Pat Summerall's voice won't fade
Beloved player-turned-broadcaster's words will always be music to our ears
He was the uncle who took us all to the game. His courtly, economic, Southern-honeyed bass was the accompaniment to a symphony of sports: pro and college football, golf, tennis, boxing and basketball. And his longevity matched his versatility. For close to 50 years, for CBS, Fox and ESPN, Pat Summerall was as much a fixture in America's living room as the remote.
He stopped broadcasting on a regular basis in 2008, and he stopped breathing for good on April 16, 2013, but we can still hear his voice, resonating from his 16 Super Bowls, his 20 U.S. Opens in tennis, his 27 Masters. It's his football calls, though, that we hear the loudest. As John Madden, his partner for 22 years on CBS and Fox, said upon his death, "Pat Summerall is the voice of football, and always will be."[+] EnlargeRobert Riger/Getty ImagesPat Summerall led the NFL in field goal percentage in 1959 while playing for for the Giants.
Summerall was so much more than a broadcaster. His athletic résumé rivaled Bo Jackson's. Born with a club foot corrected by surgery, he was all-state in football and basketball at Columbia High School in Lake City, Fla., as well as the 16-and-under state champion in tennis. He was recruited by Adolph Rupp to play basketball at Kentucky, but he elected to go to Arkansas because the Razorbacks allowed him to play football, basketball and baseball. He was good enough at baseball that the St. Louis Cardinals signed him as a first baseman, and he gave that a try for a while.
The Detroit Lions made him their fourth pick in the 1952 NFL draft, but they didn't know what they had, so he ended up playing offensive and defensive end and place-kicking for the Chicago Cardinals and then the New York Giants. It was for them that he kicked a legendary 49-yard field goal in a snowstorm for a 13-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns that set up their 1958 epic championship game with the Baltimore Colts.
He was a scholar, as well, an education major who later got a master's degree in Russian history just because he loved the subject. In the NFL offseason, he taught eighth-grade English in Lake City.
He fell into broadcasting quite by accident. As the story goes, at the end of the 1961 season, a radio producer for WCBS called the hotel room Summerall was sharing with Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly to see if Conerly would like to audition to replace Frank Gifford, who was moving from radio to television. But Conerly wasn't there, and when the producer heard Summerall's dulcet pipes, he offered him the audition.
It wasn't long before CBS teamed Summerall with Chris Schenkel on Giants telecasts. Along with Gifford and ex-Notre Dame star Johnny Lujack, Summerall was in the vanguard of broadcasters who showed sports fans that jocks need not be dumb or distant.
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Indeed, Summerall's friendly demeanor was no act. "Pat was nice to everybody," said the great sportswriter Dan Jenkins. "Never acted like a big shot. Always seemed happy and fortunate to be doing what he was doing. We drank a lot and laughed a lot together at sporting events, or back in New York at Toots Shor's and P.J. Clarke's."
It was the drinking that became a problem. For years the best pairing in football was Summerall and Tom Brookshier, but CBS broke them up in 1981 because of their over-partying. The carousing would eventually cost Summerall his first marriage and estrangement from his three children.
After a health scare in 1990, he sobered up, but only briefly. Friends and colleagues staged an intervention after the 1991 Masters that convinced him to seek help at the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs, Calif. "My time at Betty Ford saved my life," he said. A few years later, he delivered that message to his good friend Mickey Mantle and convinced him to enter the Betty Ford Center. (As it happens, Summerall played baseball in the minors with The Mick's younger twin brothers, Roy and Ray.)
Summerall never drank again and embraced Christianity. But the alcohol did take its toll: He needed a liver transplant in April 2004. Four months later, though, ESPN asked him to do some NFL games for Mike Patrick, who was recovering from open heart surgery.[+] EnlargeFrank Micelotta/ImageDirect/Getty ImagesPat Summerall teamed up with John Madden in the broadcast booth for 22 seasons on CBS and Fox.
How good a broadcaster was Summerall? When CBS hired former coach Madden for the 1981 season, he was paired with Vin Scully for the first four games and Summerall for the next four. Then the executives held a vote as to which partner they liked better. Summerall won 4-1.
Whether with Brookshier or Madden, whether on golf or tennis, Summerall always gave the impression that he not only knew what he was talking about, but that he loved talking about it, too. Which is why we loved listening to him, from kickoff to signoff.
In that deep voice of his, Summerall once recalled that kick in the snow for NFL Films. Vince Lombardi, then the Giants' offensive coordinator, had tried to talk head coach Jim Lee Howell out of attempting the kick, but when it went through the uprights, "Lombardi grabbed me and hugged me. I thought he was going to say congratulations, but that wasn't Vince's style. He said, 'You know, you sonofabitch, you can't kick it that far.' "
Ah, but he did.
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