The announcer who did not talk too much

The Dallas Morning News reports as the subject would have described it:

Pat Summerall died Tuesday. He was 82.

That’s how Summerall, almost a decade ago, said he would craft the first sentences of his obituary — short and to the point.

The legendary sports broadcaster died in his hospital room at Zale Lipshy University Hospital, where he was recovering from surgery for a broken hip, a family friend said.

Summerall’s comment about his obituary was made at his Southlake home after a 2004 liver transplant that saved his life. He was serious.

Typical … succinct … vintage Summerall.

His minimalist staccato style coupled with a deep, authoritative voice was his trademark as the pre-eminent NFL voice for a generation of television viewers.

Summerall worked 16 Super Bowls in a network career that began at CBS in 1962 and ended at Fox in 2002.

In the 21 seasons in which play-by-play voice Summerall worked alongside John Madden, they grew into America’s most popular sports broadcast team. Their work for CBS at Super Bowl XVI, following the 1981 season, remains the highest-rated NFL game of all-time, with more than 49 percent of the nation tuned in.

“I was so lucky I got to work with Pat,” Madden said in an interview around the time of Summerall’s transplant. “He was so easy to work with. He knew how to use words. For a guy like myself who rambles on and on and doesn’t always make sense, he was sent from heaven.”

Summerall did either color or play-by-play on 16 Super Bowls, working first with Ray Scott …

… before becoming 0ne of TV sports’ first players-turned-play-by-play guys:

Summerall first worked with Ray Scott, the famed announcer of few words. And that’s certainly where Summerall became the announcer of few words himself, although he was certainly capable of understated humor:

As CBS’ and Fox’s number one NFL announcer, he got to do a few memorable Packer games:

Summerall did other sports, most famously golf, plus tennis. He even did the NBA, including a game famous to the (few remaining) fans of the Bucks:

The former basketball player also did NCAA basketball tournament games for CBS in 1985. He did sports for WCBS radio in New York (whose first all-news day started with its own news — a plane crash into its tower), and hosted NFL Films’ “This Week in Pro Football.”

Summerall had a great voice, and worked ideally with his more loquacious partners, particularly Madden. Remember Scott’s stereotypical call — “Starr … Dowler … touchdown”? For Summerall, it was “Staubach … Pearson … touchdown,” or “Montana … Rice … touchdown.”

Ed Sherman asks an interesting question:

Could Pat Summerall have been given the assignment to call 16 Super Bowls, all those Masters and U.S. Opens in tennis in today’s landscape?

It is an interesting question. The networks likely wouldn’t have been jumping all over each other to sign a former kicker who really didn’t say much on the telecasts. It’s more about color and flash, and unfortunately, sometimes screaming and yelling in today’s game. Summerall hardly was a flamboyant personality. …

Summerall did it because of two main assets: A wonderful deep voice that punctuated his wonderful sense of brevity. He didn’t overwhelm a telecast. Rather, he melted into it, providing the ideal sound track to accompany the hum of the venue and the pulse of the action taking place down below. …

He played the straight man, always bringing out the best in his partners.

What Summerall did really was an art. Would it work today with the volume turned up several levels in 2013? Who knows?

Sports on Earth:

I still hear Pat Summerall saying something spare — “Third and ten . . .” — and I know the light has been fading outdoors. I know just as sure as any clockwork that Daylight Saving Time might be on its way, or that Daylight Saving Time has crashed in and blackened 5:30 already. I do not need to move from this seat. I do not need to look through a window. I know.

The deep, economized sound of the voice tells me the weather without telling me the weather. Of course it does. I know it’s quite probably crisp outside. I know the trees have taken on some mighty colors even if I’m not really looking at them during this game. I know there’s a plausible chance the sky has grayed, the birds mostly have left. I know that if I went outside and walked along the sidewalk to the driveway, the leaves might make that great sound when they crunch under my sneakers. I might look down the street to a distant front yard, see some kids playing, some hopeless bomb flying incomplete. …

In the den where the voice resonates, or in living rooms otherwise silent, or at the neighbors’ where you enter the house and can hear it from the other room, or in those houses where it maybe even comes from two places, the voice signals the momentous. It comes from on high in Irving, Texas, or from the Meadowlands of New Jersey, or from out by the bay in San Francisco, or Lambeau Field in later years, from the weighty games of the then-dominant NFC. It means the game matters, might sway the conference race, might determine home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

For 28 seasons and 16 Super Bowls the voice implies gravitas, for a time alongside Tom Brookshier, then 22 seasons mingled with John Madden in the two-man NFL symphony, the voice giving way to the tick-tock of “60 Minutes,” or sounding kind of funny giving the Fox evening lineup.

I hear the voice, and I know the wall calendar has just about run out of pages. I can taste my mother’s Thanksgiving dressing, picture the grandparents driving in. The Christmas tree stands right over there; it seems so familiar with the voice. Friends will be over. May I get you a drink? Can’t wait for the playoffs. There goes Madden, explaining some contour of the game you did not know.

Now, here’s Summerall: “Third and 10 . . .”

The voice lets the game supply the drama, as all its admirers acknowledge and commend. It’s reliable, egoless and a bit clumsy on occasion. You might root for it through its unexpected pauses. There it goes all low and minimalist without a hint of a shout, as Adam Vinatieri’s field goal sails through to beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI: “And it’s right down the pipe.” Here it rises just a bit on the word “good” as Matt Bahr’s field goal at Candlestickstaves off the 49ers dynasty in the 1991 NFC Championship Game: “The kick . . . (pause) . . . is good . . . (pause) . . . There will be no three-peat.” Here it lets Marcus Allen’s amazing 74-yard run against Washington do the goose-bumping: “Here’s Marcus Allen . . . (pause) . . . cutting back up the field and Marcus Allen could be gone.”

Allen runs the last half of the field sans narration.

All you hear is the roar.

It makes your neck hairs salute.

Awful Announcing adds:

No matter the venue, the broadcast partner, or the sport, Summerall’s voice was always the same.  Calm.  Commanding.  Reliable.  That voice is one that will never be duplicated.  When you heard Pat Summerall’s voice, you knew what you were watching mattered.

His understated delivery made sure the game was always at center stage where it belonged.  He never talked more than his broadcast partners.  John Madden would never have been John Madden without a partner like Pat Summerall.  Perhaps that’s one of the greatest testaments to one of the greatest careers in not just sports broadcasting, but all of broadcasting.

Summerall’s legacy has been far underrated by the social media generation.  To be fair, maybe we’ve lost our way a bit in what makes the best sports announcers.  Pat Summerall was never someone who would compel fans to make Youtube tribute videos.  I even tried to find a favorite Summerall call from Youtube to try to insert in this article, but perhaps it’s fitting there really isn’t one.  Summerall didn’t need to jump out of his chair or come up with clever nicknames to do his job.  In a sports world that lives, breathes, eats, and sleeps on viral videos, highlights, and catchphrases, Summerall was none of that flash.  Only substance.  Only the best.

In the ’70s and ’80s, when I hadn’t figured out that, yes, you can like more than one announcer, I preferred NBC’s Dick Enberg to Summerall. Today, ABC’s Al Michaels is the best football announcer. But Summerall taught a valuable lesson to someone who yearned to have his job. If you have a talkative partner, less can really be more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s