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R.I.P. Pat Summerall, straight man to John Madden in NFL booth

April 16, 2013|By Scott Collins
  • Pat Summerall (left) and John Madden were teamed in the NFL announcing booth for 22 seasons.
Pat Summerall (left) and John Madden were teamed in the NFL announcing booth… (Ric Feld/Associated Press )

With the death of Pat Summerall, sports broadcasting lost one of its great straight men.

Summerall, who died Tuesday at age 82, played a decade in the NFL during the 1950s. But he was best known for his pairing with John Madden on TV, where the two redefined football game announcing for 22 seasons starting in 1981 on CBS and later on Fox. 

Madden, a former coach, made for an expansive, excessive, endlessly voluble analyst, and Summerall provided his perfect play-by-play foil. Precise and circumspect, with an avuncular demeanor and an authorative voice whose provenance was impossible to pin down (he was a native of Florida), Summerall indulged his partner's many appetites and asides, even when that meant being elbowed aside at the mike and in the limelight.

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A clip of a 1996 Cowboys-Dolphins game — available on YouTube — captures the spirit of their partnership.

"Who's this guy right here?" Madden suddenly asked between plays, drawing a yellow Telestrator circle around an attendee in a box.

"Ah, Burt Reynolds," Summerall replied.

Madden then noted that Summerall had coached the actor at Florida State.

"Was he any good?" Madden asked.

"He was a defensive back."

"I know! 'Was he any good?' I said," Madden said with a laugh.

"Uh, he had a good personality," Summerall replied.

"Oh, those guys can't play," Madden said dismissively. 

There was pain behind the scenes. Summerall was a lifelong heavy drinker ("I liked to go out with the guys, stay out, laugh and have a good time," he told The Times) and once found himself vomiting up blood on an airplane after a drinking binge. In 1992 he sought substance-abuse treatment. But the damage had been done, and in 2004 he underwent a liver transplant.

By then the Madden-Summerall team was just a memory (Summerall announced his retirement in 2002). The attention may have always focused on the blustery partner, but Madden never forgot that it took two.

"I was the luckiest guy in the world to be able to do what I'm doing and then to be able to do it with Pat Summerall," Madden told The Times in 2002. "He's a very special guy."

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Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT

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