between the two jobs, he has logged a half-century of radio play-by-play, often making his way from one venue to the next with breakneck speed, especially in the autumn when football and hockey schedules collide.
It is an unorthodox career, that of a dedicated man well known by his friends in the media and the decades worth of players he has covered. Yet for all his devoted work, Corbett remains a character on the fringe of a Boston sports scene dominated by its pro sports franchises.
“My life is a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode,” he said one recent morning over a breakfast that included his favorite Bickford’s broccoli omelet, a large apple juice, and a bottomless side order of his trademark stream of consciousness. “I always feel like Rod Serling is hiding somewhere behind the hedges.’’
Suddenly, another visitor has joined the breakfast table, Corbett switching his voice to imitate the late Serling’s distinctive narrative. The cadence is accurate to the point that one can almost see plumes of smoke from Serling’s ever-present cigarette.
“Meet Bernie Corbett,’’ continues the man wearing the blue Brooklyn Dodgers cap and the red Pearl Jam T-shirt. “Portrait of a man on the edge of two professions that are in danger of extinction. We visit him now in . . . the Twilight Zone.’’
Indeed, meet Bernie M. Corbett, who grew up in Stoneham, Mass., and still lives there in the same house with his mother Fay and younger brother Mitchell, both of whom, he says, have health-care needs that require his time and attention.
“They’re my kids,’’ said Corbett, who has never married. “One of them happens to be 82 and the other 51. It can be a lot of work, but that’s OK. I mean, it’s where we are, right?’’
A 1978 graduate of Stoneham High, Corbett earned an undergraduate degree in political science from BU in ’83, and as a student began offering on-air color commentary during Terrier radio broadcasts.
More than 30 years and a pair of NCAA title rings later, calling BU hockey remains the co-centerpiece of his career. He picked up Harvard football play-by-play in 1998, adding five Ivy League championship rings to his trove. Between the gigs, Corbett figures, the games he has called have been carried by upward of a dozen local radio stations. Bloomberg 1200 AM has been the home of Crimson football in recent years, while BU hockey is in its second season as an Internet-only presence (goterriers.com/tsrn).
But wait, there’s more in the ever-expanding bandwidth of Corbett’s “crazy’’ career. He creates weekly college hockey podcasts, not only for BU but also for Hockey East, the ECAC, and Atlantic Hockey, and hosts a weekly college hockey show, “Warrior Hockey on Campus,” for Siriux/XM radio.
As for that other profession “in danger of extinction,’’ Corbett has authored or co-authored five books, covering such topics as the Beanpot, Harvard-Yale football, the New York Giants, the Patriots, and the Rolling Stones (title: “Fifty Licks’’). Earlier this month, he turned in his part of a manuscript for a Pearl Jam “FAQ’’ book slated to be released in May.
“One thing I have always valued is the variety,’’ said Corbett, whose love of Pearl Jam is so deep that he once flew to Vancouver just for one night to see a concert. “I’ve always enjoyed the writing, having projects to keep me busy . . . the Giants, the Patriots, whatever. If I went too extreme in the [broadcast] direction, I probably wouldn’t have time to write.’’
More than 20 years ago, when the NHL expanded to San Jose, Corbett applied for the Sharks play-by-play job.
“People have asked, do I ever aspire to the NHL?’’ he said. “I think I made a good run at the San Jose job. They liked the tape. But I didn’t get it, and from that point it was kind of like, ‘Know thyself.’ I like the work, loyalty is important to me, and I like the variety.’’
The Corbett “like” list runs deep, encompassing not only sports and music but also faith. A regular communicant at St. Patrick’s Catholic church in Stoneham, he hasn’t missed weekly Mass in 12 years, dating to a particularly difficult Red Sox loss in 2003.
“The Sunday after Aaron Boone’s homer, I took a sabbatical,’’ he said, referring to the Yankee’s walkoff homer in Game 7 vs. the Red Sox in the ALCS. “Sorry, I didn’t believe in God for a week.’’
Corbett has shared in a pair of Red Sox season tickets (Section 30, grandstand) for more than 20 years. As a kid, he acquired his father’s passion for the New York Football Giants, and he owns a lone season ticket to their home games, routinely darting back and forth in one day to see the G-men — a feat all the trickier in that he doesn’t drive.
“That’s not as big a deal as it may sound,’’ said Corbett. “I get by on public transportation, and with the help of some very good friends. It takes more planning, but really, it works.’’
For example, a recent Saturday doubleheader for Corbett required him to be in Ithaca for Harvard’s noon kickoff against Cornell, then to be in Schenectady, some 180 miles east, for BU’s 7 p.m. puck drop vs. Union.
To get to Cornell, Corbett took the T from Stoneham to North Station, where he hitched a ride Friday afternoon with ex-Harvard football player Mike Durgin, his fill-in color man the next day at Schoellkopf Field. Following the game there, Corbett caught a ride to Union with a Globe reporter, a three-hour drive that landed him at the Achilles Center only 35 minutes prior to game time. Then just prior to 10 p.m., he was headed home to Stoneham, courtesy of stalwart wheelman Tommy Ryan, his sidekick on BU broadcasts for more than 20 years.
Total distance: approximately 700 miles, one of Corbett’s longer doubleheader treks. But one-day doubleheaders in different cities are fairly common occurrences in his work schedule, one a few years ago that had Corbett in New Haven for the Harvard-Yale football game, then dashing back for a BU-BC hockey game on Commonwealth Avenue the same night.
“Mike Giardi at the wheel, that’s nothing, he can do 130 miles standing on his head,’’ said Corbett, who has teamed regularly with Giardi on Harvard broadcasts since taking the job. “I remember going down to talk to [BC hockey coach] Jerry York before the game and it was like he thought he saw a ghost. He said, ‘Bernie, I swear to God, I was just listening to the Harvard-Yale game, turned my radio off, and here you are. How did this happen?’ He was in a state of shock.’’
The recent doubleheader in Ithaca and Schenectady had Corbett on play-by-play duty for more than 5½ hours. For the game at Cornell, he arrived in the press box just after 10 a.m., lugging all his broadcast gear, and spent the better part of 90 minutes patching together the wires and devices required to air the broadcast. It’s the only part of the job that sometimes flusters him.
“Really, I’m like a trained ape with the equipment,’’ he said, tiptoeing over wires spread across a countertop and taping a crowd mike to a small window in the press box. “I am a Jane Goodall study when it comes to technology. I’ve survived somehow, but . . .”
Going off the script
Retired BU hockey coach Jack Parker is among Corbett’s closest pals, the bond dating to the late ’70s when Corbett spent three seasons as the legendary coach’s student team manager. Part of the job had Corbett keeping a detailed chart of every game, a task he carried out in the press box at the old Walter Brown Arena, and where he ultimately began contributing to the Terriers radio broadcasts.
“Bernie is crazy cute,’’ said Parker. “I’ve told him more than once, ‘Bernie, we’ve both successfully avoided work our entire lives.’ That’s what I mean by crazy cute.’’
Part of the Corbett-Parker bond has been shaped around their mutual love of movies, the two constantly sharing lines from favorite old flicks. Parker recalled a day years ago, as he was leaving T. Anthony’s restaurant, when an animated Corbett shouted lines from “On the Waterfront’’ from across the trolley tracks on Commonwealth Avenue — to the bewilderment of passengers awaiting the next train.
“My wife said to me one day, ‘You know, Jack, no one knows what you’re talking about when you’re quoting these old movie lines all the time,’ ’’ said Parker. “And I told her, ‘That’s OK, it only matters that Bernie knows.’ ’’
Dave Goucher, longtime radio voice of the Bruins, met Corbett in his student days at BU. It was Corbett who, over a beer at the Eliot Lounge, informed Goucher of a radio play-by-play gig he had heard was available in Wheeling, W.Va., in the East Coast Hockey League.
“I didn’t know where the hell it was,’’ recalled Goucher, “and 4-6 weeks later, sure enough, I’m packing up for Wheeling, W.Va. My big break. I’m just this 23-year-old kid at the time, and here’s Bernie willing to reach out just because he knew I was looking for an opportunity. Not a lot of guys like that.’’
The man is unique. And by his own admission, crazy. Strike up a conversation with anyone who knows Corbett well, and within moments they’re laughing, saying that he is one of a kind, a bit odd, as well as a devoted pro who meticulously prepares for his broadcasts.
“I am not sure how I would describe him,’’ said Steve Nazro, the venerable vice president of events at TD Garden. “Certainly one of the most entertaining characters I’ve met . . . and a plethora of useless information.’’
The requisite barbs aside, Nazro marvels over Corbett’s sports acumen, particularly his college hockey knowledge.
“I really can’t say I’ve met anyone like him,’’ added Nazro. “And talk about carving a niche . . . really, there’s no one like him, and likewise, I think it would be impossible to dislike Bernie.’’
The roots of a sports fan
According to Ryan, Corbett’s longtime radio sidekick on BU games, it would be a mistake to misinterpret his partner’s occasional zaniness.
“First and foremost, he’s incredibly knowledgeable,’’ said Ryan, a former Terrier defenseman. “He is incredibly hard-working, and extremely, extremely professional. He’s passionate about what he does, misses nothing that happens during a game, and makes it all entertaining.
“He loves the game as a fan, but as a journalist, too,’’ said Giardi. “You can tell he is a fan of the team he’s covering, but he’s not a homer. He’s unbiased.’’
Yet, recalled Giardi, there was that Harvard-Yale football game a few years ago when Corbett showed up for the broadcast decked out in a full fur coat.
“He said he wanted to dress right for the occasion, get a feel for the tradition’’ said Giardi. “That’s Bernie.’’
Much of it, said Corbett, dates to 1967 — “the year all my addictions set in.’’
His father, an attorney, made him pay attention to the Giants. His grandfather also took him to his first game at Fenway Park, smack in the middle of the Red Sox’ “Impossible Dream’’ run to the World Series.
“I was hooked,’’ said Corbett, who recalled going to bed with a transistor radio tucked under his pillow, listening to whatever play-by-play calls he could find on the dial.
With little prompting, he can bring back calls of Marty Glickman, the famed New York broadcaster who called the Knicks, Giants, and Jets. Vin Scully is his all-time favorite, followed by Harry Caray. And, of course, Johnny Most.
“All right, on the left it’s Bird, he gets it out quickly to DJ,’’ said Corbett, imitating an agitated Most. “Oh, and I don’t believe it. They are calling a foul on the great Kareem and he doesn’t like it! Oh, the way they do things here! They say I shouldn’t say anything — and I say why not?!’’
Sean Grande, in his 15th year calling Celtics games on radio, is another BU alum (class of 1993) who, like Goucher, began calling Terrier hockey games for the student radio station. Later, he worked as Corbett’s color man for a couple of years on Terrier over-the-air broadcasts.
“He’s a hustler, a survivor,’’ said Grande. “When you think about it, there is so much turnover in sports, especially at the pro level. But to have someone like Bernie, with so much consistency, I think people in Boston find that comforting and nice that he’s still on the job.’’
George accompanies Corbett to every BU game and sits within arm’s reach of his broadcast position. A 53-year-old stuffed toy monkey in the likeness of Curious George, he is less than a foot tall, and wears a BU sweater and Red Sox batting helmet. He embodies so much of what his keeper holds dear.
“I guard George with my life,’’ said Corbett, who has a knack for making zany — like a camel in central New York — sound ordinary. “It would be a tragedy if I ever lost him. I take him to every home game. He’s been to Washington, to Providence . . . every Beanpot.’’
George, said Corbett, came into his life at age 2, during a protracted stay at Children’s Hospital. An aunt bought George at the hospital gift shop, Corbett recovered from severe respiratory problems, and the two have remained in near-constant contact ever since.
Curious George, said the even curiouser Bernie, soon could be in for another road trip.
“I’m thinking, he’s never been to New Haven for the Harvard-Yale game,’’ said Corbett. “So, you know what? He’s going!
“But not until we first go to Build-A-Bear. He’s not going anywhere till I get him a Harvard sweater.’’
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.