In the 10 years that Dan Dierdorf, the former St. Louis Cardinals offensive tackle, squared off against defensive end Too Tall Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, they never said a word to each other. Not "Hello," not "Good day, sir," not even "I'm gonna beat your backside." They never spoke until the end of the second Cardinal-Cowboy game in 1983, Dierdorf's retirement year. They found each other and shook hands. "I'm glad you're quitting," Jones said.
"Me, too," Dierdorf replied.
On first impression, Dierdorf, who starts his rookie season in the Monday Night Football booth with Frank Gifford and Al Michaels on Sept. 14, is the ultimate hail-fellow-well-met, a locker-room backslapper with a party-time laugh. But as evidenced by his battles with Too Tall, when it comes to his vocation, Dierdorf is all business. He was that way throughout a 13-year playing career, which probably will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his hometown or canton, Ohio. He has been that way as a broadcaster, a restaurateur and a pitchman for a real estate developer and a car dealership in St. Louis. And while he'll have a good time in the booth, he'll no doubt be that way as the third man on Monday Night Football.
Will the 38-year-old Dierdorf conquer Monday Night Football, as he has just about everything else? Or, like Jack Youngblood of the Rams, the only defensive end who had Dierdorf's number, will Monday Night conquer him? It's an interesting face-off.
September 8, 1987
On the one hand, you've got an irresistible force, the 6'3" Dierdorf, who weighs virtually the same as his playing weight of 290 pounds has been immensely successful since 1971, when he left Michigan, where he was a mediocre history student and an All-America. "I've incredible roll," he says amazement. "I've made more money and bettered myself every since I 21 years old. If my life were a graph, it would be one continuous line at a 45-degree angle, pointing up."
On the other hand, you've got an immovable object in Monday Night Football, which is the second-longest-running prime-time program (behind 60 Minutes) on television. It has chewed up and spit out O.J. Simpson and Joe Namath, among others. By joining the rapidly slipping Gifford, who has become a chatterbox and an apologist for the players, as an analyst on the show, Dierdorf is boarding a leaky boat. Although ABC Sports president Dennis Swanson says that Dierdorf was not hired because of any dissatisfaction with Monday Night, his addition is, in effect, a slap at Gifford.
Gifford says that he enjoys Dierdorf's humor and that he is sure everything will turn out hunky-dory. But Gifford is a proud man, and no one is sure how he will react. Will he turn up the talk meter to compete with Dierdorf, or will he retreat into a shell? Moreover, it was widely rumored last year that dissension plagued the Monday Night Football team, which then consisted of play-by-play man Michaels, Gifford, producer Ken Wolfe and senior vice-president for production Dennis Lewin. Batten down the hatches, mates.
"I think Frank feels victimized," says Dierdorf of Gifford's 1986 move from play-by-play to analysis. "He hasn't aired this to me, but I think he'd still rather be doing play-by-play. But Frank has nothing to fear from me. If I were stupid, I could approach this with the attitude, If I could only upstage Frank, think how good that would make me look. In that case, what I'd be doing is affecting the three of us as a whole.
"Let's face it. I've been hired to make Al look good, I've been hired to make Frank look good, I've been hired to create interaction among the three of us. I think I can say anything to Al, and I'm either going to get a laugh or get it right back, which is fine, because I can take it or give it. I'm not sure about that with Frank yet. I do know one thing. It's obvious to the viewer whether the people in the booth enjoy each other's company. It's awful hard to hide animosity."
The first NFL analyst hired by ABC as much for his broadcasting ability as for his marquee value, Dierdorf will make $600,000 this season on Monday Night. That's significantly less than the reported $850,000 ABC paid Namath each of his last two years (only one of which Joe Willie worked), but a far sight more than the $185,000 Dierdorf earned as the No. 2 NFL analyst behind John Madden at CBS last season. It also beats the $250,000 Dierdorf commanded in 1983, his final year in the trenches.
A six-time All-Pro, Dierdorf was one of the quickest offensive tackles ever when it came to moving laterally, but he was never the same after dislocating his knee in a game at the Meadowlands in 1979. When Giants end Mike McCoy fell on him in a crowd, Dierdorf recalls with a wince, "the outside of my [right] foot was lying on the field. I had to reach down, rotate it and pull the leg back into the socket."
A job on Monday Night Football is the Holy Grail of sportscasting, the prize every announcer covets. Because the show airs in prime time and an average of 50,000,000 Americans watch at least part of it each week, Monday Night can mean instant celebrity for a commentator with insight, humor and charm. Dierdorf has all those qualities, not to mention a "good ol' Dan" affability and a smidgeon of ego, which raises the possibility that, like Madden, he could develop into a TV folk hero.
If that happens, CBS can blame only itself for losing Dierdorf. As recently as last spring the network had him locked up—or so it thought. He joined CBS Sports in 1985, after having established his credentials as a sportscaster and as a hockey and football analyst on radio station KMOX in St. Louis. Ever the career planner, he thought he would have more security by calling the action than by analyzing it. But realizing that Dierdorf's true talent lies in glib, free-wheeling commentary, CBS executive producer Ted Shaker switched him to color last year and teamed him with Dick Stockton. By season's end, Dierdorf had leapfrogged a half dozen other analysts in one of the most rapid rises ever seen in sports broadcasting.
Dierdorf's contract called for CBS to have an option on his services in 1987 at a slight increase in pay. But through an administrative oversight that almost defies belief, CBS never got Dierdorf's signature on the contract. The network paid him the figures specified, and he worked faithfully for two years, but the two sides could not come to terms on the option clause and other contract details. Thus, when ABC offered him the Monday Night deal in April, Dierdorf was free to accept.
When CBS Sports president Neal Pilson found out his underlings hadn't dotted all the i's, his anger reverberated through the network's New York offices. Pilson and Shaker even flew to St. Louis for a face-to-face visit with Dierdorf, but they couldn't get him to stay. At least, Dierdorf says half seriously, they got a free lunch at The Grill, one of the four restaurants he co-owns with former Cardinals quarterback Jim Hart, and were allowed to make calls to their secretaries from the cellular phone in his Mercedes 560.
Dierdorf and his agent, Arthur Kaminsky, were hardly babes in the woods during this period. Perhaps to justify its bumbling, CBS has hinted that Kaminsky may have delayed the signing of the contract so his client could be free to solicit offers from ABC. Kaminsky denies this; he says that ABC came after Dierdorf, not the other way around. A few sour-grape suckers at CBS might say that Dierdorf should have stayed at the network out of loyalty, but he was under no legal or moral obligation to do so. Besides, the Monday Night deal was almost irresistible.
"I couldn't have been treated nicer by the people at CBS," Dierdorf told Eric Mink of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "It was very painful for me to extricate myself from CBS Sports. I did it with a great deal of thought, but how could I pass it [Monday Night] up?"
While his professional life has had few hitches, Dierdorf has experienced one grievous personal setback. In January 1985 his two-month-old daughter, Kelly, died, a victim of sudden infant death syndrome. "For some reason, usually between the ages of one and four months, they take a breath and don't take another one," says Dierdorf. "There's no struggle, no choking; they just stop, like flipping off the switch on a light. My wife, Debbie, woke up at 4 and realized she hadn't heard the baby cry for its feeding at 2:30 or 3. She knew right away. She came back into our bedroom carrying her. How do you describe it? It's beyond belief. You just go into autopilot. Every day you sit around and start falling farther and farther into that hole."
Dierdorf, who then had three other children (two from a previous marriage and one with Debbie), says Kelly's death taught him a hard lesson. "It made me more sensitive to other people's problems," he says. "When everything is going well, you're not aware of other people's problems. You don't have the time. Then when something happens to you, all of a sudden you find out that virtually everyone you know has a problem, sometimes a worse one than yours, and you have been blind to it." He and Debbie have since had another daughter, Katherine, who's one.
Dierdorf got out of his dark hole by immersing himself in work. "He's talked for years about his goals," says Debbie. "He was not shy about them. From the day he started at CBS, he wanted John Madden's job."
Unlike most former jocks who become sportscasters, Dierdorf learned broadcasting from the bottom up. His first job behind the mike came in 1974, when, still with the Cardinals, he teamed with Hart on a Saturday afternoon call-in show for KMOX radio. He still works for KMOX as the host of Sports Open Line, a nightly call-in show on which NBC announcer Bob Costas, a KMOX alum, regularly appears. "Dan isn't just a jock, but he's comfortable with jocks," says Costas. "He's not a guy who'd sit down and read Voltaire, but somewhere along the line he's probably heard about Candide. He'll set you up, and you can set him up."
One of the bright spots of Dierdorf's KMOX career was "The Friday Frank Forecast," a feature on Sports Open Line during which Costas, who did (and does) the Major League Baseball Game of the Week telecasts on Saturdays, would phone in from whatever ballpark in the country he happened to be visiting. "Well, Bob, how is that Steel City sausage?" Dierdorf would ask. "And how about the texture of the bun? Is it poppyseed? A hearty and thick bun...?"
Last year Dierdorf also was the sports director and 10 o'clock sports anchor for KMOV-TV. And he did a Monday NFL report for the CBS Morning News. He would leave St. Louis on Friday for wherever the CBS Sunday game was being held, interview the coaches on Saturday, broadcast the game on Sunday, fly to New York that night for the next day's Morning News show, get up at 5 a.m. and do his report, fly to St. Louis later in the day, unpack, review a tape of the Cardinals' Sunday game, race to KMOX for a two-hour show at 6 o'clock with St. Louis coach Gene Stallings, take the elevator down to KMOV to do the 10 o'clock sports and, finally, climb into bed at 11:30.
This grueling schedule worried Debbie, who feared her exhausted husband was inviting a heart attack. "One night Debbie picked me up, and we went out to dinner," Dierdorf recalls. "She said, 'Honey, I don't normally interfere, but do you realize that we have not sat down and had dinner with the kids as a family in more than five weeks?' " Dierdorf has since scaled back on at least one front: He has reduced his KMOV load from anchoring the 10 p.m. sports to doing a few features and commentaries a week. He will earn more than $1 million from his various ventures this year.
How will Dierdorf come across on Monday Night Football? It probably will depend on how well he mans the show's telestrator—the device, new to ABC, that allows an analyst to draw plays on the screen—and how well he can tap-dance around Gifford and get along with the other deckhands. Dierdorf is a born talker who will have to button it up more as part of a three-man crew than he did as half of the two-man CBS team. "I wonder what it's going to feel like biting my tongue," he says.
But Dierdorf is an uncommonly candid communicator. As for Howard Cosell's contempt for the jockocracy, he says: "Everybody on Monday Night owes a debt to Howard. But I have forgotten more about football than Howard Cosell ever knew. Howard only existed in that environment because he had people around him who knew the game. Let's be realistic. Howard had his strengths. But analyzing a football game was not one of them."
Jack Buck, a KMOX colleague, who will recommence his Monday night broadcasts on CBS Radio this season and thus will be on opposite Dierdorf, says the major thing Dierdorf has to look out for on Monday Night Football is "the smoking pistols." According to Buck, "They'll all be gunning for him—it's the nature of things when you get that high. What's Dan going to do that Gifford couldn't and vice versa? They want a fun theme. Well, they'd better get the Smothers Brothers, because sooner or later the game settles down to business."
But don't forget, beneath the jocularity, Dierdorf is all business.