Endless Summerall

The problem with the NFL today isn’t thugs like Michael Vick. It’s broadcast booth buffoons who can’t quit yapping. Bring back Pat!
Box Populi: Summerall (left) with trusty sidekick John Madden at the Louisiana Superdome for Super Bowl XXXVI, in 2002.
Photograph by Ric Press

Lately, no longer willing to endure the blather of idiots, I’ve taken to watching NFL games with the sound turned off. I don’t need some poorly informed ex-jock in a turtleneck and double-breasted blazer or some gussied-up chick on the sidelines in earmuffs and furry boots to belabor the obvious. The games explain themselves. Down and distance are plainly marked. And even plays hardly worth a first glance are replayed until the film starts to yellow and crack. When a runner leaves defenders clawing air—as, for example, Marcus Allen’s electrifying run in Super Bowl XVIII—I don’t require a stammering monologue describing his special magic. I just want to hear Pat Summerall reduce the action to its essence with his soothing baritone: “Touchdown, seventy-five yards!”

For economy of presentation, for adherence to the cosmic truth that less is always more, for letting the viewer discover the game for himself, no one can match Summerall. He’s the Walter Cronkite of sportscasters, the best of an old school that includes John Madden, Al Michaels, Howard Cosell, and Jack Buck (not to be confused with Joe Buck, his nitwit son). Though semiretired at 77, Summerall is still the best play-by-play guy in the business, a model that the self-important, neurotic motormouths who currently occupy the broadcast booths would do well to study. The New York Times once parodied Summerall doing a play-by-play of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea : “Old Cuban. Sea. Marlin. Harpoon. Sharks feast. Brave old guy. Broken knife. What a struggle. John?”

That would be the cue for Madden to jump in. For more than two decades, Summerall and Madden were the voices of the NFL, first on CBS and later on Fox, Summerall’s low-key delivery a perfect counterpart to Madden’s bombastic pow!bang! style. Summerall retired after the 2005 Super Bowl, but he still makes an occasional appearance at bowl games or as a fill-in on Fox’s NFL menu. Since early September he has done a weekly hour-long Internet radio talk show on Modavox’s Voice America Sports Network. Though some might consider the talk show a gentle way to put an aging warhorse out to pasture, Summerall sees it as a reward overdue.

“All those years, my job was play-by-play,” he told me one afternoon in August. “Taking care of the situation, down and distance, who’s on the field, who isn’t, leading into commercials, reading cue cards. I was a mechanic. I never had a chance to say what I thought.” We were relaxing in the den of Summerall’s magnificent five-acre estate, Amazing Grace, a short drive from DFW International. His wife, Cheri, served iced tea, and their Labrador, Gracie, snoozed at our feet while the two of us, just a couple of old-timers in the twilight of their careers, recollected wilder, simpler days.

I hadn’t seen Summerall since, oh, the mid-eighties. He was less imposing than I remembered, his six-four frame compacted by the gravity of time, his hair long ago gone silver, yet he appeared surprisingly fit and trim, that familiar twinkle backlighting his blue eyes. As always, he was unfailingly pleasant and polite. “If you can’t get along with Pat,” Madden once remarked, “you can’t get along with anybody.”

At some point in our conversation, I ventured that Summerall’s life appeared touched by the angels—unless, of course, you factor in his eleven broken noses and the dark years in the early nineties when he almost died of liquor and had to eventually be hauled away, screaming and cursing, for a term at Whiskey Tech, as our mutual friend Larry L. King refers to the Betty Ford Center. Summerall is alive today only because of a liver transplant from a teenager who suffered a brain aneurysm and died in 2004. And, in fact, his early childhood was pretty bleak too—parents divorced before he came along; born poor and with a clubfoot, his right leg twisted grotesquely backward. Doctors broke the bones in his foot and ankle, reset them, and told his mother that while the boy might walk again, running and playing were off the table. Summerall listened to my summary of his life, nodding, not a trace of self-pity evident.

“I was too young to remember any of this,” he said.

He recovered from the childhood surgery to become a five-sport star in the small Florida town of Lake City, receive a football scholarship to the University of Arkansas, and enjoy a pro football career as a kicker and an occasional tight end on a storied New York Giants team that appeared in three NFL championship games under the guidance of a couple of future Hall of Fame coaches named Landry and Lombardi. As a kicker, Summerall won some big games for the Giants, yet he enjoyed far more fame and fortune after his playing days had ended, broadcasting not just innumerable NFL games but also 1 NBA season, 30 Masters golf tournaments, 26 U.S. Open tennis championships, and 2 French Opens.

Summerall was still on the Giants’ active roster when he got his first broadcasting job, with CBS’s flagship radio station in New York. “CBS paid me seven hundred fifty dollars a week, which was more than I made as a player,” he recalled. Two years later CBS paired him with Chris Schenkel to do the Giants telecasts. A few key pieces of advice from veterans at CBS set the course for what followed. Bill MacPhail, the director of sports at the network, told him, “I’ll never criticize you for saying too little .” And veteran golf producer Frank Chirkinian warned that he would fire Summerall if he ever announced that someone had made a putt. “Their point—that this was a visual media—stuck with me,” he said.

He learned to prepare but not make preparation his master. “Schenkel told me, if you need to talk for five minutes, prepare for half an hour. That paid off big-time, more than once.” The day before the famous Ice Bowl game in Green Bay, CBS producers deputized Summerall

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