Hall of Fame Inductee: Pat Summerall, the Steadying Voice of NFL Sundays
The quintessential play-by-play voice of the National Football League, Pat Summerall defined excellence during his 40 years in the booth, calling more Super Bowls than any announcer in history. He made up one half of pro football’s most legendary broadcast team, alongside fellow inductee John Madden, and spent more than 20 years as the signature voice of CBS Sports’ golf and tennis coverage.
“Simply put, when you heard Pat’s voice in an opening, you knew it was a big game,” says Sandy Grossman, who spent more than 25 years directing Summerall at CBS and Fox. “He was absolutely the big-game voice for decades. We just don’t have anyone like that today and may never again.”
Born in Lake City, FL, Summerall gained much of his feel for the game of football from his years as a player, at the University of Arkansas and as the placekicker for the Chicago Cardinals and New York Giants from 1952 to 1961, including three NFL Championship Games (one the celebrated “Greatest Game Ever Played” in 1958).
“Pat played at a high level, and he played in big games,” says producer Bob Stenner, who also spent more than two decades on Summerall’s broadcast team. “So he knows what it’s like for the players down on the field, and that’s extremely unusual for a play-by-play guy.”
Summerall’s broadcasting career actually came about by chance and almost never happened at all. Just before the start of the Giants’ 1961 season, he was in a New York hotel room when the phone rang. It was an executive from WCBS radio in New York calling to remind Summerall’s roommate, quarterback Charlie Conerly (who was in the shower), that he had an audition later that afternoon at the station along with teammates Alex Webster and Kyle Rote.
“Just before I hung up the phone, he said, ‘Wait a minute. What are you doing this afternoon?’” recounts Summerall. “And I said probably going to drink beer with the boys or go to a movie or something. So he told me to come along for the audition. I went and read the same script that the [other players] did, and they picked me to do the radio show at CBS. That was my first introduction to the broadcasting business.”
After retiring following that season, Summerall launched his career in radio, calling NFL games, serving as sports director, and hosting a talk show at WCBS radio. He then spent 10 years as a color analyst for CBS Sports telecasts alongside legends Jack Buck, Chris Schenkel, and Ray Scott, before making the rare transition to play-by-play in 1974 and joining close friend Tom Brookshier on CBS’s No. 1 NFL broadcast team.
“Tom and I became very close friends, almost like brothers,” says Summerall. “We had a lot of fun together and probably even entertained ourselves a little too much. But he knew the game, and so did I. I’d played against him when he was a player with the Eagles. The Giants taught us that we weren’t supposed to like anybody with the Eagles, and they were taught not to like us. So we had that animosity to get over first. Obviously, we did that pretty quickly.”
In 1981, CBS Sports paired Summerall with former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden, a partnership that would go on to span 21 years, eight Super Bowls, two major networks, and more than 300 telecasts. The succinct, baritone-voiced Summerall served as the perfect complement to Madden’s lively, effusive style, creating a pitch-perfect NFL telecast for fans.
“John always knew that, no matter what he did, Pat had his back,” says Grossman. “Wherever he would go or whatever tangent he was on, he would rely on Pat to bring it down safely. And most important, Pat would always ask the right question at the right time to make sure that thought was completed.”
For 13 years at CBS Sports and another eight at Fox Sports, the duo set the standard for an NFL telecast — both in the booth and in the film room.
“We started doing football very differently than people had done in the past,” says Grossman. “John and Pat went much deeper into the game with tape and [pregame] interviews with players and coaches. We were watching so much film that it became like a tutorial every week. In order to work with Pat and John, you had to start knowing a lot more football.”
In total, Summerall has worked 26 Super Bowls — 16 on network television and 10 on radio — and has called 27 Masters golf tournaments, 21 US Open tennis tournaments, five heavyweight championship fights, and an NBA Finals. Since retiring in 2001, he has been drawn back into the booth for several marquee events, including the Cotton Bowl Classic for the past four years. And in all those years and all those events, he is said to have never taken a single note.
“Pat never ever took notes — not once,” says Stenner. “When we would meet with players and coaches, he would just sit there, ask a question, and process the answer. Then, when the game rolled around, all this stuff would come back out, and you would say ‘how the hell does he do that?’”
A dedicated Christian and a father of three, Summerall now resides in Southlake, TX, with his wife, Cheri.
“Pat is the absolute benchmark for all play-by-play announcers,” says Stenner. “He’s so understated. He’s always had that amazing ability to say more with fewer words. I can’t see there ever being another one like Pat.”
For more information about the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, click here.