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The voice on the other line is gruff but familiar, a unique Texas twang with a deep timbre. Strangely, it's comforting, even hypnotizing, and it's easy to understand how the conversation quickly morphs from interview to chat to lullaby. The voice, so calm and confident, is one that's been heard for years, one that first left its indelible mark on my inner ear when I was two apples high and weighed just as much. It's the voice associated with all things football, as big a part of the game as shoulder pads and helmets and goal posts.
It's a week before Super Bowl XXXV, and Pat Summerall is holed away in his Southlake home, a phone pressed to his head as he politely answers questions about everything and nothing from a man he's never met. He'd rather be prepping to work, running over miles of game tape with 20-year collaborator John Madden before Sunday's New York-Baltimore extravaganza. But this is CBS's year, so, rather than entertaining millions, Summerall's enchanting tone amuses a lone columnist. Amuses him with a refreshing candidness often lost, frankly, somewhere between the television cameras and America's living rooms. Punching, apparently, isn't for play-by-play men. At least not on air.
Sure, he'd prefer to be in Tampa right now, announcing--"It's the ultimate for broadcasters, just like it is for the players," he offers easily--but you can't cover them all. Even though he'd like to. He's done 15 of the big games, some for CBS (where he started his career in 1961), the more recent ones for Fox, where he's been employed since the gonzo network picked up the NFL seven seasons ago. "It's sort of a letdown when it's over," he says. "It's better to be working the game."
A lot of the time, that probably would be true. But if you're going to miss a year, why not this year? Most wanted Oakland to play the Vikings--two clubs keyed by their offenses. Two clubs that were aesthetically pleasing to watch, that offered the potential for big plays and not much time to make a beer run. The Giants and the Ravens hardly scream "excitement." In fact, you could probably brew your own beer in the average time it's taken them to "wow" anyone this season.
Most expect it to be a ratings disaster, a sedative doubling as a defensive standoff. After all, N.Y.--which should really call itself N.J. because that's where the posers play--shut out the Vikings, and Baltimore hasn't allowed double digits since Bernie Kosar was under center and the team played in Cleveland. Or something like that.
Still, Summerall would rather watch two good defenses pitted in a cockfight, snore-bore that it may be, than two paper tigers pussyfooting around.
"I'll tell you, the Giants looked awfully good in the [NFC] Championship," he counters before opening fire. "I don't think they're getting enough credit. It was a shock to me that they played that well, but we were in a meeting with the Minnesota people and they were bitching about everything. They had no idea what was going on. They were complaining about the field and talking about having to defend the Giants' passing game and [tight end] Howard Cross.
"Well, shit, Howard Cross caught four passes all year. To me, they just weren't ready. New York deserves to be here. It's not like this is anything new. Each year it's the teams with the good defenses that go far. And Baltimore, when we saw them, I thought then, and I still think it now, that they're the best team we saw all year."
Of course, it wasn't what you or any of the doubters thought. The slip-ups had less to do with his age than it did with a painful knee injury that hindered simple tasks such as walking and standing. And when he couldn't stand--he and Madden prefer to be on their feet for the entirety of a broadcast--it changed everything. Working became an afterthought because of mind-numbing pain. Meanwhile, the critics circled like buzzards, looking for pounds of his flesh with every misstep.
He could have succumbed to the pressure. Could have given in, given up. Could have faded into the background like a memory. But that would have been too easy and certainly too degrading. Besides, he wasn't done.
Prior to this season, Summerall had the knee replaced, alleviating most of the pain and nearly all the distractions. It showed on air this year, where he returned to a form for which so many of us revered him for decades. The more polished broadcasts resulted in numerous comeback awards from myriad journalists, some of whom were the same people trying to kick his ass out the door in the first place. Comeback awards from journalists so young they thought Summerall got his big break with Madden 2000.
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