As Lindsey Nelson walked off National Flight 6 from Miami and into New York's LaGuardia Airport on a recent Tuesday afternoon, sports broadcasting's most peripatetic play-by-play announcer finally admitted that he was tired; he had done three major football games in three cities during the preceding 56 hours. "But I'm not all that tired," he said. "I'll just go home, build a big fire in the fireplace and settle back to finish reading FDR's Last Year." Then he headed off toward the parking area to pick up his red 1974 Datsun.
When Nelson reached the lot, he couldn't find a red Datsun, but there was his turquoise 1973 Cadillac. "Forgot what car I drove to the airport," he said. "Wait a minute, now I remember. I drove the Cadillac here a week ago. I'm only a little confused, right?"
During a football year most broadcasters consider themselves busy if they work 15 games. By the time this season ends Nelson will have done 45, though the football schedule was well along before he really got started. First he had to finish his 13th season as the New York Mets' TV-radio man, a job in which he handles about 175 baseball games a year. Since early October Nelson has announced three football games every weekend: Notre Dame games on Saturdays for a delayed-tape lineup of 130 stations, Sunday NFL games for CBS and the Monday night pro game for about 700 stations around the world on Mutual Radio.
Nelson seems to go from event to event like a squirrel bounding from limb to limb. He maintains that there is no strain at all and that he loves it, which is astonishing considering his flight patterns. Two weeks ago he flew to Knoxville to pick up his daughter Nancy at the University of Tennessee so that she could accompany him to Los Angeles. Took her to dinner at the Polo Lounge, then to the Cock N' Bull and Luau, and then to St. Vincent's Hospital when she had an appendicitis attack. Announced the Notre Dame-USC game. Stuffed his pockets with Dutch chocolate candy bars as a hedge against chicken being served on the red-eye flight to Atlanta. Got to bed at 6 a.m. Awoke at 11 to breakfast with Bart Starr, CBS' analyst for the Falcon-Ram game. Was told that one contestant in the Punt, Pass and Kick Contest would kick on crutches. Got to the booth in Atlanta to find it ankle-deep in water. Broadcast the game and then stood in the snow while a cabdriver put his bags into the trunk. "You're Howard Cosell," said the cabby. "I know that voice. You are Howard Cosell." Nelson said nothing. "Tell me you are Howard Cosell," the hack persisted. "Several cabdrivers have told me that I am Howard Cosell," Nelson finally said. "I must say that in every case it cost the driver a rather large tip." He flew in to Miami at 11:30 p.m. and broadcast the next night's game. As smooth and professional as ever, his concentration was so intense that he never noticed the six occasions when people came into the booth to say hello.
This year Nelson will do the two NFL playoffs and the Cotton Bowl and Sun Bowl. They merely add to his list of more than 100 postseason broadcasts in the last 25 years. "I did the Poinsettia Bowl," he says. "Not too many people have done that. It was in 1952 at Balboa Stadium in San Diego, between Boiling Field and the San Diego Naval Training Center. Coast-to-coast on NBC. It rained and nobody showed up. NBC got the Shore Patrol to go into bars and pick sailors up and bring them to the game. They got about 300 and sat them in one section. When we had to show a crowd shot, we put the cameras on the 300. The SPs were guarding them so they couldn't get away."
The reasons why Nelson persists in his frantic schedule do not include needing the money. As the voice of the Mets he earns more than $100,000, and his Notre Dame connection is one of the more prestigious in football. "If I have loads of time to sit around, I start to go crazy," Nelson says. "If I stay anywhere for 10 days without work, I start walking around a room saying to myself, 'Where's the action?' People talk about Timbuktu and laugh. I've been there. I wanted to see it. I went to Moscow one winter and people wondered why anyone would do such a thing. I wanted to go like Napoleon. I always want to see what's on the other side of the hill."
Nelson's trademark is a collection of sports jackets that run from garish to hideous. He owns 230 of them. "When the Mets went to color TV, I went to a clothing store and said, 'Let me look at all the coats you were unable to sell this year,' " he says. "The man brought them out. A lot of them. I looked them over and said, 'Yeah. Yeah. I'll take them all.' When I would leave home to go to the park, my family would stand in the hall aghast. In Hong Kong I saw some material I liked and asked the tailor to make me up some jackets. How was I to know that I had picked drapery cloth? I had some made out of silk that was so thin that the man sent them to me in a manila envelope. More people know my sports coats than know me."
Not really. He has probably broadcast more major events than any man talking into a mike today. "People ask me what I have in mind for the future," he says. "I'll keep doing what I'm doing. I worked for Tom Gallery at NBC. Got $7,500 as his No. 1 assistant. I've been a gopher. Go for this, go for that. This is what I want to do. I want to broadcast baseball and football. That's all. I'll do almost anything to do it. Anything but eat chicken."
MOMENTARILY AT REST, LINDSEY AWAITS THE RED EYE