His best friend deceived him.
For which, Pat Summerall said, he will be eternally grateful.
For long, riotous years, Summerall and his best pal, Tom Brookshier, had played Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, microphone partners and night riders rollicking around the country, TV celebrities seen by millions, relentless and thirst--unquenchably thirsty--seekers of pleasurable diversions.
They would finish their telecast of a football game or some other sporting event, and then repair to the nearest, most convenient upholstered watering hole. There, night tended to dissolve into dawn before they found their way back to lodgings, sometimes their own, sometimes not.
Their memories of those raucous times were mostly scraps and blurs.
“Between us, we could usually piece together bits of evidence, but we were never really sure about all that had transpired,” Summerall reflects. “People would tell us we’d had a really great time, but there were so many gaps we’d have to take their word for it.”
Both having been professional football players, both assumed they were immune to the usual inevitable consequences of such reckless living. They were spared when their employer, the Columbia Broadcasting System, decided to separate them.
“If CBS hadn’t broken us up,” says Summerall, “I am convinced neither one of us would be alive today.”
He wouldn’t come to this conclusion until much later, however, and not until after he had had time to analyze the situation soberly, dispassionately.
“Brookie was--is--the closest thing I have to a brother,” Summerall says. “He’s the only one who could have tricked me and gotten away with it.”
From a distance, Brookshier had watched with growing alarm what his former partner was doing to himself.
“I was drinking myself to death,” Summerall says, with hesitating candor. “Everyone saw it but me. That’s how it always is. The only one who refuses to recognize that there’s a problem is the one who has the problem.”
Denial is always the drunk’s first weapon.
He was careful; he never went on the air inebriated. His speech was never slurred. He never toppled out of whatever crow’s nest he had been assigned, whether in a stadium press box or in a golf course tower or from some suspended aerie overlooking a tennis court. Super Bowl, Masters, U.S. Open...he always showed up for work coherent and reasonably clear-eyed. Viewers heard only the familiar sparse presentation, the soft, pleasing drawl, the economy of words, the utter lack of hyperbole.
But when the work was done and it was time to unstrap, well, then he made up for lost time. With both hands.
“Jack Daniels was my running mate,” he says.
His former running mate lured him into ambush early in the spring of 1992. Tom Brookshier waited until Summerall had concluded working the Masters, in April. And then he called his pal.
“I was in Philadelphia, getting ready to do a voice-over for the NFL Films,” Summerall recalls, “and Brookie gets me and asks for a favor. He says he’s selling luxury suites in an arena in Philly and he’s got a potential client who’s a big fan of mine, and if I could just meet with the guy for a few minutes that would probably be enough to seal the deal.
“I agreed, though I was less than thrilled, and Brookie says to meet him at the Stouffer’s Inn in Camden, New Jersey. We meet in the lobby and he says the guy is in a room on the 12th floor. I guess I should have been suspicious but I just wanted to get it over with. And then when we opened the door and went into that room...”
His voice catches. Even after all those years, he can see the hotel room and the circle of chairs in it, each one occupied by a dear, and deeply concerned, friend.
It was an intervention.
The friends of Pat Summerall had gathered to save him from himself.
The late Pete Rozelle, the long-time commissioner of the NFL, was there. So was the president of the Mayo Clinic. So were marquee names from sports and television. So was Pat Summerall’s daughter, Susan. They had been assembled there, he later learned, for two days, patiently waiting for him.
Now, from across the years, he sees that room through the mist of grateful tears. On the day of the ambush, however, he saw the room only through the red haze of anger. He didn’t feel love or gratitude for those who had gathered; he felt betrayed.
Only later would he learn that
there is usually a correlation, that the deeper the problem the greater the
anger, the resentment. Friends are seen
“Here they were wanting to save me,” Summerall says, “and I was sure they were the ones who had the problem.”
Each one in that hotel room had written him a letter, in long hand. One by one they stood to read.
“I didn’t hear much of anything, I was so mad,” he says. “I was so furious they practically had to tie me down.”
And then his daughter stood.
“She said, ‘Lately I’ve been ashamed to share your name.’ ”
That was the hit that took him to his knees.
As he relates this, Pat Summerall is sitting in Eden, in a lawn chair at one of the umbrella tables on the impossibly green grass of the veranda of the Augusta National Golf Club, in the shadow of two enormous oak trees thought to be two centuries old. It is a soft early April morning, on the eve of the 1998 Masters. The air is thick with the heady musk of spring and of rebirth and recycling and resurrection. Surely there cannot be another locale anywhere better suited for assessing and for appreciating and for offering up thanks.
His friends had arranged for a private plane. It would fly Pat Summerall across the continent, to California, to the Betty Ford Clinic. He would be admitted immediately.
He agreed. Numbly. His daughter’s letter had sucked most of the resistance out of him.
Tom Brookshier, true friend, made the trip with him.
“Sometimes,” Brookshier says, “you just need someone to hold your hand. I told him: ‘Patrick, I’ll go to the ends of the earth with you if that’s what it takes.’ ”
The usual stay is 28 days. Pat Summerall was there for 33.
“I asked them why, and they smiled and said ‘You were so mad and raving that you didn’t hear anything anyone was saying for the first five days.’ ”
Gradually, his anger cooled. He listened. Sobriety took. He became one of the clinic’s most famous triumphs. Very soon he was not only a testament to the wonders of rehabilitation, he was on the board of regents of the Clinic.
In that capacity, he gives
speeches from time to time. Invariably,
he reaches into his pocket and brings out a sheaf of pages from yellow legal
pads. They are wrinkled and worn from
They are the letters that were written to him by those people who gathered in a hotel room to save his life.
His story has a happy ending. But it did not come without crushing cost.
There was, as there always is with great trauma, damage beyond repair.
In Pat Summerall’s case, sobriety cost him a marriage. He and Kathy had been wed 35 years. They had three children--Susan, Jay and Kyle. And grandchildren.
“But my wife...my former wife...she had been in such denial for so long, she wasn’t the same person. And, of course, sober, neither was I. It was inevitable, I guess, that we separated.”
Four years into sobriety, he trusted himself to try again. He and Cheri live outside Dallas. She arranges his schedule, points him in the right direction.
“We’re near the airport,” he says. “I can get just about every place I need to get non-stop.”
“Except for Green Bay.”
The entrance to their place is guarded by two large stone gates. On one is etched the address. On the other is etched the name they selected, with great care, for their homestead:
As it does to most who play it for a living, football has left Pat Summerall with assorted souvenirs, reminders of the violence that is meted out and that is absorbed.
He is 6 feet, 4 inches tall but when he walks he is shorter than that because he tilts forward slightly. His body having its revenge against him for a career of physical indignities.
He has a slight crouch and a slight limp. When he sits, he takes his time unfolding. When he stands, he does so deliberately and slowly, as though he is carrying eggs in his pockets.
Let us take the inventory:
*Six surgeries on the left knee. “One when I was playing, five clean-outs since.”
*Nose broken eleven times; what is left is flattened. “I try to convince myself that it gives character to my face.”
*A long, jagged scar on the front of his left forearm, an even longer one on the back. The arm was laid completely open to repair a compound fracture he sustained during a game. “The compensation is that it blocks out the hook in my golf swing.”
On May 10, 1998, he turned 67. His hair is a mane of snow, distinctive and distinguished. Most of the whiskey glow is gone now from his nose. And the spider webbing of broken capillaries has faded. His liver is on speaking terms with him. All things considered...
“...all things considered, I got off lucky. I see guys a lot worse off than me. Guys in wheelchairs. Guys hooked up to machines.”
He was a natural. Strong and supple, sleek as a cheetah, he was good at any sport he tried. Not just good, All-State good. Tennis. Football. Basketball. Boxing.
He was born and grew up in Lake City, Florida. He is a true Son of the South. His grandmother was named Augusta Georgia Summerall, his grand daddy Thomas Jefferson Summerall, and that Confederate heritage is evident in his courtliness and his gentlemanly manner.
His parents separated when he was young. They wanted to send him to an orphanage, but his aunt and uncle intervened and took him in. They lived a block from the Columbia High School football field, where he would later star. Hour upon hour he kicked footballs there.
He kicked with a right foot that he came to regard as charmed. It was backward at birth, so deformed that a doctor broke it and reset it in the correct position. During a 10-season career in the NFL, that charmed foot kicked for 561 points, including 101 field goals and 258 extra points, 129 of those in a row.
He played before specialization came to the sport, before two-platoon football, before nickel packages and dime packages, in the era of the 60-minute men. He was an end on offense and an end on defense, and he place kicked as a sideline. He played before the advent of soccer-style kickers and used a squared-off shoe, kicking straight ahead, with a high chorus line follow-through.
In 1958, playing for the Giants in a blinding snowstorm at Yankee Stadium, he was sent in to try a 49-yard field goal against the Cleveland Browns. The score was 10-10.
The offensive coordinator of the Giants argued furiously against the attempt.
“You can’t kick it that far, not
even on a calm day,” Vince Lombardi shouted at Summerall.
So much for the pep talk.
He kicked and the ball tumbled end over end through the howling wind and the swirling snow and the bone-deep cold...and fell just over the crossbar.
The 13-10 win enabled the Giants to tie the Browns for the Eastern Division title and forced a one-game playoff between the two the following week. The Giants won that, too, and then played the Baltimore Colts in the overtime epic--Alan Ameche tromping through a gaping hole, falling into the end zone---that did more to raise the public’s awareness of professional football than probably any other game ever played.
And when Pat Summerall jogged off the field at Yankee Stadium after kicking the field goal that made that game possible, Vince Lombardi was waiting for him, his lips pulled back over his teeth in what might have been a smile or a baring of fangs.
“I thought he was going to hug me,” Summerall remembers. “Instead, he was screaming at me: ‘C’mon, you son of a kangaroo, c’mon, you know you can’t kick it that far.’ ”
He ended up doing a lot of things that surprised people. He won a scholarship to Arkansas. For basketball. He not only got his degree from there, he earned a Master’s degree.
In Russian history.
He also taught junior high English and History.
“I fully intended to be a teacher,” he says. “Football kind of got in the way.”
He was signed, in 1952, by the Cardinals, when they were in Chicago. His signing bonus was two hundred and fifty dollars, which just so happened to equal the bar tab he owed. He played five seasons for them and then five more with the Giants, and early in the 1960’s when his career was winding down as a player, he began working for CBS, first in radio, doing brief commentaries, then in television. That would enable him to make the transition from player to ex-player almost seamlessly, with none of the usual sense of separation and loss.
“I’d like to tell you that it was hard giving up football,” he says, “but it wasn’t. Not really. But only because I already had something lined up and because that something was the closest thing to actually playing the game. Plus, you don’t get hit. And you don’t have to have help getting out of bed the next morning.”
“But if I hadn’t been able to stay close to the game, I don’t know what I would have done. I’ve never been in combat, but I guess football is as close to it as you can get. You develop a lot of foxhole friendships. That’s the part you miss the most, I guess.”
He was privileged to spend his broadcasting apprenticeship in the company of some of the profession’s most luminous talents. From Chris Schenkel he learned the value of meticulous preparation. From Jack Buck he learned that the booth wasn’t church, that it was permissible, sometimes even preferable, to laugh. And from Ray Scott he learned the precious gift of understatement and restraint.
“In six and a half years with Ray, I never heard him make a mistake,” he says. “That was because he wanted to make sure he was right before he spoke. He wasn’t in a hurry. And he felt that often the pictures spoke for themselves, and all we did was get in the way, clutter things up, speaking inanities.”
That has become Pat Summerall’s signature, the absence of speaking the obvious, the absence of the shrill and of the shill. Over the year--33 of them with CBS, then four and counting with Fox--he has been variously described as Perry Como and Gary Cooper. He has won the public’s trust and confidence. He has become to sports what Walter Cronkite was to news, a symbol of comfort and credibility and assurance.
In the words of Beano Cook of ESPN: “If I ever got cancer, I’d want Pat Summerall to be the one to tell me.”
When this is repeated to him, Summerall winces. And also blushes. He recognizes the intense compliment that is meant.
“I was blessed with a voice that doesn’t offend too many people. And I’ve always thought I was a pretty good listener. That comes in handy when you’re sharing a booth with someone else for three hours at a time.”
Brookshier was his first on-air partner. Their’s was an easy, natural fit.
“But I never would have guessed we’d end up together,” Summerall says. “Brookie was a very good defensive back with Philadelphia, and of course the Giants and Eagles played each other frequently. I remember one game, it was all over but the shouting, everyone kind of relaxed, just playing it out, and Brookie laid a lick on me so hard that he split my helmet. I was lying there, and I looked up at him and snarled: ‘What’s wrong with you, you blankety-blank? What’d you do that for?’ ”
“And he looked down at me, almost out of pity, and he sneered: ‘Why, you’re pathetic. You shouldn’t even be out here. You’re gonna get yourself hurt.’ ”
After Brookshier, he was partnered with John Madden. For almost two decades they have been sports television’s most famous and most effective couple. Madden is the rumpled, unmade bed, a shambling Saint Bernard wildly gesturing, splotching his sentences with his own sound effects. Summerall is the ideal antidote, serene and controlled, elegant and eloquent, cleaning up his excitable mate’s verbal clutter, the terse two-sentence counterpoint. Madden will aim his telestrator at a tailgate pig roast and Summerall will remind you of down, distance and score.
“He’s the least affected broadcaster I’ve ever known,” says Madden. “No ego at all. I’m very outgoing and disorganized. Pat is very controlled and organized and that really helps me. His strength in tying things together makes up for my weaknesses. He knows what everyone has gone through, or is going through, because he went through it himself.”
“He’s what we mean when we say less-is-more. He makes me comfortable and I know he makes viewers feel that way, too.”
They meshed from the start.
“We never worked at it, never planned anything,” Summerall says.
Which, of course, is precisely why they work so well together. Nothing is forced. Rehearsals or scripts would spoil their chemistry.
“Our first game together was at Tampa Bay and John had a suit and tie on, which of course looked like a straitjacket on him. He was sweating something awful, and I thought, ‘Oh boy, if his nerves are this bad and we haven’t even gone on the air, this is never going to work out.’ Well, it wasn’t nerves. It was height. John doesn’t like heights and he’s claustrophobic. That’s why he doesn’t fly. But when the game started he put all his phobias aside and by the end of the first quarter of our first game, I knew this was right.”
It was so right that when CBS lost its NFL broadcasting rights, Pat Summerall and John Madden sat together in the empty stands of the Silverdome after their last game and pondered work without each other.
“I told John, ‘I don’t believe I can work with anyone else.’ ” And he said, “I don’t think I can , either. Fortunately, we didn’t have to.”
Madden: “Tell you all you need to know about Pat. My two sons were in college and they were going to play against each other in football--Mike at Harvard, Joe at Brown--and I wanted to go to their game. The problem was, Pat and I watch film on Saturday for our Sunday game. For me to get away for their game, Pat would have to come up early so we could watch film on Friday. Well, not only did he come in on Friday, he came in on Wednesday, so he could be at a dinner where they gave me an award.”
“Do you know what was so special about that? The best gift any of us can give to each other is the precious gift of time. Our time. He gave me that, and what’s even more amazing, he didn’t bitch about having to do it. Me, yeah, I would have done it, but believe me I’d have bitched and moaned and complained the whole time, made sure everyone realized what a favor I was doing. But Pat never mentioned it. Not a word. Never held it over me. He just came in, did it, never made it seem like an imposition.”
“You know, he tries to be always in control, the tough guy, the cool guy. Well, I know for a fact that when Ben Crenshaw won the Masters in 1984...everyone was very, very emotional because Ben Crenshaw is such a great guy and everyone was happy for him...Pat was so choked up, so glad for Ben, that he had to hand Ken Venturi the microphone for a couple of moments.”
Asked to verify this, Pat Summerall nods hesitantly that, yes, that is so.
And he turns away for just an instant. He seems to brush at his eyes. But no, he couldn’t be...
Because as everyone knows, football players don’t cry.