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!

October 2007By Comments

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 to approach the tyrannical, fire-belching Lombardi and beg him to allow three Packers players to fill an eighteen-minute segment during the game. After much groveling on Summerall’s part, Lombardi agreed. But on game day, with no warning, he abruptly changed his mind, leaving Summerall and CBS shivering in the 13-below ice of Lambeau Field. “I was standing on the field, watching my life pass before me, when I heard over my earpiece the voice of the producer, telling me, ‘Patrick, think of everything you know and say it now.’ It was the longest eighteen minutes of my life, but I got through it.”

His pairing with Madden was one of those happy accidents that come to seem preordained. Summerall had worked for years with Tom Brookshier. They had called a game on Thanksgiving Day, and Brookshier begged off the following Sunday, forcing CBS to move the untried Madden into the box with Summerall. “He was wearing a suit and tie and sweating so bad I thought, ‘Boy, this guy’s gonna have a heart attack,’” Summerall told me. “What I didn’t know was that the height of the announcers’ booth is what made him nervous. Once the game started, he was okay.”

The chemistry was instant. Each knew when to speak and when to can it. And it was a good thing: CBS’s decision to break up the team of Brookshier and Summerall probably saved both of their lives. In the sixties and seventies, boozing and pill popping went with the territory trod by the nomadic writers and broadcasters who followed the pro football circuit. A bucket of amphetamines hung just outside the Cowboys training room, a temptation for all who passed by. Powerful painkillers were always accessible. Every press box and press conference had an open bar, and there were platoons of PR types to pick up bar tabs everywhere you went.

All of us drank, smoked, chased women, and stayed up all night, but Summerall and Brookshier did it with an enthusiasm that people still talk about years later. “I loved traveling with Brookie,” Summerall acknowledged. “We’d meet up on Thursday and not get home until Tuesday. We had a good time on the air and off the air and stayed up late and enjoyed life.” Their nocturnal escapades furnished copy for countless newspapers. According to the Dallas Morning News, Brookshier once snatched the wig off the piano player at a New York nightclub and used it as a football in “an impromptu scrimmage with other customers.” Referring to another incident, the Montreal Gazette simply said, “The story of the horse and the Plaza Hotel is classic.” A list of the bars and restaurants that asked them to leave and never return would probably fill a small volume.

By December 1990, the alcohol had caught up with Summerall, and he nearly died from a bleeding ulcer and damaged liver. For a few months he stopped drinking, but, as is often the case with athletes and other die-hard competitors, he was able to convince himself that he had mastered the situation, at which point he began hitting the bottle again. It soon became obvious that Summerall was no longer capable of helping himself, especially to his family and his old drinking buddy, Brookshier. They arranged an intervention at a hotel. When he arrived, Summerall was ambushed by fifteen family members and friends, among them the commissioner of the NFL, the commissioner of the PGA tour, and the president of CBS. They had each written letters, which they read aloud, telling Summerall how much they loved him and how desperately they wanted him to get help. “I was so angry at first I wasn’t listening,” Summerall told me. “I kept thinking that some of the people here need help more than me. Then someone read a letter from my daughter, who said I made her ashamed of the name Summerall. That’s when I started listening.”

Brookshier went last. When he was finished, he told Summerall that a Learjet owned by Tampa Bay Buccaneers president Hugh Culverhouse was waiting to fly him to the recovery center in Rancho Mirage, California.

“Brookie said, ‘C’mon, I’ll go with you,’” Summerall told me, his famous baritone strained with emotion. “I guess that subconsciously I knew I needed help, but when Brookie said he’d go along, I said, yeah, let’s go.” Though the jet was well stocked with liquor, neither of those old rounders touched a drop. At the time, treatment at Betty Ford usually lasted 28 days, but Summerall was so angry that they kept him an extra 5. He hasn’t touched a drop since and assured me the craving long ago disappeared.

Before sitting down to talk with Summerall, I had read that during his recovery he had become a born-again Christian. I was dreading this part of the interview. Religion is a deeply personal affair, and when it isn’t a central part of the story, I hate to press for details. But Summerall didn’t seem to mind. He explained that back then there were only two books available at Betty Ford, the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book and the Bible. He read both. “The whole atmosphere was religious,” he said. “Twelve steps. Higher power. Who is helping me? Why am I so fortunate? The higher power for me is Jesus Christ.” In a voice so understated he might have been giving me his name and phone number, he told me that he now attends Bible study two times a week and that every morning he and Cheri read a chapter from the Bible and daily devotionals from Billy Graham and other religious thinkers. I sat there waiting for him to say something else, but there was nothing else to say. I suppose I was waiting for that familiar cue. John?

Driving back to the airport later, I realized that I’d been wrong. Religion is a central part of this story. Summerall just had the good sense to let me discover it for myself.

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