Spagnola: From The Booth, This Old-Timer Was An All-Timer

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IRVING, Texas – The last time I saw Pat Summerall was March 5 of this year, at the Midway Point in North Dallas, a dimly lit joint our little group convenes for lunch kind of monthly, give or take a week or four, just an excuse for everyone to stop what they're doing to converse – solve all the Cowboys problems, figure out what in the world Nolan Ryan really is up to and recount all tales of old for posterity sake.

         You've heard of these communions of minds previously, our "Old-Timers" lunch, anywhere from seven to 10 of us either retired from or still working after all these years in the media business, most everyone having been around long enough to share times with every generation of the Dallas Cowboys during their now 53 years of NFL history.

         Pat was one of the original members, the elder statesmen of this group I was so fortunately invited into a few years ago. I'm not sure why except for maybe they needed some new, old blood if you know what I mean. I certainly knew who Pat Summerall was, having grown up as a kid listening to that voice, and then all through my formative years in the sports media world.

But I didn't really know him until these precious lunches, previously only the voice from the TV, one I swear came down from the Mount Sinai of sports.

         To me, this was like having an audience with the Pope, you know. Sort of the godfather who had been through it all, seen it all, seemingly remembered it all and could impart wisdom beyond my years. A real treasure chest, all of them, Pat, Frank Luksa, Cartlon Stowers, Hugh Aynesworth, Brad Sham and recently Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram – the elder statesmen of the Dallas-Fort Worth media, or national media in Pat's case – from way back in the '60s and '70s.

         Talk about a bunch that could go way back, Pat having played in the NFL in the 1950s before becoming a broadcaster; Frank covering the Cowboys from 1961 on; Hugh having covered the Kennedy assassination; Carlton remembering the time in college he lined up for a 100-yard dash in the blocks next to some guy named Bob Hayes before covering the Cowboys for The Dallas Morning News and then becoming editor of what used to be called the Cowboys Weekly; and Brad truly "the voice" of the Cowboys since the tail end of the team's first Super Bowl go-arounds.

         Encyclopedias, I'm telling you, in no need of internet verification. Why, during one lunch like a year ago or so the names of Hayes, Ted Bundy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jim Brown came up in the course of these eclectic conversations. Very little need for someone like me to participate – just sit back and listen, myself, along with David Moore and Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News, the not-so young whippersnappers of the group.

         Of Pat, David hit it right on the head: "He was far and away the most recognized member of the group, yet I was always struck by how he preferred to be a part of the conversation rather than dominate it. He wanted to hear what others had to say. He had wonderful stories to tell and would do so when prompted, but it was not his style to be the center of attention."

         Never. Pat just sort of fit in, just as he did on so many Sundays over the years while you sat on your couch at home. From back when TVs were black and white, probably had rabbit ears for antennas and likely with only four or five channels available, all the way through color and cable and satellite and flat screens. While you were watching NFL games or The Masters or tennis majors. Pat was your friend, too, without you really realizing it, I'm guessing. He was anonymously present.

         Well, sadly the circumference of our little roundtable lunches just shrunk again for the second time in the past six months, first Frank passing away at the age of 79 this last October and now Pat, at the age of 82, on Tuesday. He had been fading of sorts the past six months, though still his comments during this last lunch were typically Summerall-ian: succinct, dryly humorous and at times prescient.

         His dear wife Cheri drove him to the lunch since Pat had to quit driving at some point last year. His steps were halting and growing shorter. But still he made it to The Point that Tuesday, and I could tell his mere presence put a little more pep in everyone's afternoon.

         When we finished, Carlton and I stood outside in the now blinding sunshine talking with Pat, waiting for Cheri to arrive for the trip back home. And by the way, talk about sunshine, that lady's smile was enough to even thoroughly light up The Point, as it did our afternoon that day when she arrived. Just getting to the car and getting in was a slow process for Pat, but his spirits were good. He was part of the gang for a few more hours.

Our spirits were good, too. We had two more hours with Pat Summerall, and thanked him for coming and her for making the effort to get him the 15 or so miles from where they lived in nearby Southlake. Yet, I remember Carlton and I knowing as Cheri drove off that, well, we were just hoping he'd be at our next lunch.

         He won't be. Pat went down a week ago Wednesday, breaking his hip, likely unable to measure his steps carefully enough. He had successful surgery on Friday and was moved to the rehab center of the hospital by Sunday, seemingly on his way to recovery. But I'm told he suffered cardiac arrest while in rehab Tuesday afternoon. [embedded_ad]

         Since, in the last 24 hours, we've all traded emails, vowing to schedule the next Old-Timers lunch, knowing we must reminisce our time with Pat but also knowing with another emotional punch delivered to the solar plexus that tomorrow is not promised to any of us, no matter our age.

         Hugh sent me this about Pat: "I knew Pat when he was a star Razorback and I was sports editor in Fort Smith (Ark.) in the early 1950s. I remember him tearing up the floor as a basketball star – was better than he was in football I always thought. In more recent years, he often wanted to talk about Ted Bundy – the serial killer. Bundy's last victim was a teenager in Pat's hometown, Lake City, Fla., and Pat wanted to know all the details because I had interviewed Bundy for many hours and he knew some of the girl's family. I thought he was not only a legend but a decent, warm and unassuming guy. He will be missed by many."

         Hats off should also go to the North Texas Super Bowl XLV Host Committee for coming up with the idea back in February of 2011 to honor three of the area's legendary media members at the Media Party prior to the first Super Bowl played in our parts. The committee chose Dan Jenkins, Frank and Pat. I remember interviewing Pat for the prelude story to the event, no one having told him yet he was going to receive the award in the name of the equally legendary Blackie Sherrod when I spoke to him

         Responding with typical Pat Summerall graciousness and in genuine humility, he told me, "Well, I'm shocked No. 1 that I'm getting any kind of award. I've been honored enough to (attend) 28 Super Bowl games. It's an honor to be remembered at this time and to be in such good company with Frank Luksa and Dan Jenkins.

         "And Blackie, just to be around him was an honor."

         Maybe so Pat, but the honor was truly ours – all of ours, right? – to have been around you, either during all those lunches at the Midway Point or in front of the television, you a true national treasure.

         And all I know is these Old-Timers lunches will never be quite the same, haven't been without Frank and won't be for sure without Pat. Might be the only thing that we can all agree upon.

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