January 16, 2018

Pat Summerall, 1930-2013

“Phil Pozderac.”

“Vernon Dean.”

If mere mortals speak these names of mere mortal players they sound dull.  Maybe even squeaky.  But when Pat Summerall uttered the name of a Dallas Cowboys lineman or a Washington Redskins cornerback those players assumed the majesty of noble warriors.

They became gentlemen of the gridiron.

In his 40 years as an NFL announcer, Pat Summerall had a voice and a delivery that were cool, confident and smoothing, even amid inaccuracies.  In a 1985 game between the Cowboys and Chicago Bears, Summerall said Bears rookie Keith “Or-TAY-go” was in to return a punt.  The next time Ortego took the field Summerall said “I’ve been told the correct pronunciation is OR-tuh-go.”

Simple.  Direct.  It may seem like a small thing but there must be a reason it’s remembered by at least one person nearly 30 years later.  It was the way a broadcaster should be: devoted to accuracy and subtlety.   It was just the way Summerall did things.

Pat Summerall’s career as a broadcaster of football, golf, basketball, tennis and other ventures followed an impressive stint on the field.

He played defensive end, tight end and place kicker at Arkansas and was selected by the Detroit Lions in the fourth round of the 1952 NFL draft.  He stuck primarily with kicking in the pros but occasionally put his hand in the dirt on offense and defense, playing with the Chicago Cardinals from 1953 to 1957 and then for the New York Giants from 1958 through ’61.  He finished with 100 career field goals and 563 points.

Summerall was as cool on the field as he was in the booth.  In 1958 he kicked a last second 49-yard field goal amid the snow and wind at Yankee Stadium to help the Giants beat the Cleveland Browns.  The Giants needed that victory to force a playoff with the Browns a week later, which they also won before losing to the Baltimore Colts in the NFL Championship Game, “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

Summerall’s jersey numbers over his ten NFL seasons were 84, 85, 83 and 88.  When was the last time you saw a kicker with an 88 jersey?  It was probably Pat Summerall.

When Summerall was with the Giants the team’s defensive coordinator was Tom Landry.  The offensive coordinator was Vince Lombardi.  Since Summerall played on both sides of the ball he was coached by both of them.

Maybe Summerall should have become a coach.

Pat Summerall’s life wasn’t perfect and neither was he.  He was born with a “bum leg” which had to be surgically broken and he spent the first six weeks of his life in a cast.  His parents, as Summerall writes in his autobiography, Summerall: On and Off the Air, didn’t want him and he was brought up by relatives, primarily his grandmother, who struggled to provide for him during the depression and World War Two.

Summerall learned the art of storytelling from his grandmother and developed into a superb athlete and broadcaster but a flawed person.  His autobiography begins with him describing finally getting treatment for his alcohol abuse.  The year was 2002.

Imagine a poor kid from a small town in Florida with a bad leg.  He listens to the radio, reads the sports pages and runs and jumps under the watchful eyes of an old woman who tells him stories about the Civil War and lets him know he is loved.

There were voices in Pat Summerall’s soul and power in his leg.

There was delight and dignity in his voice.  From a small town in the South to a snow day in New York to the ears of several generations who listened closely.


Book Review: Madden: A Biography

Don’t put John Madden in a video game box, in a coach’s box or a broadcast booth. When you think you have him figured out, a surprise awaits you.

“John Madden is totally different in person from what you see on the air,” a close friend said. “A very private person, in many ways a lonely person with no habits other than football” (xvi, Madden).

Read “Madden: A Biography” by Bryan Burwell because:

1. Madden will always be a coach.

In 10 seasons, Coach Madden’s Raiders captured seven Western Division titles, five straight from 1972 to 1976. At a time when an NFL schedule spanned 14 games, Madden’s teams won 10 or more games six times. His .759 regular-season winning percentage is the best-ever among coaches with 100 wins. Only George Halas and Curly Lambeau secured 100 wins more quickly.

After a knee injury ended his pro football career, Madden found himself coaching junior highers. By the time he was 32, he was coaching pros. Of course that came with Al Davis attached. When Davis questioned Madden’s age, Madden responded, “What’s age got to do with it?  If I can be the head coach, I can be the head coach now. I either have it in me or I don’t. And I said I have it in me, so it doesn’t make any difference if we do it now or three or four years from now or five years from now.” Davis asked what qualified Madden. “Well, what were your credentials to get to be [the Raiders boss] at such a young age?” Madden said (71.)

As head coach, Madden had three rules: Be on time, pay attention and play like hell when I tell you to. That was it. Madden never liked rules anyway. Why should he enforce a long list on his players?

No wonder he was beloved by players. He loved his family and his family loved him, but after 10 seasons leading the Raiders, Madden had to play catch up with his family. “It’s sad but true. I didn’t have any idea how old my kids were,” he said (179.) That’s when he knew it was time to retire from coaching.

2. Broadcasting is another aspect of Madden.

The coach had not given much thought to broadcasting. Matter of fact, he says he was so focused on coaching, he didn’t have time to watch broadcasts. He appeared in a few beer commercials. (Who wouldn’t want to have a brew with the big guy?) Could everybody’s favorite pitch man transition from 30 seconds to three hours? No one was sure.

TV crews soon found out Madden was not merely a funny man. As a player he learned to study film. Wasn’t that what you did in broadcasting? When he started in TV, the answer was no, but Madden changed that.

Madden’s first broadcast rehearsal was with Bob Costas. Costas had been in the business a few years, but he was starting out as well. Years later, the two broadcasting icons recalled one another’s commitment to the craft. Pat Summerall and John Madden first worked together in 1979 and would go to share a partnership in the booth for more than 20 years, forming what many fans call the best football duo ever.

3. Yes, there is a little truth to those preconceived ideas you have, but Madden knows that. What you don’t know is there is so much more to him.

You know you love turducken. You love the Madden cruiser. Can you imagine his bus pulling up to your favorite burger joint? He just might, because the guy loves to eat just like you thought. He loves chatting with perfect strangers too.

Those plays he gets all excited about on your TV? He became enamored of game film study with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. These days Madden has a hard time resisting the urge to get keyed up at his grandson’s football game.

It’s tough to know in which category to put John Madden. In 2006, folks put him in the right place, if ever there was one – the Pro Football Hall of Fame – fans can say what they want, but Madden’s record speaks for itself.

Pick up “Madden: A Biography” by Bryan Burwell.

Sam Miller is the founder of Sam’s Dream Blog.  A graduate of the University of Illinois, he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. At the University of Illinois, Miller regularly wrote feature stories about the football team. He has also served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.