Pat Summerall died today. This is not a surprise: He was 82, he’d had a liver transplant, and he’d lived a hard life on purpose. It had been a while since Summerall had been active as a broadcaster; having semiretired from the booth in 2002, you’d usually only hear him once a year, during the Cotton Bowl. By that point, he didn’t sound like himself anymore. And that was especially discomfiting to anyone who’d watched the NFL during the 1980s and remembered how Pat Summerall was just about the best football play-by-play announcer in the history of the sport.
Here is what made Summerall great: He never talked too much. He realized that you were watching the game, too. Paired with John Madden in 1981, it felt like Summerall inevitably handled the national game for CBS, which usually involved the high-profile Dallas Cowboys. Tony Dorsett would take a handoff against the Redskins, and Summerall would describe it like this: “Dorsett ... four yards ... second-and-six.” What else did he need to say? He wasn’t trying to impress anyone. He didn’t have some idiotic angle about “the narrative.” He simply described what happened, working from the assumption that you wouldn’t be watching a football game if you didn’t already possess a rough understanding of how football worked. Madden was a huge personality, but they coexisted with an ease that defined adult male friendship (no duo was ever better at killing time).
They mixed so naturally that many have forgotten Summerall had already worked several seasons with former Eagles DB Tom Brookshier (and they were excellent together, too). I can’t imagine an analyst Summerall would not have flourished alongside. How could you clash with a man who only did exactly what he was supposed to do?
There are, of course, other aspects to Summerall’s legacy, mostly notably his career as an NFL player (he was a good kicker for 10 years) and his import to the Masters (where his understated vocal delivery helped define how golf is covered). There will be longer obits tomorrow. Like any death, this is a loss. But this man had a good life. He was great at this job. He had a voice that was made to do precisely what it did.