Pat Summerall: The Last Of The Hard VoicesS

At my gym the other day, half of the television screens were showing an episode of Dr. Phil. You don't need me to tell you that Dr. Phil sucks, so I grabbed a magazine and went about the business of not looking at his big stupid head. But then I saw Pat Summerall in the studio with him and suddenly I couldn't look away.

There was no sound, but the closed captioning was on, so I read Summerall's dialogue as it scrolled across on those awkward black bars, like cheap labelmaker labels, many of the words bungled. Summerall was there to plug an old book of his and to offer his wisdom on the subject of "children of addicts." He talked about his now-legendary alcoholism, and the fact that he was an absentee father, and the fact that his daughter once told him she was ashamed to have the same name as him because he was such a shitty dad. You could see the regret on his face. Even years after sobering up, he still looked on the verge of tears talking about the damage he had inflicted.

We live in an age where it's awfully difficult to hide your vices. People drink and smoke and do drugs just as much as they used to, but doing it all on the downlow requires CIA-level training in covert tactics. Summerall grew up in the Golden Age of Alcoholism, where you could get away with downing a bottle of gin right before off heading to work because everyone was content to look the other way. No one looks the other way anymore. We look. I look. I don't think this reflects a negative change to our society. I'm just saying that it's harder to disguise your alcoholism when I've got my phone ready to snap a picture of you shitfaced with a cucumber up your ass. And it's really hard to try and disguise it, clumsily, over the course of many years, as Summerall did. People don't even want to hide it anymore, not when you can get a cool half-million for writing about it.

And that's why you'll probably never hear a voice the likes of Summerall's again. He is among the last of sports' great voices, and there don't appear to be any more of them coming around the corner. Summerall had a voice as weathered and aged as that face full of regret I saw on my gym TV the other day. It takes a whole lot of hard living to get that kind of voice. You need to spend years bouncing around from hotel room to hotel room, eating gravel for dinner and drinking pure formaldehyde and smoking Marlboros until you have a belly full of tar to get that kind of voice.

There was a time when functional drug addicts and alkies could grace the national stage and perform their jobs without much scrutiny. Mickey Mantle used to do it. John Belushi used to do it. And Pat Summerall used to do it. But that's damn near impossible these days. Again, this is a good thing. Many of us live healthier lives, and we expect the same of others. But that means you're unlikely to see a live TV performer as brilliantly unhinged as Belushi again, and that you'll never hear a voice like this again:

Listen to that voice.

That voice was football. By comparison, a game called by Thom Brennaman sounds like a Good Charlotte album. It sounds as if a bunch of toddlers had been set loose in the press box and gotten a hold of the microphones. He's playacting, dropping his chin to his chest and straining for that round, stentorian sound; it's the aural equivalent of a kid clopping around in his dad's dress shoes. But Pat Summerall came by his voice honestly, and you could hear it. There were memories in his voice. There were wars in that voice. There were the broken fingers of drug-addled linebackers in that voice. There were nights passed out in the garage in that voice. There was history there, both his own and professional football's, and when he spoke you could feel the weight of it, right there in the room with you—something you rarely feel now that sports television has decided to treat you exclusively like a child. When Chip* Caray talks, all you hear is entitlement.

There are only a few of the great voices left in sports. Harry Kalas is gone. John Facenda is gone. Harry Caray is gone. And now Pat Summerall is gone. And once all the great voices are silenced, they aren't coming back. They'll be gone forever, and they'll take a small part of history with them.

Photo: AP