George Allen "Pat" Summerall (1930–2013)
Pat Summerall was one of television’s leading sportscasters in the twentieth century. He played for the University of Arkansas (UA) football team, and, following a decade of play in the National Football League (NFL), he moved easily into radio and television announcing. In addition to announcing football, he served for many years as the voice of CBS Sports for both golf and tennis. He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1971.
George Allen “Pat” Summerall was born on May 10, 1930, in Lake City, Florida, to George Allen Summerall and Marion Summerall. His parents were in the process of divorcing when he was born, and they considered sending him to an orphanage. However, his aunt and uncle, who lived a block from the school and its athletic fields, took him in. Summerall, who was nicknamed “Pat” by his aunt and uncle, was born with his right foot facing backward; when he was two weeks old, the doctors broke the foot to turn it around, reset the bones, and put it in a cast. Summerall’s mother was told that he would never play sports and would likely walk with a limp throughout his life.
However, Summerall overcame the foot problem to become a multi-sport star at Columbia High School in Lake City. The 6’4″ Summerall earned all-state honors in basketball and football, while also lettering in tennis and baseball. He received a basketball scholarship offer from the legendary Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, but when Rupp refused to allow Summerall to play football also, Summerall opted instead to attend UA in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he was a member of the Razorback varsity football team in the 1949, 1950, and 1951 seasons. While he did not get any playing time as a sophomore, he played in all ten games and scored one touchdown his junior year for the 1950 squad that finished 2–8. As a senior, Summerall played in all ten games, catching twenty-four passes and scoring three touchdowns for a squad that finished 5–5. He earned a bachelor’s degree in education and later returned to earn a master’s degree in Russian history. There are reports that Summerall played a summer season in Class C baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals organization while at UA, but no documentation exists to confirm that.
Indeed, Summerall was selected in the fourth round of the 1952 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions, the forty-fifth choice overall. His professional career got off to a poor start when he broke his arm, an injury that limited him to only two games in his rookie season. Traded to the Chicago Cardinals after the season, Summerall was the kicker, defensive end, and reserve tight end for the team from 1953 to 1957. The years with the Cardinals, whose record during his tenure was 17–41–2, were hard, and Summerall contemplated retirement, but when he was traded to the New York Giants before the 1958 season, he was rejuvenated. Playing for the Giants, whose offensive and defensive coaches were Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, respectively, Summerall kicked a forty-nine-yard field goal with less than two minutes remaining to defeat the Cleveland Browns and force a play-off game to determine the NFL’s Eastern Conference champion. Winning the play-off game, the Giants then played the Baltimore Colts, only to lose a December 28, 1958, nationally televised overtime thriller that is often cited as the beginning of the modern era of the NFL. Until his retirement after the 1961 season, Summerall and the Giants were consistently in contention for the league title, although they lost in the championship game in 1959 and 1961.
Summerall’s entry into broadcasting was almost an accident; he took a message for teammate Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly reminding him about an audition for a radio show, only to have the caller invite him as well. Following the auditions, Summerall was chosen over Conerly and two other Giants teammates, and he took the part-time job. It paid $600 a week, big money to an NFL player at the time, especially one who supplemented his salary by working as an eighth-grade English teacher back in Florida in the offseason. In 1962, after he had retired from the NFL, Summerall began to work in television, serving as a football analyst until 1974, when he was given the chance to do play-by-play announcing. From these beginnings, he would emerge as one of the most recognized and respected members of the sports broadcasting world.
When he began doing play-by-play, the analyst he was paired with was former NFL player Tom Brookshier, with whom he was already doing a one-hour highlight show for NFL Films called This Week in Pro Football. He and Brookshier worked together until 1979, when Summerall was paired with former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden, establishing arguably the most well-known and successful team in NFL broadcast history. Summerall’s restrained, low-key style meshed with Madden’s combination of expertise, insight, and fan-like enthusiasm for the game.
Over the course of his thirty-seven seasons as a pro football announcer, Summerall called sixteen Super Bowls on television and did anther ten on radio. In addition he announced more than twenty Masters golf tournaments and more than twenty U.S. Tennis Open tournaments.
He married Kathy Jacobs in 1955; they had three children. They divorced in 1995. He married Cherilyn Burns in 1996. Brookshier served as his best man, while John Madden, whose fear of flying had been a reason he retired from coaching, drove from California to Florida to attend the wedding.
Throughout his broadcasting career, Summerall’s longtime drinking habit evolved into a problem. After he was hospitalized in 1990 with a bleeding ulcer, he promised family and friends that he would quit drinking—which he did for seven months before relapsing. Brookshier conducted an intervention, which led to Summerall seeking treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic. Summerall remained sober, counseling friends such as Mickey Mantle to see treatment and also going public with his story in hopes of encouraging others to get help.
Summerall’s distinguished career earned him many honors and recognitions. In 1994, he was awarded both the Lifetime Achievement Award for Sports by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award. In 1999, he was inducted into the American Sports Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame.
Summerall announced his official retirement from broadcasting in 2002, but he worked occasionally until 2010. In 2004, he underwent a liver transplant, and he continued to enjoy retirement in the years that followed.
Summerall died on April 16, 2013, of cardiac arrest in Dallas, Texas. He is buried in the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery.
For additional information:
Barall, Andy. “Remembering Pat Summerall, the Football Player.” The Fifth Down: New York Times NFL Blog, April 23, 2013. https://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/23/remembering-pat-summerall-the-football-player/ (accessed July 13, 2018).
“Pat Summerall (1930–2013): Legendary Sportscaster ‘Set Standard.’” Sports Day, Dallas Morning News. https://sportsday.dallasnews.com/dallas-cowboys/top-news/2013/04/16/pat-summerall-1930-2013-legendary-sportscaster-set-standard (accessed July 13, 2018).
Stewart, Larry. “Pat Summerall Dies at 82; NFL broadcaster Teamed with John Madden.” Los Angeles Times, April 16, 2013. Online at http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/16/local/la-me-pat-summerall-20130417 (accessed July 13, 2018).
Summerall, Pat. Summerall On and Off the Air. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2006.
William H. Pruden III
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