The author of "America's Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys," Jeff also writes a new column each week in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine and co-hosts the "On Air with Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine" podcast. For subscription information, please click here.
Going to be 17 years of interviewing people this autumn, for newspapers, magazines, websites, and while there's absolutely no way of knowing how many, am fairly certain there have been more than 5,000 different subjects, mostly in the world of sports.
Only on three occasions have I been nervous to the point of intimidation. We're talking at the free-throw line, down by one, no time on the clock or maybe that initial date in high school. The first was Bill Clinton, the second was Roger Staubach (A buddy tried to calm my nerves beforehand, saying, "It's not like you're interviewing Captain America or anything … oh wait, never mind.") and the third was Pat Summerall, the legendary broadcaster who died Tuesday at 82 years of age.
This was about three years ago at Valley Ranch. He had agreed to write an essay for my book, America's Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys, and we were going to talk for an hour or so, with me putting his words to paper.
Before speaking with me, though, Summerall was taping an intro for a business proposal someone was putting together for Jerry Jones, one of his closest friends. So there I stood in the doorway of the studio as one of the iconic voices in television history worked. One take, two takes, three … eight, nine.
Here's the thing, here's the genius of the man. Each take, with the exception of one in which when he coughed, sounded fine to me. Heck, it was brilliant. His voice was so poignant, each word pronounced so precisely. Was blown away. Never really thought about how broadcasters spoke, articulated, just figured it was like they do otherwise. Nope, not in the least. This was so incredibly cool.
Keep in mind no one was asking him for another take. Summerall was requesting to do so. For an intro which maybe 10 people tops would hear. This astounded me. Such a pro's pro. Reminded me of what Joe DiMaggio once said when a teammate asked him why he ran full speed to stretch a single into a double in the eighth inning of a blowout.
"There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best," DiMaggio said.
That was Summerall, 79 years old, sitting in a back studio at Valley Ranch, taping a 45-second intro for at best a boardroom full of people, and he was treating it like any of the 16 Super Bowls he called.
My two favorite sporting events growing up were the Masters and U.S. Open tennis from Flushing Meadows. The voice for both was Summerall, although certainly he's best remembered as John Madden's partner for seemingly every significant NFC game played for 30 years.
We sat for more than an hour, me trying not to over talk, allowing him to spin the yarns, and oh, what a storyteller Summerall was, remembering vivid details from encounters with Tom Landry more than a half-century ago. Know how we always end up saying after the fact that we wished we appreciated the moment as it was happening, not years down the line? This wasn't the case talking with Summerall. I was abundantly clear about how neat of an experience this was.
The topics were wide ranging, from his playing career as a two-way end and kicker, leading the NFL in field goals with the Giants in 1959, to him accidentally falling into broadcasting, to his close friendships with Landry, who was his defensive coordinator and kicking coach with the Giants, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
Two of my favorite memories from Summerall during our interview:
• There was this one time at the Cotton Bowl, St. Louis Cardinals and the Cowboys, and someone at CBS had the bright idea to have me down on the field to introduce the starting lineups and coaches. Well, I get through the players fine, and the Cardinals coach, who was Charley Winner at the time, no problem, and here comes Tom Landry out of the tunnel, right where I am standing.
For the life of me, at that moment, I couldn't remember his name, just one of those times in broadcasting, and he realized that I was having a problem – this is all live television, no doing it over – and he says to me, "I'm Tom Landry, coach of the Cowboys."
• In 2004, I didn't want anyone to know I was having a liver transplant. Somehow, a friend of mine called Jerry's secretary, who told him, and he called my wife at the hospital in Jacksonville and insisted that he send his private plane. My wife said no, we didn't need that, but he sent it anyway. Twice he did that after I was back in Dallas on the road to recovery and needed to fly back for an evaluation. That's a side of Jerry maybe people don't get to see all the time. He's such a kind and generous human being.
When we finished, turned off the camera and the tape recorder, I told him that No. 1 on my bucket list was going to Augusta for the Masters. He smiled and said, "I can promise you this, it won't disappoint." [embedded_ad]
And neither did Summerall. His humility, his class, his professionalism should serve as Sports Broadcasting 101 for generations to come. It won't and we know that. This is a "Look at Me" world now. Look at me yell and scream, look at me make outlandish, preposterous statements for the sake of attention. Look At Me.
For Summerall, it was never about look at me. There weren't any catchphrases. It was about look at these games and these athletes.
The final line of his essay for the book was:
I am a pretty lucky guy to have had friends like Tom Landry and Jerry Jones in my life.
And we were incredibly fortunate to have had Pat Summerall in ours.
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.