Remembering Pat Summerall

Pat Summerall died earlier this week. Football fans will remember him as “the voice of our Sundays” — an understated, easy to listen to CBS play-by-play man, who brought us many of the NFL’s biggest games for almost 30 years. Football fans of a certain age will also remember him as a clutch placekicker for the New York Giants. In 1958, his game-winning 49 yard field goal in terrible conditions against Cleveland helped the Giants make it to the championship game.

Many sports fans will also remember Summerall’s broadcasts of golf tournaments, including the Masters, and of tennis’s U.S. Open.

Few will remember that Summerall began his television career as an football outstanding color analyst — the role later played on his broadcasts by Tom Brookshier and then John Madden. CBS initially assigned Summerall to Redskins’ games, alongside play-by-play man Jim Gibbons. Presumably, he drew that assignment because, as a newcomer, CBS figured he should start at the bottom.

Summerall was a breath of fresh air. Although the Redskins were mediocre at best, they were interesting on offense, with future Hall of Famers Sonny Jurgensen, Bobby Mitchell, and Charlie Taylor supplying plenty of fireworks.

Summerall, who seemed to be able to think along with Jurgensen, provided expert analysis of the Skins’ offense at a time when this sort of commentary was in short supply. As a former (albeit little used) receiver, Summerall understood route running. With the help of football broadcasting’s latest innovation, the “isolated camera,” Summerall explained the Redskins’ routes. He also helped us understand the team’s exciting new “trips” formation, in which three players — sometimes Mitchell, Taylor, and outstanding tight end Jerry Smith all flanked out to the same side of the formation.

Summerall did so well with the Redskins that when CBS went to nationally assigned crews, he became the color analyst on the top crew. In this role, he worked with Jack Buck and later Ray Scott. Some of their qualities as play-by-play men undoubtedly rubbed off on Summerall.

I couldn’t recall any signature Summerall moments of football play-by-play. It wasn’t his style to produce such moments. But I do recall a moment of non-football commentary that, for me, captures Summerall.

At some point, it may have been during the Iran hostage crisis, the NFL put on a showy tribute to America, either before the game or at half time. CBS then threw the broadcast to Summerall.

This put him in a tough spot. He couldn’t say nothing about the show, but whatever he said could easily seem superfluous and/or preachy.

Summerall handled the matter in ten words: “There’s nothing wrong with being proud of where you’re from.”

That was classic, understated Summerall. He was, as Mike Tircio says, the man “who could say more with less.”

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