When the curtain falls on this year’s Super Bowl, much more than another NFL season will be ending. The FOX television broadcast of the event will be the last time Pat Summerall will combine his understated play-by-play with the color commentary of the one and only John Madden, who can somehow break down complex football plays into a simple explanation that always manages to include an exclamation of the word “BOOM!”.
Summerall, at age 71, announced yesterday that the Super Bowl will be his last broadcast with John Madden, and most likely the final time he calls an NFL game. Summerall, who has been involved with the NFL for 50 years, as both a player and broadcaster, did not flat-out retire; he said he will consider doing other work after he signs off in New Orleans.
Summerall has been scrutinized by media critics recently, and they are largely correct in pointing out that he is not always “on the ball” during a telecast. Last week, for example, he said something to the effect of “The Rams will return home to Los Angeles to host the Eagles in the NFC title game.” Of course, the Rams are now the pride of St. Louis. (On a side note, Brent Musburger makes these type of mistakes all the time, but unfortunately for viewers, he’s still around.) But while it may be time for him to step aside gracefully, we should not forget what he and Madden did for television coverage of the sport of football.
Summerall, whose television career began in 1960, was paired with Madden on CBS NFL telecasts in 1981, and the two were an instant hit. That’s because Summerall realized quickly what many television broadcasters still can’t seem to grasp — the camera tells much of the story. Rather than spouting his mouth off incessantly, it would not be unusual for a call of a touchdown to go something like this for the venerable broadcaster: “Young — Rice — touchdown” as the viewer sees it all transpire.
He would then keep quiet and let Madden do all the talking and explain exactly why Steve Young was able to find Jerry Rice over the middle on a 7-yard slant that led to a 49er touchdown. And his call of an interception return for a touchdown is classic: “Favre — interception — touchdown.” Summerall has always known that we, the viewers, are not idiots; we can see what is happening on the field and don’t need our attention distracted by a blabbermouth.
Summerall also avoided using the microphone as his own personal soap box, another phenomenon that many sports telecasters seem to enjoy (Musburger, again).
There’s more to the Summerall story, however. He was drunk on the air for several seasons, and it was noticeable. He now admits publicly that he was afflicted with alcoholism. But rather than letting the disease devastate him and destroy his career, he dedicated himself to sobriety and ultimately won the battle. Unfortunately, however, his 71 years have taken their toll, and his sharpness in the booth has been dwindling in recent years.
But there’s still nothing quite like a Summerall-Madden telecast. Their chemistry is textbook. Summerall’s voice still instantly conjures up images of football. And quite honestly, the mistakes are often quite entertaining to listen to as well. They have two more games left, this Sunday’s NFC Championship game and then the Super Bowl. Enjoy it while it lasts.