Pat Summerall stopped working regularly after the 2002 season, when I was 13. That was the one year everyone kind of forgets, because he spent it calling mostly lesser games with Brian Baldinger after John Madden left for ABC. No offense to Baldinger, but I don't think anyone's last memory of Summerall -- who passed away on Tuesday -- will be of that season.
No, in our memories, Summerall and Madden are forever linked. Even as young as I was when they stopped calling games together, I knew it was a special pairing. You had Madden, the pitchman, who needed no play-by-play man to set him up or get him talking. Then you had Summerall, who never necessarily set him up, rarely editorialized, and just described the bare-bones action on the field, in that magnificent, world-weary voice he had. They were like a two-man orchestra, operating almost separately but in concert with one another.
My memories of them come strictly with The NFL on Fox, but Summerall had a long and storied career as a football player and broadcaster. He called more Super Bowls than anyone else, and was the voice of the NFC for nearly 30 years between CBS and Fox. In 1981, he was paired with Madden, and the two became forever connected.
I don't know if I have a specific memory of Summerall that stands out (perhaps his call of the Giants-Vikings blowout in the 2001 NFC title game) and maybe that's the way it should be. Summerall gave every single game he called the same gravitas, the same gritty vocal chords, and — perhaps because of that — the same level of importance. He was never bigger than the game, but hearing his voice made the game he called bigger.
It was February 2002, the Super Bowl, the first one after 9/11. Uncertainty and the start of an unwinnable war in Afghanistan gave me tribute fatigue. The big game tends to be pretty flag-draped already. I imagined Super Bowl 36 as something of a cross between Up With People and Lee Greenwood.
But it was the Rams, my team, so there was no chance I was missing it.
The game opened with a familiar voice. Pat Summerall read the opening tribute. It all led to a clip of players reciting Kennedy's "ask not" speech, the crux of it. His words didn't really stand out so much as the comfort and familiarity his presence offered. He made it okay to let your guard down, something none of us had really done much since the start of that particular football season.
Summerall was always my favorite NFL broadcaster. He was unobtrusive and smart. Most importantly, he had that Curt Gowdy way of being part of the game without being more than the game. It's a trait that's become a rarity in the booth. On that day he was more than just a damn good announcer.
Summerall was in his prime long before social media, but not one negative word was said of him upon his death, and I don't think I've ever seen a blog or a website have anything but the highest praises for the man. It seems that, as much as any broadcaster in history, Pat Summerall was someone everyone could agree on. Hell, there wasn't nothing to agree on, he just told you what was going on. The simplicity of his work, and that legendary voice, have been missed for a decade, and will continue to be missed after his passing.