Source: USA TODAY
Forget the chorus of formal tributes to Pat Summerall.
They describe an on-air icon, which he was.
George Allen Summerall, who died Tuesday at 82, had highs and lows and uncertainty and seeming redemption in a life in which his TV calls, usually statements of fact buttressed with his own voice of authority, were only part of his story.
In 2000, Summerall recalled to USA TODAY Sports the end of a night of heavy drinking at the Masters in 1992 — one of the 26 Masters he called for CBS.
He says he was well into his “familiar ritual” of late-night vomiting until “the lights got brighter and brighter” in his bathroom and gave him a new perspective on his bloodshot eyes — and a frightening glimpse of a very grim future.
But by then, he knew he could overcome obstacles. His parents, divorced before he was born, considered sending him to an orphanage. Instead, he went to live in Lake City, Fla., with an aunt and uncle who had a son named Mike — and George was deemed Pat simply to fit in with names commonly used in Irish jokes.
Athletics seemed out of the question. His kicking foot, later good for 100 NFL field goals, began as a club foot that doctors straightened. But they didn’t expect him to ever run.
Instead, in 1952, he began a 10-year career in the NFL after playing at Arkansas. In his offseasons, he returned to Arkansas to get a master’s in Russian history and did something he said was harder than any of the 26 Super Bowl broadcasts — he taught junior high. (Occasionally, he said, he dangled disciplinary problems out the window by their ankles. Really.)
He got into broadcasting in 1960 by answering a phone call for his roommate at the New York Giants training camp. It was a reminder for his teammate’s CBS Radio audition, but the caller liked Summerall’s voice and suggested he come along. That led to a job reading short features for $600 a week — more than what he made in the NFL at the time — and 37 seasons calling NFL action. (And side jobs, such as working 21 tennis U.S. Opens.)
Summerall started on CBS NFL games in 1962. Like most ex-athletes, he was a TV color analyst. But CBS, in 1974, thought his voice sounded confusingly similar to on-air partner Jack Buck, so he was switched to play-by-play and got a new on-air partner in analyst Tom Brookshier.
They’d met in a game when Brookshier split Summerall’s helmet with a tackle and said he shouldn’t even be playing. But they got along famously. They once tried to sneak a horse into a Manhattan hotel and another time put bar patrons in formation to kick field goals with a lounge pianist’s toupee.
Their road trips ended in 1981 when CBS replaced Brookshier with John Madden.
As Summerall and Madden went on to become football’s best on-air team, Summerall’s problems with alcohol continued. After being hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer in 1990, he vowed to quit drinking — and did for seven months. But in 1992, after the moment at the Masters, Brookshier led an intervention, and Summerall went to the Betty Ford Clinic.
Eventually, his sober life led to teary talks with longtime buddy Mickey Mantle about the Ford clinic — before Mantle checked in. And they talked about being baptized on what proved to be Mantle’s deathbed in 1995. After Mantle said he didn’t know his religious denomination, Summerall suggested being Baptist went with being from Oklahoma. Mantle agreed, and was baptized as one with days to live.
In 2000, Summerall was baptized in his backyard swimming pool in Southlake, Texas. “It was the most helpless feeling I’ve had,” he said, “and the most invigorating.”
In 2004, he got a liver transplant that made him think some more about the big picture. “When you’re lying there thinking you’re going to die without a new liver, I wondered, frankly, whether I deserved another chance,” he said. “I’d lived a good and full life. But then you figure God’s not through with you yet.”
Turns out, Summerall said, that’s sort of what happened the night when his bathroom lights got strangely bright at the Masters. Tom Landry, who as a New York Giants assistant had coached Summerall, heard that story about the lights and told Summerall what happened that night — he’d been visited by angels.
As he recalled that story, Summerall seemed as assured as if he was giving a final score: “I thought, there’s the answer.”
Or at least part of a life that went far beyond what appeared on TV.