Rex Nelson: A Tribute to Pat Summerall

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For those of us who enjoy sports and are of a certain age, the voice was iconic. The voice might have been stilled, but the man will always be remembered.

If you grew up loving professional football, you knew it was 6 p.m. on a fall Sunday and that the game was running late when you heard Pat Summerall say: “A reminder that ‘60 Minutes’ will be seen in its entirety, followed by ‘Murder (dramatic pause) She Wrote.’”

Or the 18th green at Augusta: I can never watch the Masters without the voice of Pat Summerall being a part of my memories of that event.

I can tell you this: Even though he didn’t grow up here or spend his career here, Summerall loved Arkansas. He cherished his Arkansas friends such as Jack Stephens, Buddy Sutton and Floyd Sagely. It’s safe to say that few inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame did as much for the organization through the years as Pat Summerall.

Summerall, a 1971 inductee, lent his name for 11 years to the Pat Summerall Celebrity Classic golf tournament, which raised money for the Hall of Fame.

The broadcast voice of the NFL, the Masters and the U.S. Open in tennis died Tuesday in Dallas at age 82.

Summerall was a Florida native, but Arkansans long have considered him one of their own because he was a University of Arkansas Razorback football player in college.

He was born in May 1930 at Lake City, Fla., where he starred in basketball, football, baseball and tennis in high school. Summerall later would say that basketball was his favorite sport as a high school athlete (he was an all-state selection in both football and basketball), but he was recruited to play football at the University of Arkansas. Summerall was a defensive end, tight end and placekicker for the Razorbacks from 1949-51.

The Detroit Lions drafted Summerall in the fourth round of the 1952 NFL draft. Summerall started the first two games of the 1952 season at defensive end as a rookie. His arm was badly broken on the final play of the second game of the regular season while playing the Rams in Los Angeles. The break was so bad that Summerall had to stay in Los Angeles and have surgery. He missed the remainder of the season, and the scar from the surgery was still visible six decades later.

Summerall came back in 1953 and played as a defensive end for the Lions in preseason games. He also kicked off. He was traded to the Cardinals just before the regular season opened. The Lions went on to capture the NFL title the next two years while the Cardinals struggled. Summerall was with the Cardinals from 1953-57. He ended his career with the New York Giants from 1958-61. During the 1959 season, he was 30 for 30 on extra point attempts and 20 of 29 on field goal attempts.

Collectors of Sports Illustrated are familiar with the classic photo from December 1958 of a Summerall field goal kick sailing through the snow at Yankee Stadium for a 13-10 Giants victory over the Cleveland Browns on the final day of the regular season. The Giants had to win to force a tiebreaker playoff game. The Browns needed only a tie to clinch the Eastern championship. With the score tied 10-10 and time running out, Summerall was sent in to try a 49-yard field goal in the swirling wind. He had missed a 31-yard field goal attempt several minutes earlier. The 49-yard kick was good.

Pat Summerall scored five points – a field goal and two extra points – in what’s sometimes called The Greatest Game Ever Played, the Giants’ 23-17 loss to the Baltimore Colts on Dec. 28, 1958, at Yankee Stadium for the NFL championship. It was the first NFL playoff game to go into sudden death overtime. The game marked the start of the NFL’s surge in popularity as a large audience watched Chris Schenkel and Chuck Thompson call the contest on NBC.

The final game of Summerall’s professional playing career was the 1961 NFL championship game as the Giants were defeated by the Green Bay Packers.

After his playing career ended, Summerall began work as a broadcaster. He would go on to become one of the signature voices of sports broadcasting in America.

Summerall spent 32 years working for CBS Sports, serving as the voice not only for the network’s NFL telecasts but also for its coverage of the U.S. Open in tennis and the Masters in golf. He even called the play by play for professional basketball games and five heavyweight championship fights.

Summerall was an iron man in the early days of his broadcasting career, serving as the sports director for WCBS-AM in New York from 1964-71 while hosting the station’s four-hour morning news program. At the same time, he worked for the CBS Radio Network.

The 1994 Masters was Summerall’s final television event for CBS before moving to Fox. John Madden, who had begun working NFL games with Summerall in 1981, moved to Fox with him. In 1999, Summerall was inducted into the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame, joining broadcasters such as Mel Allen, Red Barber, Jack Brickhouse, Jack Buck, Harry Caray, Howard Cosell, Ernie Harwell and Chick Hearn.

During most of the 1970s, Summerall had teamed with Tom Brookshier on NFL broadcasts. They worked Super Bowls X, XII and XIV together. The pairing with Madden that began in 1981 would last 22 seasons. The pair worked eight Super Bowls. Summerall and Madden’s last game as a team was Super Bowl XXXVI. Following the game, Summerall announced his retirement, and ABC signed Madden to work with Al Michaels on Monday night games.

Fox, however, talked Summerall into working on regional telecasts in 2002 and 2006. The Dallas-area resident also broadcast the Cotton Bowl for Fox from 2007-10. His voice also was still heard on the opening of Masters’ coverage on CBS each spring.

In April 1992, it was announced that Pat Summerall had taken a leave from CBS to seek treatment for alcoholism at the Betty Ford Center in California. Summerall, who has remained sober for many years, was outspoken about his battle and served as an inspiration for thousands of Americans in his final years of life.

Richard Sandomir wrote in a 1992 New York Times story: “In late 1990, Summerall was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer that was aggravated by a toxic combination of painkillers and alcohol. He vowed to give up the drinking that had become part of his life.

“’I had not had a drink for seven months after the hospital,’ he said. ‘Then I said I ‘m fine.’ He resumed drinking, but it was no longer fun. From his days as a football player to his career in sportscasting, he loved being the last guy at the bar, telling the best stories, having the grandest time. Now, at the age of 62, he had to hide the drinking and deny the problem.”

In 1994, Summerall was instrumental in convincing Mickey Mantle to enter the Betty Ford Center.

“I was the friend who intervened,” Summerall said at the time. “We’ve had a number of long, tearful talks. There were a lot of similarities between us. If I hadn’t been there and hadn’t told him how familiar I was with the center, he wouldn’t have gone.”

In 1997, Summerall visited professional golfer John Daly during Daly’s stay at the Betty Ford Center.

“Originally, their bond was having been Razorbacks at the University of Arkansas, even though they were some 30 years apart,” Dave Anderson wrote in The New York Times. “Now they have developed another bond from going to another institution, five years apart.”

“I just happened to be in Palm Springs for the Betty Ford golf tournament,” Summerall told the newspaper. “I got a call from the center that John was there and would I come over to talk to him. I spent an hour with John. I told him I was encouraged he had done it on his own time and he agreed with me; when he went to a Tucson center in 1993, the PGA Tour had ordered him to go.”

In 2002, Summerall received the NFL’s coveted George Halas Award for lifetime achievement. Summerall underwent a liver transplant in 2004. After recovering from that, he kept a busy speaking schedule and even released a book in 2006.

He told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “It’s entirely different waking up in the morning and praying. I read aloud six or seven different devotional books. …  It’s a terrific difference, a tremendous difference.”

Pat Summerall will always be known as one of the great broadcasters in American history. In this state, he also will be known as a former Razorback and as one of the best friends the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame has ever had.

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