The NFL forever lost part of its voice on Tuesday, as Pat Summerall passed away at the age of 82. The lead Sunday play-by-play man for CBS and later FOX, Summerall built a legacy that included a record 16 Super Bowls behind the mic and a part of perhaps sports’ greatest broadcasting duo. Along with longtime partner John Madden and NFL Films’ John Facenda, Summerall will be remembered as one of the three voices most associated with professional football.
But even among that Big Three, Summerall stood alone. While Madden was a coach before a broadcaster and Facenda made his mark as the first voice of the NFL, Summerall first excelled on the field. Drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1952, he played 10 seasons as a kicker, primarily for the Chicago Cardinals and New York Giants, before retiring in 1961. His 49-yard field goal late in a game played in a snowstorm gave the New York Giants a 13-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns in the 1958 regular-season finale, forcing a playoff between the teams for the East Division title. In the rematch, New York beat Cleveland 10-0. A week later, Summerall kicked in the famous “Greatest Game Ever Played,” the championship game won by Baltimore 23-17 in overtime at Yankee Stadium.
His play on the field helped write football’s history, but his voice in the broadcast booth helped tell it.
Originally paired with former NFL player Tom Brookshier, in the 1970s, the two men called three Super Bowls for CBS. Of Brookshier, who died in January 2010, Summerall once told The New York Times: "With Brookie, it was more of a conversation, like two guys in a saloon."
Summerall carried that same approach to broadcasting when he was paired with his second partner, Madden. Together, Madden and Summerall called games for 21 straight years, first on CBS and then on FOX. The duo’s coverage of Super Bowl XVI in 1982 remains the highest-rated sports program in American history, with an audience of more than 49 percent of the nation watching. In the last game Summerall called, Super Bowl XXXVI between the Patriots and Rams, Madden concluded the broadcast by telling his longtime partner: "You are what the NFL is all about, what pro football is all about, and more important, what a man is all about and what a gentleman is all about."
In a statement Tuesday, Madden said, "Pat was my broadcasting partner for a long time, but more than that he was my friend for all of these years. We never had one argument, and that was because of Pat. He was a great broadcaster and a great man. He always had a joke. Pat never complained, and we never had an unhappy moment. He was something very special. Pat Summerall is the voice of football and always will be."
FOX Sports producer Bob Stenner worked on the Madden-Summerall crew for 21 years, spanning both networks. “Everyone will talk about Pat’s broadcasting career and the work speaks for itself," Stenner said. "He was the best. But I want to make sure everyone knows about Pat Summerall, the man. He was an incredible person. He was incredibly caring, he was hard-working, and he had an incredible memory. We ended every phone call by telling each other, ‘I love you’. And I really did.“
Stenner adds, “Here was a guy who did it all. He rubbed elbows with presidents, league commissioners, owners, everyone. Let’s be honest — he was a very powerful person. And yet, he treated everyone the same way. From the guys in the truck to fans to the President, he approached everyone equally.”
Madden and Summerall rarely hung out socially outside of the broadcast booth. They were dear friends who made for the perfect on-air team, but the two didn’t really gravitate to the same social circles. “That’s what made it so amazing,” says Stenner. “The mutual respect and chemistry they had for each other was just incredible. Pat’s timing with John was impeccable. We’d be in the truck and Madden would tell a story. There’d be a beat and Pat would deliver the perfect one-liner. Sometimes, it was just a word. We’d all crack up. Only Pat could nail it so perfectly.”
As Madden put it once: “I’d say about three or four paragraphs that didn’t make any sense, and he would say three words that would make sense out of my three paragraphs that didn’t make any sense.”
Summerall’s sense of humor is something all fans of football so deeply cherished. Stenner adds, “Pat Summerall never told a bad joke. He told jokes that you’d have to run to get a pen and write down so you could recite them to all of your friends. You just hoped you could deliver them close to how he did.”
He was a minimalist, standing out in an era when bombastic calls often got more play. “One time, we were doing the Masters and there’s a shot of Freddie Couples walking. Pat’s on the call and he just says, ‘He even makes walking look easy.’ An incredible line. Just perfect.”
Colleagues, peers, protégés, and fans from all over offered their thoughts on the multi-talented Summerall on Tuesday.
FOX Sports offered this official statement: “It is with tremendous sadness that we’ve learned today of Pat Summerall’s passing. Pat was an icon in his profession, and was the voice that defined the NFL on television for generations of fans. He and John Madden helped give FOX Sports and the NFL on FOX credibility when it launched almost 20 years ago, and for that we’ll be forever grateful. Pat’s 50-year record as an NFL player and broadcaster is truly unique, and it will be very difficult for anyone to ever walk in his footsteps. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to Pat’s wife Cheri and the Summerall family.”
Upon learning of Summerall’s passing, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said, “There is no one more closely associated with the great legacy and tradition of CBS Sports than Pat Summerall. His voice was synonymous with big events whether it was NFL football and the Super Bowl, the Masters or U.S. Open Tennis.”
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a longtime friend of Summerall, added, “Pat was the NFL’s narrator for generations, with a voice that was powerful, eloquent and distinctive. His presence at an NFL game elevated that event to a higher level. He was royalty in the broadcast booth. He was respected and admired by players, coaches, commissioners and Presidents of our country — and always a gentleman — someone who had time for the fans in the parking lot after the game.”
“In 1976, I was a junior in college and Chuck Will put me in the 18th tower as a spotter for Pat Summerall,” explained CBS producer Lance Barrow on Tuesday. “He told me, ‘You’re not going to meet a finer man in this business than Pat Summerall.’ And to this day, I never have. He was kind to everyone. When you were around him you never knew that he was the number one broadcaster. He taught me so much, not only about this business, but how to treat people. I’m sad on this day, but also smiling because I know he will be with his good buddy Tom Brookshier.”
“Pat Summerall was one of the best friends and greatest contributors that the NFL has known,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “He spent 50 years as part of our league, first as a player on the legendary New York Giants teams of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and then as a Hall of Fame broadcaster for CBS and FOX. His majestic voice was treasured by millions of NFL fans for more than four decades. Pat always represented the essence of class and friendship. It is a sad day in the NFL. Our hearts go out to Pat’s wife Cheri and the entire Summerall family. Pat will always be an important part of NFL history.”
“Pat Summerall was a great friend and a great man,” tweeted NFL on FOX’s Troy Aikman. “His impact on the game of football is immeasurable as is the many lives he touched. RIP Pat!”
I speak for an entire generation of football fans raised on watching the NFL on Sundays in saying that Summerall’s voice was synonymous with “the big game” every weekend. As a kid growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey in the 1980s and 1990s, Summerall’s voice was as important to a big NFC East divisional clash as Phil Simms, Aikman or Darrell Green. His call of a game — with none of the shtick or gimmicks or catch phrases that seem to be the accepted norm today — told us the situation, gave us the game’s narrative, and made us laugh in living rooms across the country.
Beyond his TV work, Summerall was one of the original voices of the “Madden” video game franchise, too. When you weren’t watching him on Sundays, you were hearing him do down and distance on your SEGA Genesis or Super Nintendo in the living room. Summerall’s voice calling out, “Look out. Oh, no … There’s a man down,” became a signature phrase of my childhood. Most the times, that came after a pixilated rival quarterback broke his leg.
Adam Schein, a columnist for NFL.com, summed it up well on Tuesday with a tweet that read: “The Summerall and Madden team was the greatest. NFC East battles. Thanksgiving. Murder, She Wrote. My childhood.”
Summerall did more than serve as one-half of the soundtrack of our football lives. He dedicated himself to the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and was vocal about his lifelong battle with alcoholism. He wrote about the latter in his 2006 autobiography, “Summerall: On and Off the Air.”
Pat Summerall will be missed dearly by those who knew him personally and those who did not.
Fortunately, his voice is always just a YouTube search away.