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By Jason Keidel
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During the NFL’s golden years, Pat Summerall was its golden voice.
The baritone bard of the NFL for nearly 40 years, Summerall nursed an entire generation into the card-carrying, frothing football maniacs we’ve become. His broadcasting career was so distinguished that you’d never know he actually played the very game he framed from the booth in pitch-perfect harmony.
Like many of you, I was reared on football, proudly branding myself a Bradshaw Baby. I was weaned on Mean Joe Greene, viewing the game from my dad’s lap until we both learned to sprawl across a couch every Sunday; the living room our de facto church, the television our altar.
There are certain voices, microphone monoliths, who stick to a sport tighter than the uniforms. And while he did a divine job calling golf and tennis, Summerall is football, one of a small cadre of play-by-play commentators whose names are an emblem of essential moments. Over the last 40 years our ears perked for the pantheon of Howard Cosell, Curt Gowdy, Vin Scully and Summerall, who called an incredible 16 Super Bowls.
After an early run with Tom Brookshire, Summerall formed an immortal broadcast kinship with John Madden. And the two became the faces and voices of our new, national sport, leapfrogging baseball sometime between 1975 and 1985.
If Madden was LeBron James then Summerall was Dwyane Wade, each serving himself and each other without any apparent effort. While Madden’s spastic, screen-scribbling approach spiked your adrenaline, Summerall was the calming cadence of reason.
While too many announcers and TV anchors think they are the show, rehearsing their throaty signature calls in front of hotel mirrors for years, Summerall knew the game was enough, and he spent four decades dwelling in sublime understatement.
Summerall is not known for style or suits or panache; just for perfection. The fact that he isn’t known for some pompous sermon speaks to how broadly and beautifully he painted the sporting canvas since the ’60s. And he did it all within an economy of words that belies the current template of narcissistic, hair-gelled, Armani-clad histrionics.
The Summerall-Brookshire tandem was just a year or two before my time. But he Madden-Summerall duet was as much a part of the game as the pigskin itself. Madden went on to endorse a myriad of products and spawn a billion-dollar video game franchise bearing his name, while Summerall just did his job, lobbing semantic softballs Madden’s way and deferring to the game, knowing when to talk or not — seemingly born with a perfect tuning fork for sound and silence.
Like many humans — particularly well-known and well-heeled members of society — Summerall fell prey to the bottle, and in 1992 he was told that his next drink could literally kill him. Forced into the Betty Ford Clinic, Summerall concedes that he spent an extra week in treatment because he was so ornery upon arrival. But he stayed, and stayed sober for 20 years.
As always, Summerall made the right call. And we are better fans, if not better people, because of it. Football, if not the world, won’t be the same without Summerall, sui generis of this generation.
Is Summerall your favorite all-time football announcer? If not, where does he rank on your list? Let us know in the comments section below…