We see him and we hear him, but not really. He has been TV's voice of reticence and restraint for well over a decade, but for all his visibility—both on CBS and in his True Value hardware ads—Pat Summerall is something of a mystery. We know John Madden. But Summerall? He's simply a voice, albeit a familiar, economical and soothing one. The guy is on the air 50 weekends a year, broadcasting football, golf and tennis, but who really knows him?
Next week, when he works his 11th Super Bowl on TV, Summerall will mark the end of his 25th year as a CBS sportscaster. Has anyone else who has been on the air that long remained so hidden? Even those who consider themselves his closest friends sometimes scratch their heads and say they haven't been able to figure him out.
"He's the most complex human being I've ever met, in or out of the business," says longtime golf and tennis producer Frank Chirkinian. Says producer Chuck Milton, an old New York pal of Summerall's who has worked hundreds of NFL games with him, "A great guy. But if you find out who the real person is, give me a call."
You will find no stunning revelations on these pages, though here are a few things about Summerall that he has never revealed on the air:
January 26, 1987
Did you know, for example, that there are two Pat Summeralls? One is reticent, retiring, a good ol' boy who has been married to the same woman for 31 years. His principal home is in the same north Florida town, Lake City, where he grew up as one of the best schoolboy athletes the state has ever known. Confederate blood runs in his veins. His grandmother's name was Augusta Georgia Summerall; his granddaddy Thomas Jefferson Summerall actually fought the Yankees. "This is where I'm comfortable," Pat says of Lake City.
The other Pat Summerall is a carouser who stays in big-city hotels most of the year, away from his family, and who often has a cold one in his hand and can drink anyone he's with under the table.
Summerall once said his major weakness in life is that he can't—or won't—call it a night. "The stories are well known," he admits. "There were numerous times when Brookie [his former TV partner and great friend, Tom Brookshier] would say, 'What happened last night?' and together we might be able to piece it together."
Both the homebody and the carouser, by the way, are universally well liked. Summerall may stay up at night for last call, but he'll do it with style and charm and an unsurpassed storytelling ability.
Another paradox: Summerall is a hard guy—and a soft guy.
The only child of a bank janitor, he had a rough childhood. His parents, who were separated, wanted to send him to an orphanage when he was in grade school, but his aunt and uncle Clarice and Floyd Kennon intervened and took him in. They lived a block from the Columbia High School football field, where he would later star. Summerall went on to a 10-year career in the NFL as a two-way end and kicker. He once played a game for the Detroit Lions with a severely fractured right wrist, which eventually cost him his rocket serve on the tennis court.
Summerall is diligent with a capital D, whether on the field or in the booth. He keeps a plaque in his office that reads EVERYTHING COMETH TO HIM WHO WAITETH—IF THEY WORKETH LIKE HELL WHILE THEY WAITETH. Some ex-jocks ride on their reputations, but Summerall is a broadcaster first and a former athlete second. He's a survivor in a profession in which the long knives are always sharp (there have been eight presidents of CBS Sports since Summerall arrived in '62) and where this year's hotshots often wind up selling used cars next year.
As tough as he is, Summerall also has a powerfully emotional, sentimental side. He can get misty-eyed just listening to America the Beautiful. "He even cries at K Mart openings," says Chirkinian. Three years ago, Summerall became so emotional when Ben Crenshaw won the Masters that he had to hand over the mike and let Ken Venturi finish the play-by-play.
There's also Summerall the good ol' boy versus Summerall the mover and shaker.
To this day, Summerall is known as a hometown boy in Lake City. During the pro football off-season he used to grow watermelons and teach English and history at Lake City Junior High. He still bends the elbow with his cronies at the Lake City Country Club and enjoys the company of the guys down at the Amoco station. If truth be known, he is an easy touch for a tale of woe, his friends say. "He can't say no to people," says Chirkinian. "Probably anybody could get into his pockets."
Yet Summerall is no country bumpkin. He pulls in more than $1 million a year from CBS and a sizable amount from True Value. He owns, among other things, a printing business, a travel agency, a warehouse complex and (with Pete Rozelle) part of a 105-acre avocado and Christmas tree ranch near San Diego. He has visited the Reagans at the White House, and the people he can ring up for a chat include Jack Kemp, George Bush, Lee Iacocca, Richard Nixon, Burt Reynolds and Florida Senator Bob Graham. More than a few conservative Republican politicians count him among their campaign contributors.
That Summerall can be a little-known figure while at the same time being the voice of pro football in America shouldn't be all that surprising. His obscurity has much to do with his coolness, his reserve, his gift for understatement. Let everybody celebrate John Madden. Of all the sportscasters in the last quarter century, Summerall may be the only one to realize that less is more.
The coolness, says Summerall, is the way he maintains control: "Being reticent, that's the way I've always done it. I've never been a very excitable person, and in many ways I think that helped me as a kicker. You get all uptight and excited, full of adrenaline, jumping up and down, you forget what it is you need to do, you forget to concentrate."
Somebody once called him the Gary Cooper of sportscasters. Exactly right. In all his years behind the mike, he has rarely said more than yup or nope about himself.
Few of his friends realize that Summerall, 56, was born with a deformed foot. His right foot—with which he would kick perhaps the most famous field goal in NFL history—was backward at birth. When he was young, he says, a doctor fixed it by breaking it and resetting it in the correct position.
In his junior and senior years at Lake City High he made all-state in both basketball and football. In football he set a Florida state schoolboy record for most pass receptions in a single year, then won a basketball scholarship to Arkansas, where he played football and basketball and was a Golden Gloves heavyweight boxer. In 1946 he won the Florida state junior tennis championship, beating Herbie Flam, who later made it to the finals at Forest Hills.
For years when he was growing up, Summerall was shunted, with no warning, between his mother and stepfather's house in Tidesville, Fla., and his uncle's house in Lake City. The shuttle system ended when he followed his high school coach to Arkansas. He was a good student, but a hell-raiser, in high school. Mike Kennon, his cousin, and brother for all intents and purposes, says, "Pat set his mold early. Everything he got, he got on his own. He said, 'I'm going to have to make it myself. And I'm going to prove to my parents what I can be.' I noticed that once he began to hit the big time, getting all-state and all-Southern and all that, his family then began to say, 'Whoa, lookie what we got here!' "
But by then Summerall had fled the barn. He was the punter, not even the field goal kicker in college. And he was nothing more than a competent pro during his five seasons with the Chicago Cardinals, though he became something special with the New York Giants in the late '50s, the era of Charlie Conerly, Frank Gifford and Kyle Rote. Summerall's right foot was a radar device. In fact, if it hadn't been for his kicking, the hallowed 1958 Alan Ameche championship game between the Giants and Baltimore Colts, the game which helped put the NFL on the map, would never have been played.
Two weeks before that game, in a blinding snowstorm that obliterated the yard marks at Yankee Stadium, Summerall booted a field goal estimated at 49 yards that gave the Giants a 13-10 win over the Cleveland Browns to tie the Browns for the Eastern Division title. A special one-game playoff between the two teams was held the following week; the Giants won, giving them the right to face the Colts.
The old AP photos from that first Browns game show a smiling No. 88, pointing to the toe of his squared shoe. Summerall recalls that Vince Lombardi, who was a Giants offensive coach at the time, argued against the field goal try. When Summerall jogged off the field amid the tumult, Lombardi raced up, grabbed him and started shaking him. "I thought he was going to hug me," Summerall recalls, "but then I realized he was angry. 'C'mon,' Lombardi began screaming, 'c'mon, you son of a kangaroo [or some such], you can't kick it that far!' "
Providence accounted for Summerall's start at CBS shortly before he retired from the NFL in '61. He was watching TV in the New York apartment he shared with Conerly, when James Dolan, who was the head of CBS radio sports, called to tell Conerly when to report for a sportscasting audition. "Conerly was in the shower," Summerall recalls, "so I jotted down the information and was just about to put down the receiver when I heard the guy yell, 'Hold it a second! Why don't you come, too?'" Summerall beat out Conerly, Rote and Alex Webster for a five-minute daily sportscast that paid $725 for five shows a week.
The following year Rote gave him a lead on the TV analyst's job for the Giants' games. Summerall then became a morning show host, spinning records and reading traffic reports, for WCBS radio. And in 1964, with a tip from Chris Schenkel, his Giants broadcast partner, he became sports director at WCBS-TV.
Though it seems longer, Summerall has been doing NFL play-by-play only since '75, when he was teamed with Brookshier; Summerall and Madden, who have become the consensus choice as the best two-man team in sports TV, were first paired in '81. Loyalty—whether to CBS, the Giants or the Lake City Elks' Club—is a big item with Summerall. His heart still belongs to the Giants, but he so controls his emotions that for all a listener can tell, the Giants might as well be the Jets.
Another thing about Summerall is that, like a famous Republican he admires, he's something of a Teflon man. Grit and grime just don't stick.
In '74 he was scheduled to call the NBA playoffs, which were likely to feature the Boston Celtics. CBS found out that he and two buddies, former teammate Dick Lynch and pitcher Whitey Ford, had an ownership interest in, among other businesses, the Celtics, and, for obvious reasons, became concerned over a potential conflict of interest. But the issue became moot before the playoffs when the three men sold off their share of the team because of their financial difficulties, and Summerall continued his impartial broadcasting.
Nor was he affected by CBS's "winner-take-all" tennis scandal that broke in '77, when it was revealed that the matches weren't winner-take-all, but that players, win or lose, were being paid big guarantees. Summerall had been the chief announcer on the bogus series. Higher-ups at the network, it turned out, had lied to Summerall, leading him to believe that none of the players had received guarantees. It was as though his guardian angel was on 24-hour all-points alert throughout the scandal. Other people left under fire shortly before an FCC inquiry in 1978, but Summerall emerged unscathed. Although he was infuriated by the deception, he remained calm and cool publicly.
But if Summerall has ice water in his veins, how come he's so dratted emotional? The latest example of this sentimentality came during the opening show of The NFL Today last September. Summerall got noticeably misty-eyed on camera when CBS aired a brief tribute to him on his 25th anniversary.
In Lake City, Summerall supports his 84-year-old mother in a condominium (his father, who worked his way up from janitor to executive vice-president of the bank, died 28 years ago, at 58, of acute appendicitis). Summerall and his wife, Kathy, who was an admiring eighth grader when Pat was a senior in high school, have three children, all of whom live nearby. Summerall still hangs out with Kennon; they have a few cold ones and watch Monday night football together. But Pat doesn't like to talk much about personal things, Mike admits.
"Tell you a story about him," Madden says. "I have two sons, Mike at Harvard and Joe at Brown, and I wanted to go to their game this year, on a Saturday; they were playing against each other. The problem was, Pat and I watch film on Saturday for our Sunday game. For me to get away, he'd have to come up early so we could watch the film on Friday. Well, not only did he come in on Friday, he came in on Wednesday to appear at a dinner where they gave me an award.
"I tell you, I thought about that. The best gift you can give is the gift of time. He gave that. And the best thing about it is he didn't bitch about it. Me, I would have done it, but I would have bitched about it. But he never mentioned it, he never hung it over me, never said, 'I'm doing this for you.' He just came in, did it and never said a damn thing. See, that's the way he is. He does things, but he doesn't want thank-yous."
No way. Hey, Pat Summerall's a tough guy, remember?