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When Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys was closing in on the NFL rushing record, he had one request. On the day he passed the great Walter Payton, Smith wanted Pat Summerall in the broadcast booth putting the words to his milestone, a wish that was granted by the Fox network.
Such is the respect Summerall built over his lifetime in professional football, both as a player and a broadcaster. Summerall, who died Tuesday at the age of 82 (see story), leaves quite a legacy.
Younger fans know Summerall as the signature play-by-play voice of NFL football for four decades, but older fans remember him as an end and place-kicker for 10 seasons with the Detroit Lions, Chicago Cardinals and New York Giants. He rarely mentioned his playing career during his broadcasts, but that was a reflection of his modesty.
“The fact is Pat was a very good player on some very good teams,” said John Madden, his long-time broadcast partner, in a 2002 interview. “He just never brought it into the [broadcast] conversation. He wanted to keep the focus on what was happening on the field. He was the consummate pro.”
A native of Lake City, Fla., Summerall attended the University of Arkansas with intentions of becoming a school teacher. He never considered a career in football until the Lions selected him in the fourth round of the 1952 draft. The Lions offered him $6,000 to sign. Summerall asked his father what he should do.
“My father said, ‘Let me get this straight. They’re going to pay you $6,000 to play something? I thought you had to work,’” Summerall said, recounting the conversation in a 2001 interview with NFL Films. “He told me, ‘Son, I think you ought to take it.’”
In 1958, Summerall made one of the great clutch kicks in NFL history, booming a 49-yard field goal through a raging snowstorm to lift the Giants to a 13-10 victory over Cleveland, a win that propelled New York to the Eastern Conference title and the first of Summerall’s three appearances in league championship games.
“I hadn’t kicked one that long all season,” Summerall recalled. “I certainly had never kicked one that long in those conditions. When I went on the field, [Giants quarterback] Charlie Conerly said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, [The coaches] sent me in to kick a field goal.’ Charlie said, ‘You can’t kick it that far.’ I said, ‘Thanks for the vote of confidence.’ But somehow I made it.”
Summerall’s broadcasting career began by accident. He and Conerly shared an apartment in New York City. One day, a CBS Radio executive called to offer Conerly an audition for a sports casting job. Conerly wasn’t home and Summerall took the call. He said he would give Conerly the message. As an afterthought, the CBS executive said, “You can come along, too, if you want to.” Summerall said OK.
As it turned out, Conerly flunked the audition -- his Mississippi accent was a little thick for the New York audience -- but Summerall was a natural. His smooth voice and easy manner worked well on radio, and he made a seamless transition to television when he retired from the playing field following the 1962 season.
As network TV coverage of the NFL expanded, Summerall became the lead play-by-play man at CBS, first teaming with former Eagle Tom Brookshier, then Madden, who won a Super Bowl as coach of the Oakland Raiders. The Summerall-Madden pairing lasted 21 seasons with Summerall as the understated play-by-play man deftly setting the table for the colorful -- and voluble -- Madden.
“Pat saved me constantly,” Madden said in a 2002 Sports Illustrated profile. “He had this way of taking all my babbling and making sense of it. Pat is just smooth. He is silk.”
Summerall was also versatile, broadcasting from courtside at major tennis tournaments and anchoring the coverage at dozens of golf events. He still holds the record for doing play by play at the most Super Bowls (17).
Summerall battled many health problems over the years, including a bleeding ulcer and a staph infection in his artificial knee that forced him to charter flights because he could not handle the long walk through airports. In 1992, he went to the Betty Ford Center for alcohol rehab after an intervention by family and friends, including Brookshier and then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
Brian Baldinger, a football analyst for Comcast SportsNet, was paired with Summerall on the Fox NFL coverage for the 2002 season. After the season, Baldinger wrote about the experience for The Sporting News.
“The most amazing thing about Pat is that when he prepares for a game, he doesn’t take a single note,” Baldinger wrote. “He’s a great listener and he retains what he hears. Besides, he is the epitome of ‘less is more.’ He has a beautiful economy of words, a skill that’s particularly notable in this era of information overload.”
Asked to sum up his approach to broadcasting, Summerall said simply: “I try not to spoil the fact that the game is the thing.”
Few, if any, did it better.