Succinct Sportscaster Summerall, a Classic

When the Chicago Bears defeated the St. Louis Rams, 24-0, in the National Football League championship game to reach the Super Bowl, in 1986, the win looked so decisive that it hardly needed a play-by-play commentary.

But sportscaster Pat Summerall, working with rambunctious John Madden, managed to put both grace and finality into the day, which was wind-off-the-lake, winter cold, after the Bears scored their last touchdown, putting scale and drama into describing a PAT (Point After Touchdown):

“The kick—like everything else today for the Chicago Bears—was perfect,” I remember him intoning.

That was actually a lot of words for Summerall, the former NFL placekicker who became a legendary NFL—and golf and tennis—announcer with Madden and other partners, known for elegant brevity who made every word count as in announcing a Redskin highlight: “Riggins barrels into the end zone, touchdown Redskins”—or not: “Riggins. Left side. Nothing doing.”

To hear of Summerall’s death, at the age 82 on April 16, is to realize just how much sports announcing has changed. There are no Pat Summeralls around, or even Pat Summerall wannabes. It’s talk, talk, talk, sports talk and cliches. Will somebody just call a homer a homer (instead of rockets and taters), instead of being one?

He and Madden were in some ways a perfect match of opposites when they called NFL games first on CBS Sports then on Fox Sports—a move that made Fox instantly respectable in football circles. Here was Madden, a jumping bean of a man, full of stats, drawings, a motor mouth of considerable heft, a one-time coach for the Oakland Raiders who made an industry out of himself. And here was Summerall, who, next to Madden, could have been Calvin Coolidge in terms of word count.

But Summerall could set the stage, describe the scene, and it was a voice that had a coal miner’s poetry to it, and a ringing authority. Watching a very fast running back score a touchdown: “Speed kills. Touchdown.” He had a voice that was great on television and radio, and a physical presence that resonated like a movie star’s, rugged, sage when his hair turned white, an athlete’s build with a gentleman’s manner.

As a kicker, Summerall famously beat a Cleveland Browns team with a last-second 49-yard field goal. I remember this because I lived in Ohio way back when. He battled—and triumphed over—alcoholism by checking into the Betty Ford clinic which tacked several days on his stay because of his anger over friends who engineered an intervention. He told one reporter that he didn’t want to go because he was having too much fun.

For years, the rather civilized CBS mega hit “Murder She Wrote,” starring the esteemed actress Angela Lansbury, racked up big ratings on Sunday. The suspicion remains that it was because of this: “Tonight, on CBS, after “60 Minutes,” “Murder She Wrote,” as practically commanded by the voice of Pat Summerall.

John Madden called him “the voice of football.” These are too many words for a Summerall tribute. He would have liked the comment from a fan, for the brevity, if not the sentiment: “He. Is. Legend.”


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