DALLAS — His deep voice still resonates with insight, authority and the sound of Sunday afternoons — a steady timbre that, for nearly 40 years in the broadcast booth, said NFL.
In a quiet north Dallas neighborhood, George Allen "Pat" Summerall sits at the end of an empty dining room table, his words flowing with the familiar tones that even now capture the game's magic.
Six years into retirement, Summerall, 78, is reading scripts of 25 of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history; not for a worldwide TV audience, but for the St. Petersburg Times' home on the World Wide Web.
When the Times sports staff set out to find the one man to showcase our special countdown to Super Bowl LXIII — slated for Feb. 1 at Raymond James Stadium — we looked no further than Summerall, who agreed to serve as our announcer for the vintage moments you'll get to rank online starting today (go to superbowlvote.tampabay.com).
Football has been a big part of Summerall's life since he was an All-State football player for Columbia High School in Lake City, 175 miles north of Tampa.
Then came a standout career at the University of Arkansas, where he was a lineman, tight end and placekicker. In 1952, the Detroit Lions selected him in the fourth round. But he wound up with the Chicago Cardinals from 1953-57 and then was traded to the New York Giants, for whom he kicked from 1958-61 — a tenure that included the fabled NFL Championship game in 1958, won by Baltimore in overtime, 23-17.
Had Summerall not become a New York Giant, he would likely have never become a broadcasting giant. A part-time job working for CBS TV and radio in New York in 1962 led him to a full-time assignment for CBS in 1964, and his natural, easy style would soon make him a broadcasting fixture — including golf at the Masters and tennis at the U.S. Open.
In the 1970s, Summerall worked NFC games alongside color commentator Tom Brookshier, teaming together to call three Super Bowls. But he became even better known as the understated counterpart of high-energy John Madden, a partnership that began in 1981 and lasted 21 years, first with CBS and then with Fox. He called his 17th and final Super Bowl on Feb. 3, 2002, when New England defeated St. Louis 20-17.
Summerall keeps busy in his adopted hometown of Dallas, where he lives with his wife of 12 years, Cheri. He's handled play-by-play for the Cotton Bowl, does commercial voice work and is in demand as a speaker. He always welcomes opportunities to talk about his fight with alcoholism — having been sober for 16 years and counting, following a life where drinking was part of his whirlwind life in the sports spotlight.
And he shares his life-saving — life-changing — experience with a liver transplant four years ago. The family of Adron Shelby, a 13-year-old who had died of a brain aneurism, decided to donate his organs — and the young boy's liver went to a man on the Jacksonville Mayo Clinic waiting list, Summerall.
He had a health scare in June, requiring emergency surgery to stop internal bleeding, but he's recovering well. Inducted into the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame in 1999, he plans to be in Tampa for Super Bowl LXIII. He'll present the Pat Summerall Award for a broadcaster who has demonstrated character, integrity and leadership on and off the job. The inaugural recipient in 2006 was James Brown, from Fox and now CBS, with Jim Nantz of CBS honored last year.
On this afternoon in late May, Summerall reads through 25 Super Bowl scripts without missing a beat. He immerses himself in the text, hands held open in front of him as if he's connecting with the plays — many of which he called live for millions of viewers.
When he finishes, he settles back for a conversation about his life and career, the voice like an old friend from football Sundays gone by.
Q. Many people regard the 1958 Giants-Colts championship game as the greatest post-season game ever. Do you agree?
A. Well, as a matter of fact, I scored the first points in that game (on a 36-yard field goal). In my mind, we were tired. The Colts had had a week off, were rested. They were a better team ... I don't think by any classification it was the best game ever played. It was the first overtime game. And the New York papers happened to be on strike, so if you're gonna get coverage, you had to send a reporter from all over the country (to New York). So I think that had a big affect on the game. But ... I think the Colts were clearly a better team. In fact, we played them in a pickup game 25 years later in Central Park — and we still couldn't cover Raymond Berry. [Listen to audio]
Q. Do you have a lasting memory that stands out from the game?
A. I remember that none of us, including the officials, coaches or captains, knew what to do when we finished the regulation game at 17-17. I turned to the guy sitting next to me on the bench and I said, 'What do we do now?' And I said, 'I think we've got to play some more.' I think the normal time between a regulation game and overtime was two or three minutes. But it was at least 15 minutes before we started the overtime quarter. Nobody knew what to do.
Q. You were part of the broadcast team in Super Bowl I and were given a tough, mid-game interview request. Can you describe that?
A. It was the second half kickoff and NBC and CBS were covering the game in a simulcast. I'd spent the first half in the broadcast booth and Frank Gifford and I swapped places at halftime. He went to the broadcast booth and I went to be the sideline reporter. Just after I got wired up and got my headset on before the second half, the director said to me, "Go ask Lombardi if he'd mind kicking off again." Because NBC missed the second half kickoff. They were interviewing Bob Hope, who was the star of the NBC network at the time. And I thought, 'This is my first assignment as the sideline reporter — go ask Lombardi if he'd mind kicking off again?'
I said, "You've got to get somebody else to do this. I'm not about to go ask Lombardi if he'd mind kicking off again." So somebody else did ask him, and he did kick off. I didn't think he'd do it.
Q. You'd had experience playing for Lombardi with the Giants.
A. Yeah. I knew him quite well. Respected him — and was afraid of him.
Q. Do you have a special sense of pride for of having helped usher in the era of athletes that turned into high-level broadcasters?
A. You know, I never think about that too much. Frank Gifford called me the other day and he said, "Do you realize it's been 50 years since that overtime game?" I said, 'You're kidding me.' I couldn't believe it. It doesn't seem possible it's been 50 years ago. I was lucky enough to be in New York when New York was really the communications capital of the world, much more so than it is now. The Giants were good at the time. I was lucky in that. I got called by CBS to read an audition script, which I read, and they liked the way I read. So if I hadn't been in New York, if I hadn't been traded to the Giants...I probably would never have gotten into broadcasting. [Listen to audio]
But I knew as soon as I read that script that's something maybe I could do, and something that I'd want to do the rest of my life. Fortunately it's worked out that way.
Q. How did you develop your voice?
A. I've been asked that question a lot. I don't know. It's just the way it was and is. I never had any voice training.
Q. What are a few of the most memorable Super Bowls you covered from the booth?
A. (Super Bowl) I — though not necessarily a great game — but was No. 1 because it was a simulcast and No. 2, the Packers didn't want to be there. They thought they had won the championship of the league the week before. So they were reluctant to be there.
I remember before the 49ers played Denver in New Orleans (in Super Bowl XXIV). We were riding with Mike Holmgren, now the Seahawks' coach and then the 49ers' offensive coordinator. We were with him on John Madden's bus the Thursday before the game and we were talking about how Denver played and this and that. And Holmgren said, "I'll tell you what. If Denver stays in that same defense, the renowned Orange Crush, my guy — meaning Joe Montana — will pick them to pieces." And I often thought since then, after talking to Holmgren and thinking about how good Montana was, if I'd have been a betting man, boy, that's a game I would have bet on. But I didn't. The 49ers won 55-17 and he picked them apart.
Q. Any others come to mind?
A. Well, I watched the last one from home. Many people said, including me, that might have been the best game of all time, in terms of being close and the excitement. The catch by (David) Tyree, the scramble by (Eli) Manning and the whole thing. That was entertaining. I didn't go and I've missed only one Super Bowl — Washington and Miami (in Super Bowl VII). CBS didn't have the broadcast so that's why I wasn't there.
Q. You've seen so many games as a broadcaster. Can you still enjoy watching as a spectator?
A. I guess I still watch the game in a different fashion, having broadcast so many games and played. I don't necessarily watch the ball all the time where most people I think do. I watch where the key blocks are coming from. I watch the offensive linemen particularly and see who's doing a good job. And I had the experience of watching New England and Philadelphia in Jacksonville (Super Bowl XXXIX) and sitting for a quarter with President Clinton. I was amazed about how much he knew about the Eagles and the Patriots. He knew all the players, all the mannerisms. I was just amazed at how astute he was, because he watched the game like I did. I enjoyed that very much.
Q. Who are a few of your favorite broadcasters?
A. Well, you know what, I've always made it sort of a policy to never evaluate publicly who I like or anybody who's in the same business with me. That's pretty tough to do. I always enjoyed my time with Ray Scott, because I learned so much about pacing and economy of words. ... My first partner was a guy named Chris Schenkel, who just passed away. And he taught me a lot about preparation. ... I remember him saying to me early in my career that if you think you're going to have five minutes (on air), prepare for a half hour. If you think you're gonna have a half hour, prepare for two hours. So that was a good lesson. [Listen to audio]
Q. You worked with two great partners, Tom Brookshier and John Madden. Can you talk about each and do you keep in touch?
A. Brookshier and I are very close friends. We talk once every week at least. He was the best man in my wedding. He's the closest thing I've ever had to a brother, I think. We were not only compatible in the booth, we still are today. I talk to John Madden on a regular basis, not as much as Tom. He and I were not as close personal friends as Brookie and I were. But I still talk to John and when I had the liver transplant four years ago, John was on the phone every day, saying "If you need me, I'll be there. How ya feeling?" It was a joy to be a friend of his, and we still are."
Q. You've conquered something so difficult, and have been very willing to talk about it. Do you feel you can inspire others in how you've dealt with alcoholism?
A. Well, the experience I had with alcohol, and the recovery from alcoholism, taught me oh-so-much about life, about religion, about spirit, about friendship. And yeah, I think if anybody's who struggling — and gosh knows, almost every family in this world has somebody who's been addicted to alcohol — I think what I went through at the Betty Ford Center, and since then, it's been 16 years since I had a drink of whiskey, I just think I have a lot to say. It's a thing that you can't overcome by yourself. I think you have to give yourself to somebody. In my case, it was Jesus Christ. And I realized that I couldn't do it by myself. And I think that's a realization that anybody who's addicted to anything, any foreign substance, would have to finally admit that they can't do it by themselves to come to. [Listen to audio]
Q. Can you talk about the experience of going through your surgery?
A. I had a liver transplant four years ago. I was near death, and in fact a few times during the preparations for the transplant and the recovery, I thought I was dead. And I had that experience I'll never forget obviously. But it was through my own doing, what I'd done to my liver with alcohol that necessitated this transplant. Fortunately, my wife and I met the family of the donor. They live in Pine Bluff, Ark. We have a golf tournament in his memory to try to raise funds for a scholarship in his name. It's been a very rewarding experience, but it takes some getting used to, to realize that somebody has to die in order for you to live. That's something I struggled with tremendously during the preparations for the operation.
Q. Your energy is good?
A. . Physically I can do just about anything that I ever did. And I really feel good.
Q. What are some of the things that keep you busy these days?
A. I do some narration for industrial films. I do some commercials for several companies. If somebody wants me to speak about this recovery and the liver transplant, I'll speak on things like that. I'm living pretty much like I want to. I read the paper every day, studying the NFL and various other sports. I'm still very active and very busy. Thank goodness. But I'm not on that weekly schedule like I was for so many years.
Q. You worked the Cotton Bowl last year. Was that fun?
A. Yeah, Fox asked me to do it, and I live in Dallas. So they've asked me the last two years. I'd worked it a long time ago with Jack Drees, Chris Schenkel and Lindsey Nelson — some great people. It's a lot of fun and great to get back into it, also knowing you don't have to do it the next week. Hopefully I'll do it again next year.
Q. Do you still feel a strong connection to Florida?
A. I have two children who live in Jacksonville. My daughter works for the mayor and my youngest son has a production company. I still go back to Lake City. I have many friends there and cousins. I've been back a couple of times in recent years, done some broadcast work there. I still feel like a Floridian.
Q. Why live in Dallas instead of Florida?
A. I fell in love with the town; the airport — I could get anywhere I needed non-stop except Green Bay, and be home on Sunday night; plus I fell in love with a girl who lives here. That's why I live here, because her family lives here. We have a great marriage. She's my best friend in addition to being my wife. We have a very enjoyable life.