Sports on Earth
April 17, 2013
I hear the voice, still, and I just know it's Sunday in the United States. Not only is it Sunday, but the Sunday has begun to wane. It has started to give way to last-ditch homework, to procrastinated worry, to Monday morning, to the school week, to the college week, to the work week. The NFL late game plays, and Sunday remains vibrant, but Sunday will die soon.
I still hear Pat Summerall saying something spare -- "Third and ten . . ." -- and I know the light has been fading outdoors. I know just as sure as any clockwork that Daylight Saving Time might be on its way, or that Daylight Saving Time has crashed in and blackened 5:30 already. I do not need to move from this seat. I do not need to look through a window. I know.
The deep, economized sound of the voice tells me the weather without telling me the weather. Of course it does. I know it's quite probably crisp outside. I know the trees have taken on some mighty colors even if I'm not really looking at them during this game. I know there's a plausible chance the sky has grayed, the birds mostly have left. I know that if I went outside and walked along the sidewalk to the driveway, the leaves might make that great sound when they crunch under my sneakers. I might look down the street to a distant front yard, see some kids playing, some hopeless bomb flying incomplete.
I know what I'm wearing. I'm wearing a sweatshirt. I do not have to look down to tell you.
And if I do happen to hear the voice in early September, I know that summer will cut its meanness soon. I know this in all 206 bones. The voice brings relief.
In the den where the voice resonates, or in living rooms otherwise silent, or at the neighbors' where you enter the house and can hear it from the other room, or in those houses where it maybe even comes from two places, the voice signals the momentous. It comes from on high in Irving, Texas, or from the Meadowlands of New Jersey, or from out by the bay in San Francisco, or Lambeau Field in later years, from the weighty games of the then-dominant NFC. It means the game matters, might sway the conference race, might determine home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
For 28 seasons and 16 Super Bowls the voice implies gravitas, for a time alongside Tom Brookshier, then 22 seasons mingled with John Madden in the two-man NFL symphony, the voice giving way to the tick-tock of "60 Minutes," or sounding kind of funny giving the Fox evening lineup.
I hear the voice, and I know the wall calendar has just about run out of pages. I can taste my mother's Thanksgiving dressing, picture the grandparents driving in. The Christmas tree stands right over there; it seems so familiar with the voice. Friends will be over. May I get you a drink? Can't wait for the playoffs. There goes Madden, explaining some contour of the game you did not know.
Now, here's Summerall: "Third and 10 . . ."
The voice lets the game supply the drama, as all its admirers acknowledge and commend. It's reliable, egoless and a bit clumsy on occasion. You might root for it through its unexpected pauses. There it goes all low and minimalist without a hint of a shout, as Adam Vinatieri's field goal sails through to beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI: "And it's right down the pipe." Here it rises just a bit on the word "good" as Matt Bahr's field goal at Candlestickstaves off the 49ers dynasty in the 1991 NFC Championship Game: "The kick . . . (pause) . . . is good . . . (pause) . . . There will be no three-peat." Here it lets Marcus Allen's amazing 74-yard run against Washington do the goose-bumping: "Here's Marcus Allen . . . (pause) . . . cutting back up the field and Marcus Allen could be gone."
Allen runs the last half of the field sans narration.
All you hear is the roar.
It makes your neck hairs salute.
That's the thing about the voice of Pat Summerall, who died in Dallas on Tuesday at 82. It became more than an unobtrusive guide to a football game. It became the voice you wanted to hear underlying the utmost sporting drama. Good, true, modest, soothing, maybe even dulcet in the non-ironic sense, it spoke over various sports but foremost as the soundtrack of the American Sunday. Without trying so hard, it came to convey the day of the week, the time of the day, the feeling in the air, the season of the year, the bigness of the game. For Sunday after Sunday, doubleheader game after doubleheader game, dusk after dusk, autumn after autumn, year after year it pleased the ear and built a lasting home in the mind.