Pat Summerall's Unselfishness Made Him a Great Communicator

We turn the blog over to our colleague Tim Clodjeaux for a tribute to broadcasting great Pat Summerall, who died April 16 at 82.  Summerall showed a broadcaster could connect with his audience in a memorable, reassuring way without calling attention to himself.  In fact, Summerall had no catch-phrases, no gimmicky calls — just a generous spirit that allowed John Madden to become the most popular football analyst ever and set up countless other on-air partners for success.

By Tim Clodjeaux

The sports world this week remembers the life and talent of broadcasting legend Pat Summerall.  He not only called 16 Super Bowls but also anchored coverage of the Masters and tennis’ U.S. Open for many years on CBS.  People often forget that he also called the play-by-play for the NBA Finals featuring the champion Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks in 1974 as well.

When a great play-by-play announcer passes on, most journalists attempt to find audio and video clips of that guy’s greatest calls.  When St. Louis Cardinals icon Jack Buck died several years ago, how many times did we hear his famous “I can’t believe what I just saw!  I can’t believe what I just saw!” following Kirk Gibson’s memorable pinch-hit home run in Game One of the 1988 World Series.  Buck made hundreds of extraordinary calls in his career – in baseball and in football – yet the Gibson homer is the one for which he will be forever remembered.

The thing is, though, as great as Summerall was, he didn’t have any of those “signature” calls. This proved to be a monumental struggle for bloggers and editors this week when they tried to find great Summerall clips.

And there is one big reason why.  Summerall, you see, was not a man of words and phrases.  He made his mark and entertained his viewers by letting the pictures – and the Hall of Fame coach or playing legend sitting next to him, be it John Madden, golfing great Ken Venturi or tennis expert Tony Trabert  – do most of the talking.  

Yes, Summerall was at the top of his profession.  Strangely enough, though, he is not remembered for his own words but more for the way he unselfishly brought out the words of his color analysts.  Much of what has been written about Summerall following his death is how he helped to make Madden the most celebrated NFL color commentator of all time.  Who knows, without Summerall's generous spirit, Madden may never have gained the popularity that gave rise to the Madden video game franchise and those memorable Miller Lite, Ace Hardware and "Tough Actin'" Tinactin commercials.  Nobody knew how to use his color commentator better than Summerall.

It’s also significant to note that many people are realizing for the first time that the legendary CBS and Fox sportscaster was an accomplished placekicker in the NFL before he got behind the microphone.

Former players becoming announcers has long been a staple in the world of sports television.  The fact that makes Summerall’s move to the booth so unique is that he accomplished his notoriety and fame as a play-by-play announcer and not an analyst.

Yes, the former Chicago Cardinal – who was the placekicker on the 1958 New York Giants -- the team that lost what has arguably been called pro football’s “greatest game ever” – did start his announcing career as a color commentator.  In fact, his initial Super Bowl assignment was as a sideline reporter at the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game (as it was called in its infancy) for CBS.  He then served as color commentator for his next four Super Bowl assignments and finally took over the familiar play-by-play role in 1976 when he called the first of his 11 Super Bowls.

Summerall is not the lone former player to excel behind the microphone in a play-by-play role.  Receiving great Frank Gifford enjoyed an extensive career, mostly on Monday Night Football for ABC.  Former catcher Joe Garagiola was NBC’s lead baseball announcer for many years and later earned the prestigious Ford Frick Award.  Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean (Cardinals), Phil Rizzuto (Yankees) and Don Drysdale (Dodgers) all followed their playing careers with long and successful stints as play-by-play announcers for local teams and each additionally worked national and postseason games for the networks.  Play-by-play guys like Bob Uecker and Ken Harrelson have moved on to enjoy more success and much longer careers as broadcasters than they did as players.

Yet none of these men – with the possible exceptions of Gifford and Garagiola – reached the level that Summerall did.  Gifford called one Super Bowl (1985) as a play-by-play man and Garagiola worked five play-by-play assignments in the World Series.  Neither of them approached the 11 Super Bowls and numerous Masters and U.S. Opens that Summerall covered.

The sports world needs more broadcasters like Pat Summerall, but it likely won’t find many who are better.  He had the combination of a memorable, calming voice, a deliberate and smooth style and a temperament that may never be duplicated.

And for those of us who grew up in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, he was the voice – with due apologies to our local pastors – that we all wanted to listen to on Sundays.