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Original Issue

Pat Summerall 1930--2013

The iconic NFL star brought insight, understated dignity and a mellifluous voice to the booth

Pat Summerall tethered John Madden to the broadcast booth for 21 NFL seasons, Summerall's down-to-earth delivery anchoring his partner's flights of fancy in one of the most enduring and successful television marriages ever. Probably one of the most influential too, their comforting presence in our living rooms as responsible for the creation of this generation's must-see TV as the development of the forward pass. What fall Sunday was allowed to come and go without their narration of a nation's new pastime, their on-air partnership as entertaining, as genuine and as reassuring as the game itself?

Summerall, who died last week at age 82, was the underrated half of that team, cast as the straight man, the play-by-play guy who counterbalanced Madden's more colorful, and occasionally nonsensical, analysis with down and distance. For every "Boom!" and "Wham!" from Madden, there was an understated and insightful description from Summerall. His dignity and reserve—in a trade that was increasingly given to shtick—were as much trademarks as his rich baritone, a marvelous instrument in its own right.

But Summerall was more than a supporting actor in Madden's booth. He'd already had 20 years behind the microphone before he was teamed with Madden in 1981, during which time he had polished a style—pioneered it, really—that even today eludes most broadcasters. The idea of simplicity, directness and total lack of affect was as fresh then as it would be now. Madden's particular approach was a marvel of its day, his gibberish at least authentic, entirely forgiven for his childlike enthusiasm. But when he went "Bang!" or flew off into strange tangents about offensive linemen, Summerall was certain to restore some much needed coherence with a declarative sentence or two (but hardly ever more than that).

Here was Summerall during his final broadcast with Madden, on Feb. 3, 2002, calling a game-winning field goal: "It's right down the pipe. Adam Vinatieri. No time on the clock. And the Patriots have won Super Bowl XXXVI. Unbelievable." Anybody could do that, it's true enough. It's just that nobody ever does.

It takes a lot of confidence to use a serviceable English, verging on the nondescript even, to announce a sporting event these days. But Summerall, perhaps because he'd played the game himself, understood that nobody was tuning in to listen to a play-by-play man give overwrought descriptions of the action, precious impressions of the event; or wring emotion from a down-and-out route or ramble on and on, not a second of dead air to relax in. The game was attraction enough, and Summerall's particular genius was to get out of the way and stay there.

No catchphrases for Summerall is what we're saying.

Summerall knew what it was to be a real star, after all, kicking for the Giants (as well as the Lions and the Chicago Cardinals) in a career that ran from 1952 through '61. It was Summerall's 49-yard field goal, through wind and snow, that beat the Browns and helped push New York into the 1958 championship game with the Baltimore Colts, the so-called Greatest Game Ever Played. Maybe, once you've been the toast of the town, you don't need to reflexively draw attention to yourself. Maybe, once ego is satisfied, it's enough to draw attention to the game itself.

Not that his life was undramatic. Summerall, who lent his pipes to golf coverage and tennis as well (he called more Masters—26—than he did Super Bowls—16), was by all accounts, including his own, quite an alcoholic, the peripatetic life of a play-by-play man meshing nicely with that of a relentless partier. By 1992 his drinking was sufficiently out of control that an intervention was required (among the intervening bunch, former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman). After 33 days in the Betty Ford Center (the first five of a normally 28-day stay wasted in fury at his supporters, he later said), Summerall emerged with a sobriety he maintained for the rest of his life (although his liver did not last as long; he had a transplant in 2004).

There are, to be fair, certain heirs to his legacy, announcers who do not believe each game is their personal cabaret. But hardly any among them hew as closely to the less-is-more credo as Summerall did. Even Madden, in a statement released upon his friend's death, had to concede that Summerall's practiced noneloquence, his reverse showmanship, beat all when it came to calling a game.

"Pat is the voice of football," Madden said, "and always will be."