LOS ANGELES, April 17, 2013 — Just three weeks before his 83rd birthday, legendary NFL football announcer Pat Summerall died of cardiac arrest.
Summerall played in the NFL as a placekicker from 1952 through 1961 for the Detroit Lions, Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals, and New York Giants. He was a member of the 1958 Giants team who lost to Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore (now Indianapolis) Colts in an overtime contest forever known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Yet to his many legions of fans, it was after his playing career ended that he became a football icon. For the first two decades, he was one of many football television personalities.
When he began at CBS Sports in 1962, he was the color commentator. In 1974, he shifted and became the play-by-play man.
In 1981, Summerall was paired with a new television personality named John Madden. The fiery former Oakland Raiders coach had won a Super Bowl and would enter the Hall of Fame, but had little to no television experience.
The bombastic Madden and the serene Summerall were polar opposites. They both loved football, and became the platinum standard for sports announcing teams everywhere. A recent NFL Network documentary “Top Ten things we loved about the 1980s” featured the 49ers, Bears, Tecmo Bowl, big hair, and end zone dances.
Yet number one on the list was the Summerall and Madden announcing team.
Summerall and Madden were always given the best game of every Sunday. While Madden was frequently over-the-top excitable, Summerall was the calm guy without the ego who would keep the broadcast ship steady. Madden got the attention, but he credited Summerall with keeping things on course.
Summerall was never flashy, and his understated style allowed him to blend seamlessly into the game. He never put himself above the game. The game was about the players, and Summerall described every play in a crisp, succinct manner.
“First and ten, Phil Simms back to pass, hits Mark Bavaro for a four yard gain, second and six upcoming.”
Madden would then give an explanation on the proper way to dump a Gatorade bucket on Head Coach Bill Parcells, or let everybody know the best way for a tough guy like Bavaro to eat ribs or a turkey leg. An unfazed Summerall would wait for Madden to finish just before the next play.
Refusing to try and out-Madden Madden, Summerall would just continue with the next play. “Simms hands off to Otis Anderson for a short gain to set up third and four.”
Even in the biggest moments on the biggest stages, Summerall never wavered from his demeanor. Critics found him boring, but they were wrong. He let the game tell the story. He was the Vin Scully of football, the guy who watched the game with you without talking so much that he ruined it.
Madden is one of the rare guys who talked constantly but is still beloved.
The 1994 season saw the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers on a collision course for their third straight NFC Title Game and a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Summerall’s opening was pure poetry. “Two weeks from today we play the Super Bowl. Three weeks from today we play the Pro Bowl. Today, we play both.”
The game lived up to its billing as Summerall faded into the background and did his job.
The 2001 NFL season saw the horrors of 9/11 shake a nation. The Super Bowl that year featured the 14-2 St. Louis Rams and the 11-5 New England Patriots.
The Rams were heavy favorites on the verge of a dynasty. On the final play of the game, Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri came in for a 48 yard field goal to try and give the Patriots one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history.
The game was tied 17-17, and as many as one billion people worldwide were watching the kick.
Most announcers scream their lungs out at moments like this. On this day, the call was pure Summerall. “Adam Vinatieri, right down the pike. Patriots win.”
That was it. Fans did not need a screaming announcer to tell them what happened. Everybody saw it. It was vintage Summerall. Shakespeare said that “the play is the thing.” Summerall knew the game was the thing. He told you the act and scene number, and let the actors tell the story.
Summerall retired after that game, although he would come back, in the same manner he did his play-by-play…quietly.
Even in death, Summerall’s fate had him blending into the background. He died the day after terrorists exploded bombs at the Boston Marathon. He died on the same day Ricin filled letters were sent to the President of the United States and several Senators.
Like his entire career, he was overshadowed on the day of his death.
Yet to those who knew him best, he was the guy who made everyone around him better. They got the credit, but he was the rock of Gibraltar. John Madden put it best on the day after Summerall died.
“Pat Summerall is the voice of football and always will be.”
Brooklyn born, Long Island raised, and now living in Los Angeles, Eric Golub is a columnist, blogger, author, public speaker, satirist and comedian who is obsessed with the National Football League. There is no offseason. Every February he pretends to care about other sports while sobbing uncontrollably each Sunday until September. Eric is the author of the book trilogy “Ideological Bigotry, “Ideological Violence,” and “Ideological Idiocy.”
Follow Eric on Twitter @TYGRRRREXPRESS Eric Golub is an independent writer for the Communities. Read more from Eric at his TYGRRRR EXPRESS blog.
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