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Former 790 The Zone host Nick Cellini breaks his silence

1:26 AM, Nov 12, 2013   |    comments
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KENNESAW, Ga. -- In his Kennesaw home, Nick Cellini is playing with his 4-year-old son.

The two are digging into a bucket filled with Hot Wheels cars. After they play cars, it will be snack time, and then, if Cellini is lucky, nap time. This is the rhythm of his life now.

"I am a house husband," he says with a wry smile. It's not the sort of thing you'd expect to hear from a man who was a popular sports anchor for 25 years.

But Nick Cellini has a lot of time on his hands because of what happened on June 17 -- or rather, what commuters heard as they crept along Atlanta's clogged highways at 8:30 a.m.

"Joining us right now, Steve Gleason..."

It was a bit. Their show was filled with silly bits, and many times they were sorts of skits or jokes that pushed the envelope. It's part of what made this trio the most listened-to sports radio show on Atlanta mornings.

790 The Zone's 'Mayhem in the a.m.' was about to disintegrate in two minutes.

READ: Atlanta radio hosts fired for mocking Steve Gleason's ALS battle
RELATED: Fired Atlanta radio sports host gets new job, at competition

Co-host Cellini pretended to be Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saint now battling ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. Steve Gleason has lost the ability to speak and communicates with an voice automated device.

Cellini impersonated him, pretending to be Gleason calling into the show. Cellini says it was a split-second decision.

"About 40 seconds before we came back on, I decided to do the automated voice," he said.

Pretending to be Gleason, Cellini said, "Knock knock." The hosts answered, "Who's there?" Cellini responded, "Smother." The hosts said "Smother who?" And then Cellini answered, "Smother me. Do me a favor."

It went on for two minutes -- exactly how long it took to finish off a show that had been going for 17 years.

Cellini says, "I knew it about 10 seconds in. I could feel it in my gut."

He knew it was bad. He didn't know it was career-ending, not right away. That would happen after the show.

"I went on my Twitter page, then I went online, then I Googled my name. And at that point I realized, 'Oh boy this is a mushroom cloud,' and at that point I told my wife, 'I'm going to lose my job.'"

Cellini was right. He and co-hosts Steak Shapiro and Chris Dimino were fired that day by dinnertime. After 17 years together on the air, it was over.

And the days to come would be no easier.

"You put on CNN, there's a transcript of the bit. Your face is on just about every news channel. It was initially pretty scary. It was overwhelming," Cellini said. "I didn't leave my house for a couple of days. I was afraid to go any place, to the store. You start to get paranoid after a while. You feel like people are looking at you, people are judging you."

Cellini says he didn't really understand the disease ALS. He never meant to hurt anyone.

"I was just a victim of my own ignorance," he said.

A few weeks after he was fired, Cellini says he went to Louisiana to meet with members of Steve Gleason's family and his foundation. He asked for their forgiveness. And he says he got it.

"It was really amazing to find them to be as gracious as they were, to forgive us, to extend a welcome to us. His father-in-law said to us, 'If you need us to call anyone on your behalf just let us know.' Can you imagine someone being that gracious? I'm not sure I would have been," he said.

Five months later, Cellini is still out of work.

He laughs it off. "I am a carpool dad. I know all the shortcuts around Marietta now."

He records a podcast once a week. And last month, Cellini, Dimino and Shapiro were together again, at a walk in Atlanta to benefit ALS.

Shapiro continues to have his own show about Atlanta's food scene. Dimino has landed a job at 680 The Fan. Cellini is still looking.

"You have to admit you made a mistake but then, how do you overcome that mistake? All I can do is try to move forward and try to explain myself to people how I've changed through this, how I'm going to continue to be a better person through this and hopefully in time they'll forgive me as well," he said.

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