Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Sports

Jones: Why Al Michaels is the delight of Sunday night

Al Michaels turned 72 last month, and his 10-year-old grandson had a question.

"Pop Pop, are you retiring?'' he asked.

"You know when I'm going to retire?'' Michaels told his hockey-playing grandson. "When you make your debut in the National Hockey League. I want to announce that game.''

Let's hope Michaels does announce that long. The voice of Sunday Night Football is the best play-by-play man in the business and has been ever since that Lake Placid winter night in 1980 when he made arguably the greatest sports call in history.

Do you believe in miracles?

Here's good news: Michaels has no plans to stop.

"I went to a Bruce Springsteen concert last March for the time,'' Michaels said. "Springsteen — 661/2 years old, running around a sports arena for three hours, 40 minutes without a break. He's running around, lifting teenage girls in the air, he's playing the hell out of every song. I remember thinking to myself, 'Wait a minute. I'm just doing a few football games.' ''

He does more than that. He and analyst Cris Collinsworth call the best show on television. Sunday Night Football not only is the NFL's marquee game of the week, it has become the most-watched show on TV.

A big reason why is Michaels, who has the rare ability to call a perfect broadcast without overshadowing the event. Check him out Sunday when Michaels calls the Bucs-Cowboys game.

For years, Monday Night Football was the most iconic broadcast in sports. Michaels used to call those games, too. But now Monday night has been replaced by Sunday night.

How did that happen?

Michaels points to ESPN's decision to replace producer Fred Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff on Monday nights.

"The best producer and director I have ever worked with,'' Michaels said. "Basically, ESPN said, 'We don't want you guys anymore.' ''

ESPN ran off John Madden as the analyst, too. "Think about that!'' Michaels said.

When NBC was awarded its NFL package in 2005, then-NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, who headed the NFL's TV committee, made sure its Sunday game became the big night game. They scheduled the best games for Sunday night and made sure NBC could get rid of bad games and replace them with good ones late in the season. NBC got Gaudelli and Esocoff to run the show.

Most significant, they hired Michaels and Madden. When Madden retired after the 2008 season, he was replaced by Collinsworth.

"I feel like I had DiMaggio and then I got Mantle,'' Michaels said. "That's about as good of a transition as you can get.''

Michaels' first time working with Collinsworth was a Sunday night game in 2008 at — of all places — Raymond James Stadium. Madden had taken a rare game off, and Collinsworth stepped in.

Michaels laughed as he remembered that the Bucs' 20-10 win over the Seahawks was one of the lowest-rated games in SNF history.

"We made up for it later that season,'' he said.

That was Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, when the Steelers beat the Cardinals.

"The greatest game I've ever done in the 31 years of doing the NFL,'' Michaels said.

That game also featured the greatest play Michaels has seen: James Harrison's rumbling, bumbling, stumbling 100-yard interception return for a touchdown on the last play of the first half for the Steelers.

Go back and listen to Michaels' measured, yet dramatic call, punctuated by a simple but effective: "Unbelievable.''

"I watch replays of it,'' Michaels said. "And every time I watch it, I keep waiting for (Harrison) to run out of gas.''

That classic turned out to be Madden's last game. He retired from the booth after the season. Madden told Michaels he knew he was done.

"He just said, 'It's time,' '' Michaels said.

Fortunately for us, Michaels has not reached that "time.''

"I think the whole thing is passion,'' he said. "I still love what I do. Love being at the stadium every time we do a game. I love the buzz in a stadium. I just love it. …. It's great fun working on the best show in television with the best people to work with. This is a case of if you love what you do, I'm not thinking about retiring.''

Good news for his grandson. Even better for the rest of us.

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