Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pat Summerall, 1930-2013

By Kevin Beane

I don't adore too many "celebrities," even among pro athletes. Sure, I like plenty of them, in kind of a passive way, but nothing more than that.

So of the rarified ranks of the famous that can say I have more than a vague admiration for them in my life, only four have passed away. In 2005, Hunter S. Thompson, my all-time favorite writer, died. Then, a little over a month later, Mitch Hedberg, my all-time favorite stand-up comedian, also passed away.

Then, this past month, Roger Ebert, my all-time favorite humanist, died. Not even two weeks later, Pat Summerall, my all-time favorite announcer, was next to pass on.

It comes in twos, it comes in twos.

Pat Summerall was the voice of football during my childhood, more than any other broadcasting luminary you can name. He was, simply put, the best play-by-play man I have ever heard. He was understated. He got out of the way of both the action and his color man, usually John Madden. Some announcers do enthusiasm well (Gus Johnson), but if you're going to suck, suck with understatement, not bombast.

There are several fascinating aspects to Summerall's story. He didn't start off doing play-by-play. After he retired from the NFL, where he was an accomplished kicker, he followed the formula still used today: ex-players do color. Sports nerds like me who never played competitively beyond high school do play-by-play.

But in 1974, someone at CBS made the very canny and astute move of moving Summerall to play-by-play. All he would do with that is become the standard by which all announcers would be judged over the next 30 years. He became the best at communicating without any sort of formal training.

Very, very few pro athletes go on to do play-by-play. I'm sure there are more, but I can only think of two, both in baseball: Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, who if I could fire any one announcer in the country, it would be him, and Buck Martinez, who did color commentary on MLB Network for the World Baseball Classic, and then switched to his normal play-by-play once his main gig, covering the Toronto Blue Jays, began. I'll give Martinez some props, he's pretty good.

The man who replaced Summerall as FOX's main NFL play-by-play announcer is Joe Buck. Buck emulates Summerall's staid demeanor. It's just that he comes across as smug, whereas Summerall seemed humble. Also, Buck can be a bit of a prude and a moralizer.. Also (unconvincing backpedal notwithstanding),he'd rather watch "The Bachelor" than most sports. Also, I really, really just hate his work. Cannot stand it.

I think Summerall would've checked out earlier if faced with the prospect of having to watch "The Bachelor" rather than sports. Buck only covers baseball and football for FOX, and for some reason he hasn't started up again calling baseball for FOX again this season.

Summerall, by contrast, covered play-by-play for CBS in golf, tennis, and basketball. And as far as football goes, he kept working just as long as someone was interested in hearing him.

It was bittersweet hearing him his last few years at FOX. As he advanced in age, mistakes became more frequent, which John Madden would gently correct. He semi-retired in 2002, agreeing to cover games for FOX closer to his home in Dallas (naturally, this meant a lot of Cowboys games), working with Brian Baldinger. After a year of that, his retirement became more substantial, but he continued to do play-by-play on a sort of substitute teacher basis for FOX and ESPN until 2007, and handled play-by-play for the Cotton Bowl all the way until 2010.

I got the impression that he never truly wanted to absolutely, completely retire, which is why he kept showing up as a replacement for occasional broadcasts, as well as the Cotton Bowl.

His age may have showed in these broadcasts, but I would be thrilled to hear him for another five years even if he got every player and team name wrong. An era has passed and a staple of my childhood. RIP.

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