‘Work hard to make it look easy’: Winona basketball announcer hits 1,000th game

Ray Felton has been volunteering as the voice of Winona high school sports since the '90s

A man speaks into a microphone in a high school gym.
Winona Senior High School game announcer Ray Felton watches a girl's basketball game Tuesday when the Winhawks hosted Rochester's Mayo High School Spartans. Felton has been announcing Winhawk games since the mid-1990s.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

According to Ray Felton, there are three qualities that make for a good sports announcer:

“You have to be an extrovert. You have to be willing to pump it out, and you have to try to work hard to make it look easy.”

Felton should know. He’s about to announce his 1,000th game for the Winona Senior High School Winhawks Friday.

Felton has been volunteering as the voice of Winona high school sports since the mid-1990s. He got his start even earlier than that, announcing his kids' swim meets.

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"I enjoyed it,” he said. “I think part of it is being an actor."

Felton started doing community theater in 1987. He’s acted in plays, done readings and portrays historical characters in the local cemetery tour. He said announcing sporting events and acting rely on some of the same skills — like projecting his voice and thinking on his feet.

Over the decades, Felton announced everything from baseball to the Mr. Winona Senior High School Pageant. Today, he limits his time to football, boys and girls soccer and boys and girls basketball.

The work is done without pay and on Felton’s own time; he credits his wife, Carolyn, for indulging him in doing this side gig — even when it eats into weekends and nights.

“She spends a lot of evenings home alone and she’s tolerated it for all these years,” he said. “She’s my main source of support, and without her, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

Announcing is an unlikely job for Felton, who retired from the Social Security Administration in 2005 and whose kids are adults now. Felton said he was never much of a sports player or fan in his younger years.

“I lettered in debate in high school,” he said.

But being behind the microphone and so close to the game has made him a fan — especially of basketball.

Before each game, Felton has his rituals.

"I always have five Altoids peppermints before every game,” he said. “I'm superstitious."

And he checks the pronunciation of every team member's name — on both teams.

"All you have to do is miss a grandkid's name, and you're going to hear about it from grandma and grandpa,” said Felton.

So before Tuesday night’s game between the Winona girls varsity basketball team and the Mayo High School Spartans from Rochester, Minn., Felton huddles with the team manager to make sure he's saying everyone's name correctly.

Felton said he considers that to be a crucial part of his role: treating the other team with respect.

"They're amateur, they're young and they need that encouragement,” he said. “They're all out here playing for free because they like the sport. And they don't need some wise old guy making silly remarks about them from the sidelines."

Winhawks girls basketball coach Tim Gleason said that's classic Ray Felton — always fair and endlessly supportive of the players.

Gleason said Felton's dedication to the players has uplifted their spirits during tough seasons — and motivated them to do better. He recalled the girls basketball team's first conference title in 1999.

"Ray said, 'Girls, if you win the conference title, I'll shave my head.' Well, it became part of their battle cry,” Gleason said. “Sure enough, after our last game of the year against Mankato East, we were able to shave Ray's head right out there in center court. That was a pretty special moment."

Even though Tuesday night’s game was just one shy of his 1,000 game, gratitude already started rolling in for Felton’s dedication to the job.

Before tipoff, Winona High School activities director Casey Indra said a few words of thanks to Felton.

"Ray, thank you for all you have done for the Winhawk family. You mean so much to us, and we are super proud of your accomplishment,” Indra said.

Without missing a beat, Felton chimed in.

"I just want to say that I never used any performance-enhancing drugs while announcing these games,” he said.

The crowd laughed and cheered, and the game began.