Associated Press / NFL Photos
Those of us who have spent much of our Sunday lives seated in front of the television, dutifully watching NFL football, can be genuinely thankful that Charlie Conerly was in the shower the day the call came, back in the fall of 1960. The head of the New York–based CBS radio network was phoning to remind the legendary New York Giants quarterback of his scheduled audition to host a daily five-minute football show.
Conerly’s roommate, Pat Summerall, the Giants’ end/place-kicker, answered the phone. Upon learning that Conerly was otherwise occupied, the caller asked that Summerall forward the message, then, as an afterthought, suggested that he should consider joining his roommate and audition as well.
And that, as we cliché lovers like to say, was the birth of a legend.
Summerall’s deep baritone voice won the day, launching a broadcasting career that would span a half century and eventually earn him every plaudit his industry had to offer for his play-by-play roles for CBS, Fox and ESPN.
If you’ve followed the 45-year history of the Super Bowl, you’ve welcomed Summerall into your living room more often than you have any other sportscaster in history. He called the plays on television in 16 Super Bowls. You heard his radio voice as an analyst, a sideline reporter and a color commentator on 10 CBS radio broadcasts.
And while the Fox network’s Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will be handling this year’s telecast, Pat will still be a familiar face when Super Bowl XLV, which he helped lure as a member of the North Texas Host Committee, plays out in Arlington’s mammoth Cowboys Stadium. There will be the annual Super Bowl Week Legends for Charity Dinner (which benefits St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital), at which he’ll again be asked to present the prestigious Pat Summerall Award to a worthy sports broadcaster of today’s generation. At an annual evening set aside for members of the press on hand to cover the game, Summerall, Sports Illustrated legend Dan Jenkins and retired Dallas newspaper icon Frank Luksa will be honored as the first recipients of the Blackie Sherrod Award for lifetime achievement.
Summerall, 80, and the game have come a long way. He remembers the inaugural premerger matchup in 1967 between the NFL Green Bay Packers and the AFL Kansas City Chiefs. “The top ticket price was $12, and there were 10,000 empty seats,” he recalls. “The Packers felt they were already champions, having won the NFL championship, so their coach, Vince Lombardi, wasn’t at all keen on [their] even playing the game.”
Nor was he too warm to a bizarre suggestion that sideline reporter Summerall was instructed to pass along. “As the second half got under way, the networks [CBS and NBC simulcast the game] were still airing a commercial when the Packers kicked off. I was told to go to Lombardi and ask if he would mind kicking off again.” Summerall, still in the early days of his network career, informed the director in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t about to make such an absurd request. “I really thought I’d ended my broadcasting career,” he admits. Instead, someone else was dispatched to approach the volcanic Lombardi and, believe it or not, a second kickoff was agreed upon. Summerall’s stubborn refusal was quickly forgotten.
Today’s Super Bowl, Summerall concedes, has become a social event of such magnitude that many fans can no longer afford to attend. “A good ticket,” he notes, “will run in the $1,500 range.”
Even for those not among the 100,000-plus who will be seated in the $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium, the game will again take on the atmosphere of a national holiday. Television viewership has climbed from the combined 50 million who watched the CBS/NBC simulcast of the first Super Bowl to the 98 million who tuned in to NBC’s telecast of last year’s game.
Summerall could see it all coming. “The fascination with the game really exploded during Super Bowl III, when Joe Namath and the New York Jets played the highly favored Baltimore Colts. Namath captured the attention of the sports world by guaranteeing that he and his underdog Jets would win.” The New York media had a field day with Broadway Joe and his cocky pregame promise, and the interest spread nationwide. By the time the Jets won, the Super Bowl was established as an American institution.
And joining into it all was Pat Summerall, with his always spare and comfortable delivery, first with in-booth partner Tom Brookshier in the 1970s, then for 22 seasons with colorful sidekick John Madden, becoming the electronic friend of everyone who watched the games.
He was always the good neighbor or the favorite uncle in the broadcast booth, never insulting the intelligence of his audience. Aware that we could see a play unfold, he felt no need to unnecessarily insert himself into the action. Example: When Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen broke for the 75-yard touchdown that assured the Los Angeles Raiders’ victory in Super Bowl XVIII, Summerall waited silently until the dramatic run was completed, then said only, “Touchdown, 75 yards.”
It was all we needed to know.