Reggie Jackson gave the nickname ‘The Voice of God’ to longtime Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard, but with all due respect to Sheppard, that never felt right to me.
While Sheppard’s voice had a dignified, regal quality to it, it was soft and weathered, almost a whisper, and quite obviously the voice of an elderly man (at least, that’s the Sheppard I remember).
To me, Pat Summerall always seemed much more deserving of Mr. October’s ‘Voice of God’ distinction.
In over 40 years behind the mic, Summerall’s voice became arguably the most recognizable in the history of sports television.
It was clear and powerful, authoritative but engaging. The steely baritone of Johnny Cash with the warmth of grandma’s caramel rolls and the flavor of a glass of Kentucky Bourbon.
It goes without saying, but Summerall and his partner, John Madden, were the ‘big name’ voices of the era in which the NFL blew past major league baseball and the NBA to become the undisputed king of American professional sports.
When you heard their voices, you knew you were watching a big game. If they were covering your team, that meant your team was probably having a pretty good year.
They were — for me — the voices of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Super Bowl.
Many remember both of them near the end, when father time had begun to take a toll on both men’s vision and memory, and to some degree they sadly became shells of their former selves. Summerall in particular seemed to struggle to keep up with the action, often losing track of the ball or misidentifying players. He went before Madden did.
But I honestly didn’t care. We’re in an age where websites like deadspin, firejoemorgan, and awfulannouncing encourage us to hate virtually all play-by-play and color commentators. And a lot of it is valid. I myself have made my distaste for several TV talking heads known before. But eventually I started to realize that I didn’t really care ‘what’ these guys were saying, I was more interested in ‘how’ they sounded. Is that shallow? Sure. But while I’m no Bill Parcells, there isn’t a whole lot of strategic insight that these guys can give me at this point. I know that the Vikings are going to try to establish the run with Adrian Peterson to take pressure off Christian Ponder and open up the passing game, and I know that on defense they’ll be looking to stop the run and make the quarterback uncomfortable with the pass rush. We all know that.
No one really wants to hear two guys try to prove how smart they are. We want to be entertained, but up to a point (ahem, Gus Johnson). The great ones knew how to frame the action, how to heighten the drama, and when to get out of the way. And, to put it simply, the great ones sounded really, really good doing it.
And that was Summerall. It’s not at all a stretch for me to say that the appeal of his smooth narration, coupled with Madden’s enthusiastic but sharp, folksy insight, had a huge, huge role in me becoming obsessed with the NFL. Thousands, perhaps millions of others would say the same.
(I saw a wonderful tweet from ESPN’s Michael Kim Tuesday that read ‘Coming up on CBS, 60 minutes, followed by an all-new Murder She Wrote’, and it was amazing how I could hear every single syllable exactly as Summerall used to say it)
Summerall has a fascinating back story of course — many people don’t even know he had a 10-year career in the NFL as a kicker and defensive end, despite being born with a clubbed foot. His name is actually George, he got ‘Pat’ from the box scores that always had the letters ‘P-A-T’ next to his name for kicking extra points.
His victory over a pretty serious problem with alcohol (Madden once told a story of seeing Summerall going through half-empty beer cans and cocktails the morning after a party, drinking what was left in the bottom) is well-documented.
But all of that was secondary. Summerall was one of the most influential figures in the NFL for serving as the soundtrack to the sport’s most important era. He was a giant in broadcasting, and I’m being sincere when I say I truly miss his voice (and Madden’s) whenever I watch an NFL game.
Summerall’s last broadcast was the 2010 Cotton Bowl, and I watched it. Not intentionally, it just happened to be the only thing on during a family Christmas that day.
I normally wouldn’t have paid any attention to the game, but when I heard Summerall’s voice, I tuned in.
In all honesty, he struggled, often times referring to ballcarriers as simply “Number 32”, because he couldn’t remember their names, and having trouble locating and following the ball. I didn’t care. The voice was there, and if I closed my eyes I was back in my grandparents’ living room, watching the 49ers and Cowboys (or, if I was lucky, the Vikings and 49ers) with my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.
I used to really despise Joe Buck, but I’m slowly coming around on him, not because I particularly enjoy his commentary, but because his voice has sort of become synonymous with ‘the big game’ like Summerall’s was.
But it will never be the same. There was only one Pat Summerall.
I’ve included a few video clips of Summerall. I highly recommend each one of them.
And for you gamers, out there.. 'Oh no, a man down!'