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Ex-NFL broadcaster Summerall dies at 82

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By Barry Horn
The Dallas Morning News
Published:
Pat Summerall died Tuesday. He was 82.
That’s exactly how Summerall once told a writer he would craft the first sentences of his own obituary — short and to the point.
He died in his hospital room at Zale Lipshy Hospital in Dallas where he was recovering from surgery for a broken hip, a family friend confirmed.
The obituary conversation was held at his Southlake, Texas, home after a 2004 liver transplant that saved Summerall’s life.
Typical . . . succinct . . . Summerall.
His minimalist staccato style was his trademark as the pre-eminent NFL voice for a generation of television viewers.
Summerall worked a record 16 Super Bowls in a network career that began in 1962 and ended in 2002.
In the 21 seasons Summerall worked alongside John Madden they grew into America’s most popular sports broadcast team. Their work for CBS at Super XVI, following the 1981 season, remains the highest-rated sports program of all-time, with more than 49 percent of the nation tuned in.
“I was so lucky I got to work with Pat,” Madden said. “He was so easy to work with. He knew how to use words. For a guy like myself who rambles on and on and doesn’t always make sense, he was sent from heaven.”
Madden was the first broadcaster Fox hired when it outbid CBS for NFL rights beginning in 1994. He insisted that Summerall be the second. Madden didn’t find any opposition.
“Pat Summerall set the standard for play-by-play announcers regardless of sport,” said Ed Goren, former president of Fox Sports, who worked with Summerall at CBS and Fox. “If he was an athlete, you’d call him a team player. Pat always deferred to others in the booth. He worried about the broadcast never about his own role. He had a Hall of Fame career.”
But Summerall, a former NFL player, was much more than simply a football broadcaster.
He was a man for all sports seasons.
He called NBA games for CBS and was the network’s lead voice on golf and tennis broadcasts. He worked 27 Masters and 20 United States Tennis Opens.
As a high school senior in Florida, Summerall turned down a basketball scholarship offered by legendary University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp to play football, basketball and baseball at the University of Arkansas. He played professional baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Later in life, he was part of an investment group that briefly owned a piece of the NBA’s Boston Celtics in the late 1970s.
His friends and confidants included Mickey Mantle, President Gerald Ford and Jerry Jones.
And it was Summerall who helped broker the deal that brought another close friend, Bill Parcells to Dallas to coach Jones’ Cowboys.
“I have been very, very fortunate,” Summerall told The Dallas Morning News in a 1997 story chronicling his presence on the American sports scene in the second half of the 20th century.
But Summerall’s blessing also proved his curse. Broadcasters work odd hours and have a lot of down time. He began drinking heavily in his early years at CBS and became an alcoholic. In 1981, CBS broke up its No. 1 NFL team — Summerall and Tom Brookshier — in part because their long nights of partying bled into their broadcasts.
Summerall told friends that no matter how much he drank, he never felt the effects the next morning.
“I can honestly say I never saw Pat drunk,” said Frank Gifford, Summerall’s teammate with the New York Giants. “I saw him funny, but he could hold his liquor as well as anyone.”
Late in the 1990 NFL season, Summerall was hospitalized briefly to treat internal bleeding when he mixed alcohol with medication he was taking for ulcers. That scared him temporarily into laying off drinking. He stayed sober for seven months.
After the 1992 Masters, 10 friends, CBS colleagues and family members met Summerall one night in Philadelphia and convinced him during an emotional intervention that he desperately needed help to combat his drinking.
Summerall spent five weeks at the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs, Calif.
He never drank again. At the annual Christmas party given by Pat and his wife Cheri at Amazing Grace, their Southlake home, guests were offered nothing stronger than soft drinks and coffee.
“My time at Betty Ford saved my life,” Summerall frequently said in conversation.
But it couldn’t reverse nature. Alcohol had taken its toll, damaging his liver.
Summerall was on the verge of celebrating his 12th anniversary of sobriety when on April 1, 2004, he was flown by air ambulance from Methodist Medical Center in Dallas to Jacksonville’s St. Luke Hospital to await a donor match for a liver transplant.
Nine days later, the 73-year-old Summerall received a new liver.
Cheri Summerall said her husband acknowledged his condition was a result of on his excessive drinking in the past.
“…alcoholism is a progressive disease, and the damage to his liver reached the point where a transplant is the only option for survival,” Cheri Summerall said.
George Allen Summerall was born in rural central Florida on May 10, 1930, after his parents had divorced. He was taken in and raised by an aunt and uncle. They had a son named Mike.
“In those days, people liked to tell ethnic jokes,” Summerall told The News in 1997. “Invariably when they got around to the Irish jokes, the characters would be Pat and Mike. My aunt and uncle just started calling me Pat to go with their Mike.”
Only one person ever called him “George” again. That was his long-time friend, the late Jim Kensil, a top aide to former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
“And that was on rare occasion,” Summerall was always quick to remind.
An all-around athlete at Lake City High School, Summerall won all-state honors in basketball and football. He was also Florida’s 16-and-under tennis champion in 1946.
When the time came to go to college, Kentucky’s Rupp offered a scholarship to play at one of America’s leading basketball schools.
The 6-4 Summerall might have gone to Kentucky had Rupp agreed to allow him to play basketball and football. Rupp, however, did not want a potential power forward fooling around with football.
Summerall thought about trying to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He could have gone to the nearby University of Florida. Instead, he decided on the University of Arkansas. In the classroom, Summerall earned an undergraduate degree in education and later a master’s degree in Russian history.
“As an undergraduate, I had a professor who taught history as if it was a novel,” Summerall once said. “I was so enthralled with the professor, when I decided to go back to school. I wanted to take more courses with him. The more I got into Russian history, the more fascinated I became with it.”
After graduation, Summerall signed a contract with baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals. A first baseman, he played one season in the Class C Sooner State League. Summerall played for the team in Lawton, Okla. Also on the Lawton team were the Mantle brothers, Roy and Ray. But it was another Mantle brother he met that year who became a lifelong friend.
It was Summerall who in 1994 convinced his buddy Mickey Mantle, the baseball Hall of Fame outfielder for the New York Yankees, to seek treatment at the Betty Ford Center for his own alcoholism. Through the years, the two friends who both settled in the Dallas-area, had had spent countless hours together socializing and drinking.
Like Summerall, Mantle’s liver was damaged by alcohol. Mantle underwent liver transplant surgery at Baylor University Medical Center in 1995. He died two months later of cancer. He was 63.
When he realized he had no future in baseball, Summerall moved on to the NFL, where he played offensive and defensive end as well as placekicker. The Detroit Lions selected him in the fourth round of the 1952 draft. He suited up for two games that season but did not play. He moved on to spend five seasons with the Chicago Cardinals and then four with the New York Giants before retiring after the 1961 season.
“Every team back then had a clique and we were no different,” said Gifford, the Giants Hall of Fame halfback and flankerback who like his teammate, Summerall, went into broadcasting after retirement. “When he came to us from the Cardinals he fit right in with everybody. He had a great sense of humor and didn’t mind downing a few beers with the guys.”
Summerall’s greatest moment as a player came in the final game of the 1958 season when he kicked a long field goal in a snowstorm to give the Giants a 13-10 come-from-behind victory over the Cleveland Browns and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Officially, the field goal was 49 yards.
“That’s just a guess,” said Gifford. “It was dark and snowing. The field was covered with snow. No one can really say how far it was.”
Two weeks later, the Giants met the Baltimore Colts in the NFL Championship game called by some “the greatest NFL game ever.”
“Without Pat’s field goal, there would be no Colts-Giants in that game,” said Gifford. “That game went a long way to establishing the NFL.”
In those days, players supplemented their football salary with other jobs.
In the off-season, Summerall returned to Lake City to teach eighth-grade English.
“That was a very difficult task,” he told The News. “I had to talk to a group of 30 students who didn’t care what I had to say. It was more difficult to talk to them and keep their interest than talk to the 150 million people watching the Super Bowl and keep their interest. One of the things I learned teaching was to be concise and get to the point.”
Summerall began dabbling in broadcasting in 1960 when he worked 13 weeks on a syndicated five-minute show for CBS Radio.
His first real break in broadcasting came almost by accident.
Near the end of the 1961 season, WCBS radio in New York called the hotel room that Summerall shared with Charlie Conerly, his teammate on the Giants. The station was looking for a replacement for Gifford who was moving on to television. The radio station was looking for Conerly to set up an audition.
Told that Conerly was out, the caller asked if the resonant voice on the other end of the line played football as well. If so, might he be interested in auditioning. Summerall jumped at the opportunity.
Soon after, Summerall was sports director at the radio station. The next year, he joined CBS television part-time as a football analyst and filled in on WCBS TV for Gifford.
He carried the initial advice he received from CBS Sports boss Bill MacPhail throughout his career.
“Remember, it’s a visual medium,” MacPhail told Summerall. “I’ll never criticize you for saying too little.”
Summerall learned from his play-by-play partners such as Chris Schenkel, Jack Buck and Ray Scott.
Scott, who called play-by-play for CBS at the first two Super Bowls, influenced him most, Summerall frequently said. Summerall worked as a sideline reporter at Super Bowl I.
At Super Bowl II, Summerall was in the booth with Scott and former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp. Summerall worked three more Super Bowls as an analyst. He debuted as a Super Bowl play-by-play voice alongside Brookshier at Super Bowl X at the end of the 1975 season.
Summerall and Brookshier worked and partied together for six seasons as CBS’ No. 1 team before CBS executives broke up the party.
CBS executives thought long and hard before naming their new No. 1 team. They quickly settled on Madden as the analyst. They were divided, however, between retaining Summerall as lead play-by-play voice or going with Vin Scully.
Scully worked with Madden for the first four weeks of the 1981 season. Summerall worked with him for the next four. On the Monday after the eighth week of the season, five CBS Sports executives convened to pick a winner.
By a 4-to-1 vote, the succinct Summerall was picked over the more eloquent Scully, recalled Terry O’Neill, executive producer of CBS Sports at the time.
It wasn’t long before Summerall and Madden established themselves as television’s most high profile pairing since Lucy and Ricky.
Pat and John became regular-season Sunday staples in most Dallas-Fort Worth homes during the 1990s when they were regularly assigned to the NFL’s No. 1 television attraction, the Cowboys.
Summerall grew close to Cowboys coaches, players and administrators over the years. They returned year after year to the annual alcohol-free Christmas party he threw at Amazing Grace.
“Pat has been a tremendous friend and mentor for me for the past 12 years,” said former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. “He taught me a great deal about the broadcasting business back when we worked together in ‘94-’95 on the Troy Aikman Show. Since retiring from football and going to work for Fox, Pat has continued to provide me with invaluable advice.
“Summerall has made a difference in the lives of many,” Aikman said. “Although recognized as the preeminent play-by-play broadcaster, his most notable contribution was how he impacted the lives of his friends.
“Pat was my friend and he will be missed.”
Summerall and Madden worked four Super Bowls in the 1990s but were shut out of the three Cowboys Super Bowl victories in the decade. Those games were broadcast by NBC.
Summerall and Madden worked their eighth and final Super Bowl together in February 2002, two decades after their first.
Summerall, then 71, was dropped from Fox’s No. 1 team after that Super Bowl, assigned instead to a schedule of primarily Cowboys games in 2002.
When Fox would not guarantee Summerall that he could stick primarily with the Cowboys during the 2003 season, he announced his retirement in May.
“I’ll miss it,” he said. “But it’s time.”
But Summerall was not finished broadcasting. Four months after his transplant, Summerall called several early 2004 NFL season games for ESPN while Mike Patrick recovered from open-heart surgery. He also was the play-by-play announcer for the Cotton Bowl for Fox from 2007 to 2010.
“This just felt right,” Fox Sports president Goren said about Summerall’s return to the network in the Cotton Bowl play-by-play seat. “Sometimes you make a decision and there are a lot of smiles across the board. This one brought a lot of happy faces.”?
Story tags » NFL

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