Pat Summerall died Tuesday. He was 82.
That’s how Summerall, almost a decade ago, said he would craft the first sentences of his obituary — short and to the point.
The legendary sports broadcaster died in his hospital room at Zale Lipshy University Hospital, where he was recovering from surgery for a broken hip, a family friend said.
Summerall’s comment about his obituary was made at his Southlake home after a 2004 liver transplant that saved his life. He was serious.
Typical … succinct … vintage Summerall.
His minimalist staccato style coupled with a deep, authoritative voice was his trademark as the pre-eminent NFL voice for a generation of television viewers.
Summerall worked 16 Super Bowls in a network career that began at CBS in 1962 and ended at Fox in 2002.
In the 21 seasons in which play-by-play voice Summerall worked alongside John Madden, they grew into America’s most popular sports broadcast team. Their work for CBS at Super Bowl XVI, following the 1981 season, remains the highest-rated NFL game of all-time, with more than 49 percent of the nation tuned in.
“I was so lucky I got to work with Pat,” Madden said in an interview around the time of Summerall’s transplant. “He was so easy to work with. He knew how to use words. For a guy like myself who rambles on and on and doesn’t always make sense, he was sent from heaven.”
In a statement Tuesday, Madden added that his former partner “was something very special. Pat Summerall is the voice of football and always will be.”
Madden was the first broadcaster Fox hired when it outbid CBS for NFL rights beginning in 1994. He insisted that Summerall be the second. Madden found no opposition.
“Pat Summerall set the standard for play-by-play announcers regardless of sport,” said Ed Goren, retired president of Fox Sports, who also worked with Summerall at CBS. “If he was an athlete, you’d call him a team player. Pat always deferred to others in the booth. He worried about the broadcast, never about his own role. He had a Hall of Fame career.”
But Summerall, a former NFL player, was much more than simply a football broadcaster.
He was a man for all sports seasons.
He called NBA games for CBS and was the network’s lead voice on golf and tennis broadcasts. He worked 27 Masters and 20 tennis U.S. Opens.
Summerall watched CBS’ coverage of the Masters in his hospital room over the weekend and made a vow.
“I’m going to walk again,” he promised his visitors.
As a high school senior in Florida, Summerall turned down a basketball scholarship offered by legendary University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp and instead opted to play football, basketball and baseball at the University of Arkansas. He played professional baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals organization before moving on to a career in the NFL. Later in life, he was part of an investment group that in the late 1970s owned a piece of the NBA’s Boston Celtics.
His friends and confidants included Mickey Mantle, President Gerald Ford and Jerry Jones.
Summerall helped broker the deal that brought another close friend, Bill Parcells, to Dallas to coach Jones’ Cowboys.
“He was a trusted friend and confidant, and for all of his immense talents as a professional, he was an even better person,” Jones said in a statement.
Jones also referred to Summerall as “royalty in the broadcast booth.”
But Summerall never acted as if he was more important than anyone.
“I have been very, very fortunate,” he told The Dallas Morning News in a 1997 story chronicling his presence on the American sports scene in the second half of the 20th century.
But Summerall’s blessing also proved his curse. Broadcasters work odd hours and have a lot of down time. He drank heavily in his early years at CBS, and it became evident he had become an alcoholic. In 1981, CBS broke up its No. 1 NFL team — Summerall and Tom Brookshier — in part because their long nights of partying bled into their broadcasts.
Summerall always insisted that no matter how much he drank, he never felt the effects the next morning.
“I can honestly say I never saw Pat drunk,” Frank Gifford, Summerall’s friend, former New York Giants teammate and fellow broadcaster, said around the time of the transplant. “I saw him funny, but he could hold his liquor as well as anyone.”
It was after the 1992 Masters that friends, CBS colleagues and family met Summerall one night in Philadelphia and convinced him during an emotional intervention that he desperately needed help to combat his drinking.
Summerall spent five weeks at the Betty Ford Center in Palm Springs, Calif.
He never drank again. At the annual Christmas party he and his wife, Cheri, hosted at Amazing Grace, their Southlake home, guests were offered nothing stronger than soft drinks and coffee.
“My time at Betty Ford saved my life,” Summerall frequently volunteered in conversation.
But it couldn’t reverse nature. Alcohol had taken its toll, damaging his liver.
Summerall was on the verge of celebrating his 12th anniversary of sobriety when on April 1, 2004, he was flown by air ambulance from Methodist Medical Center in Dallas to St. Luke’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla., to await a donor match for a liver transplant.
Nine days later, the 73-year-old Summerall received his new liver.
At the time, Cheri Summerall said her husband acknowledged that his condition was a result of his excessive drinking in the past.
“Alcoholism is a progressive disease, and the damage to his liver reached the point where a transplant is the only option for survival,” she said.
High school athlete
George Allen Summerall was born in rural central Florida on May 10, 1930, after his parents had divorced. He was taken in and raised by an aunt and uncle. They had a son named Mike.
“In those days, people liked to tell ethnic jokes,” Summerall told The News in 1997. “Invariably when they got around to the Irish jokes, the characters would be Pat and Mike. My aunt and uncle just started calling me Pat to go with their Mike.”
An all-around athlete at Lake City High School, Summerall won all-state honors in basketball and football. He was also Florida’s 16-and-under tennis champion in 1946.
The 6-4 Summerall might have gone to Kentucky had Rupp agreed to allow him to play football as well as basketball. Rupp, however, did not want a potential power forward fooling around with football.
Instead, Summerall decided to play at Arkansas. In the classroom, Summerall earned an undergraduate degree in education and later a master’s in Russian history.
“As an undergraduate, I had a professor who taught history as if it was a novel,” Summerall once told a dubious dinner companion. “I was so enthralled with the professor, when I decided to go back to school I wanted to take more courses with him. The more I got into Russian history, the more fascinated I became with it.”
After graduation, Summerall signed a contract with baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals. A first baseman, he played one season in the Class C Sooner State League. Also on the team in Lawton, Okla., were the Mantle brothers, Roy and Ray. But it was a third Mantle brother he met that year who became a lifelong friend.
Summerall in 1994 persuaded buddy Mickey Mantle, the Hall of Fame outfielder for the New York Yankees, to seek treatment at Betty Ford for his own alcoholism.
Like Summerall, Mantle’s liver had been damaged by alcohol. Mantle underwent liver transplant surgery at Baylor University Medical Center in 1995. He died two months later of cancer. He was 63.
When Summerall realized he had no future in baseball, he moved to the NFL, where he played offensive and defensive end as well as place kicker. The Detroit Lions selected him in the fourth round of the 1952 draft. He suited up for two games that season but did not play. He spent five seasons with the Chicago Cardinals and four with the Giants before retiring after the 1961 season.
“Every team back then had a clique, and we were no different,” said Gifford, the Giants Hall of Fame halfback and flankerback. “When he came to us from the Cardinals, he fit right in with everybody.”
Summerall’s greatest moment as a player came in the final game of the 1958 season, when he kicked a long field goal in a snowstorm to give the Giants a 13-10 come-from-behind victory over the Cleveland Browns. It brought home-field advantage in the playoffs. Officially, the field goal was 49 yards.
“That’s just a guess,” Gifford said. “It was dark and snowing. The field was covered with snow. No one can really say how far it was.”
Two weeks later, the Giants lost in sudden death to the Baltimore Colts in the NFL Championship Game, called by some the greatest NFL game ever.
“Without Pat’s field goal, there would be no Colts-Giants in that game,” Gifford said. “That game went a long way to establishing the NFL.”
Summerall and Madden, who worked the most important NFC games, were regulars at Cowboys games during the Super Bowl years in the 1990s. Summerall was always equally at home in the owner’s suite and the locker room.
“Pat has been a tremendous friend and mentor for me,” said former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman soon after Summerall’s transplant. “He taught me a great deal about the broadcasting business back when we worked together in ’94-95 on The Troy Aikman Show. Since retiring from football and going to work for Fox, Pat has continued to provide me with invaluable advice.”
Summerall and Madden worked four Super Bowls in the 1990s but were shut out of the three Cowboys Super Bowl victories in the decade. Those games were broadcast by NBC.
They worked their eighth and final Super Bowl together in February 2002, two decades after their first.
Summerall, then 71, was dropped from Fox’s No. 1 team after that Super Bowl. He was assigned instead to a schedule of primarily Cowboys games in 2002.
When Fox would not guarantee Summerall that he could stick primarily with the Cowboys the next season, he announced his retirement.
“I’ll miss it,” he said. “But it’s time.”
But Summerall was not finished broadcasting. Four months after his transplant, Summerall called several early-2004 NFL season games for ESPN while Mike Patrick recovered from open-heart surgery. He returned to Fox to work the 2007-11 Cotton Bowls.
“This just felt right,” Fox Sports president Goren said about Summerall’s return to the network in the Cotton Bowl play-by-play seat. “Sometimes you make a decision and there are a lot of smiles across the board. This one brought a lot of happy faces.”