Don't Call It a Comeback
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.
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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."
It's a credit to Summerall, to his determination, that he saw anyone this year. In '99 he was heavily criticized--most notably and frequently by L.A. Daily News writer Tom Hoffarth--for having stayed in the booth past his prime. The detractors said he made too many mistakes, misidentified too many players. Said he should step away before this year, before Summerall, 70, tarnished his name. Said he should abandon a career that's witnessed countless awards for his pre-eminence in play-by-play, making him a gray-haired legend long after some of his contemporaries were unwilling, or unable, to continue.
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.
If it all weren't so comical, it might be insulting.
"I think I had a much better year this year," he says proudly. Though his contract expires in 2002, Summerall has no plans to retire then. Or anytime soon. "It was a sort of redemption. Anytime anyone says something bad about you, it bothers you, sure. I don't care who you are, negative feedback bothers you. But the writers, that never bothered me as much as other things. What bothered me most was the people around me, some of the people who I thought were my friends, who said the game had passed me by or that I didn't have it. It's tougher when it's coming from people who you care about and who you thought cared about you. That's what hurt most."
And now? Well, he wouldn't say it but...In their eye.
Ironic, isn't it? A man, so distinguished, so obviously in love with the game, stubbornly refusing to bow out even though the consensus begged for such action. Sound like anyone we know?
He's talked to Troy Aikman about it, about the signal caller calling it quits. Even commented publicly, telling something called Final Edition a few months ago that the Walking Concussion should hang 'em up. Summerall has softened a bit since then, maybe in light of his own situation, maybe because he remembers how tough it was to play the game. And how rewarding.
"Troy's full of machismo," Summerall says of his friend. "I think he wants to play some more, and that's understandable. I don't have enough medical experience to comment on whether that's a smart decision considering his history with concussions. But it's understandable, not wanting to quit, especially if you've been a star on Troy's level, for as long as he's been a star. That would be awfully difficult to give up. I'm sure it was a hard thing for Michael [Irvin].
"For me, when I quit, I was only 31 [after a 10-year career with the Chicago Cardinals and G-men], but it wasn't a tough decision. I had a wife and three children and I was banged up a bit, so it was an easy call. But for Troy, I could see how it would be pretty tough."
Either way, Summerall says, the Cowboys will need some fine-tuning. There are still some quality players on the roster, players he thinks have a few good games left such as Darren Woodson and Flozell Adams and Larry Allen and Solomon Page. He names "seven or eight" guys who are the nucleus in Irving. Says it would be too drastic to "blow the team up," that things aren't as bad as they seem.
Now, being the staunch Jerry Jones advocate that I am, I respectfully disagree. I contend things are exactly as bad as they seem, and the big man is the reason. Citing salary cap constraints and a less-than-productive talent base, I argue that Jones' meddlesome ways have buried a once-proud franchise in an abyss of mediocrity. Basically, I insist the Pokes would need less body work if not for J.J. the Hun.
"But it's not like this is anything new," Summerall argues graciously. "George Halas owned his team and coached it. It's hard to fault him for wanting to be involved, particularly after the success they had [in the mid '90s]. If I bought a team for $140 million and watched it grow to be worth nearly a billion, I would want to keep close watch, too. Wouldn't you?"
For the first time in my life, for a fleeting moment, I think Jones isn't that bad. For a fleeting moment.
Damn that Summerall and his logic.
The velvet voice has been purring into the phone for close to an hour, and never once does he ask to wrap things up. Most television personalities with as much juice as Summerall would rather spit-shine a camel's hind quarters than talk that long to someone like me.
Realizing this, I steer the interview to a close, asking for a prediction about the Super Bowl before he hangs up.
"I've got the sneaking suspicion that the Giants are peaking at the right time," he suggests.
The Giants? Why the Giants? I would rather Dallas win the next 10 straight than New York win this one.
"Well, I did play for them," he reminds me before saying goodbye.
It's the first tune he sings that doesn't sound like music.
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