Wednesday, 17 April 2013


Pat Summerall always reminded me of George Reeves, the guy who played Superman. The resemblance isn't overpowering, though I think it's there, but it's more the demeanour, that kind of quiet authority that you don't even realise someone has until after you've stopped to think about it and appreciate what it is you've experienced.

I'm old enough to remember Summerall as a player, though I won't claim to have ever seen him play end. He was a good kicker for the Giants, though not as good as Don Chandler, the team's punter, who assumed both jobs when Pat left. But he found his place as an announcer, one of the first to make the transition from the football field to the broadcast booth. This was something a few baseball players, most notably Dizzy Dean, had done, in radio, but since New York was America's media capital, and the Giants were New York's team (and a very good one in the late 50s/early 60s) it wasn't a surprise that the glamourous former college stars Frank Gifford or Kyle Rote should move into broadcasting. What was more surprising was that a kicker would. Rote was never a natural, and Gifford relied on his looks and charm. Summerall was something else entirely.

He was good enough looking, but he had a golden voice, not as deep as Ray Scott's but authoritative in a resonant quiet way. People forget he started his career as a colour man, working with greats like Chris Schenkel (remind me to tell you my story about supplying security for the Schenk when we did a Barry McGuigan fight in Belfast), Jack Buck and Scott, one of football's alltime best. Scott had the pipes to match Pat, but that was the problem: you had two guys talking beautifully with each other, but Pat just didn't naturally take to being the show horse.

He found his metier when he was paired with Tom Brookshier for CBS, with producer Bob Wussler. Brookie was outspoken, and Pat was the perfect foil to get the best from him. But after seven years, CBS replaced Brookshier with John Madden, creating probably the best football broadcast pair ever, and maybe the best pair anywhere. Madden brought a new perspective to the booth, a coach's ability to break down plays for an audience, and a creative intelligence that needed to be both indulged and directed. He delivered his words with bombast, and then Summerall would bring us all back to earth, back to down and distance, back to the beauties of the game itself.

Because no one was a better master of the understatement, of letting the game speak for itself, than Summerall. Those of us sometimes unable to do such things appreciate them even more, especially when they're done so well. If you want a snapshot of the difference between Summerall and Madden compare their work as hardware store pitchmen: Pat for TrueValue and Madden for Ace.

They had started to get stale when they were hired away by Fox, after the Murdoch network spent big to take the NFC contract from CBS. The huge deals from Fox (especially Madden) and the move rejuvenated the pairing, until Madden jumped to ABC for Monday Night Football, where he was teamed with Al Michaels, probably the second-best play-by-play man the NFL's had. Madden was again rejuvenated. Summerall retired briefly in 2002, then came back to work with Brian Baldinger, which was a very good pairing; Baldy's only fault was that sometimes he tried too hard to be Madden (and I imagine someone upstairs was asking for that). I caught the two of them on a Cotton Bowl one holiday season, and thought they still worked together well.

We knew Pat was a recovering alcoholic; his face would tell you that if you didn't know it. But I knew a lot of people like that when I was working for ABC, and since, and about most of them you hear various stories. You never did about Pat, in fact, I can never remember a harsh word being said. He seemed to handle himself outside the booth the way he did inside it—with a minimum of fuss and an attitude of respect. He respected his audience, his colour commentators, and the game. That's what came through his wonderful voice on the television screen. He was the best. But when I shut my eyes (and eyes) I can still see him kicking for the Giants.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Honest and warm, whilst not ignoring his faults. Wonderfully written, big man.