Saturday, January 15, 2005

Richard Sandomir: Steelers' Voice is Weathered but Polished

January 15, 2005
The New York Times

PITTSBURGH, Jan. 14 - Here was Myron Cope, beloved Steelers sportscaster, father of the Terrible Towel, driving down Route 19 on Friday near his suburban town house to buy cigarettes. At a stoplight, Tim DaPray, of Fort Smith, Ark., pulled up in another car and rolled down his window, gesturing wildly.

"Mr. Cope, I've got a bobblehead of you in my trunk!" DaPray said. "Would you mind signing it?"
Just lead the way, Cope said. He turned to his passenger. "He's got my bobblehead in the trunk," Cope said. "Kind of like he might get rid of me. I'd feel more comfortable if I were in the glove compartment."

They pulled into the parking lot of a shopping center, where DaPray embraced Cope, reminded him that he once waited on him at a local country club, then opened the trunk. He removed the doll from its box, but without a proper marker, Cope could not sign it. He autographed a beer poster instead. After returning to his car, Cope said, "I did not stage that."

Cope, 75, will be at the microphone at Heinz Field for Saturday's Jets-Steelers game. He has called all but a few Steelers games since 1970. He is a regional icon, a former newspaperman and magazine writer who is as thoroughly a Steeler as Vin Scully is a Dodger. He has been there through all four of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl championships over a span that has included two longtime coaches and seven United States presidents.

"He's someone people associate with the end of, really, 40 years of losing," said Gene Collier, a columnist for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "There's nothing like walking down the street with Myron; you could walk down the street with Abe Lincoln and cause less of a commotion."
Tom Keller, a 63-year-old cabdriver who wears a Steelers overcoat and a Steelers cap, has his own view of Cope. "He's a stick of dynamite, is what he is," he said.

Cope intends to detonate one Saturday when, in pregame remarks, he said he would excoriate Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers' rookie quarterback, for announcing that he would give his game's salary to tsunami relief, then challenging his teammates to do the same.

"I love the kid, but this stinks," Cope said during an interview at his condominium. "You shouldn't make contributions to charity public. And for all he knew, someone else in the locker room was donating twice as much."

Any discussion of Cope starts with the voice, a yawping, squawking instrument that can clear arenas but has bonded him to fans who have mostly adored him since he began in radio in 1968. His thick Pittsburgh accent long ago merged with a raspy tone that sounds as if his larynx had been dragged through chopped-up blocks of cement. One former Dallas Cowboy, Billy Davis, described it years ago as anal.

"He meant nasal," Cope said. "But it sounds better as anal."

Bill Hillgrove, the play-by-play man who shares the booth with Cope and Tunch Ilkin, said: "Most people, for the first time, say, 'Good God, what is this?' But the more they hear what he has to say, they get past it, and it becomes part of the shtick. And, he sees the world funny. That's his gift."

Cope calls his vocal instrument unnerving, yet it is memorable, like another sandpapery vocal legend, Johnny Most, the former announcer for the Boston Celtics. "It's so terrible, it's distinctive," Cope said.

He praised Bob Prince, the longtime Pirates announcer, for having a voice that cut concrete. Cope's could probably disintegrate it.

On this day, his voice was hoarse. He is still recovering from throat cancer surgery last year that wound up shrinking his vocal cords, and he said he wanted to preserve his voice for the game. He is also taking a steroid, prednisone, to treat polymyalgia rheumatica, a type of arthritis that has so debilitated him that he has nearly checked into a nursing home.

Still, the more he speaks, the less hoarse he seems. And he still smokes. Ilkin said: "I told him on the air, 'You had polyps taken out of your throat; shouldn't you stop smoking?' And he calls me a health Nazi."
Cope says he buys cigarettes one pack at a time to help him quit.

So, on a Friday when he should have been resting and sipping tea, the 5-foot-5 Cope drove to a radio station to tape two commercials with the president of a local auto dealership.
There, he played a caricature of his usual self (think of Crazy Eddie morphing with Tom Waits). The auto dealer, Richard J. Bazzy, said that Cope's popularity had helped make Bazzy's Ford dealerships the biggest in the city. "His voice helps us cut through the clutter," Bazzy said.

Cope cannot be defined by traditional sportscaster standards. His color analysis offers no mellifluous tones and little technical talk. He never played football, but that hole in his résumé has never bothered him, and besides, straight analysis is what Ilkin, a former offensive tackle, is paid to provide.

Cope said he knew how players should run with the ball and how they should block, tackle and pass. "I may not have the latest jargon, but I know the game," he said.

During the Steelers' final regular-season contest, against Buffalo, Cope's observations ranged from, "To him, I say mazel tov. Farrior, you worked hard for that," to "How'd he break that tackle? I've got to tell my sister," to "That kid was carrying caskets when he was 10 years old, he was so big. But anyhow, he ain't carrying caskets now."

Like other sportscasters whose verbal peccadilloes endeared them to listeners or viewers, like Phil Rizzuto or Dizzy Dean, Cope has his catchphrases. "Yoi!" or "Double yoi!" describe what startles him. "Okel dokel!" describes something agreeable. The opposite is "Pheh!"

"I have various nonsensical things that come out of my mouth," Cope said. He calls Cincinnati's football team "the Bungles" and caused a stir when he renamed the Washington Redskins, calling them the Red Faces, and kept repeating it despite objections by Washington's management. He laid off the term with the return of Joe Gibbs as the coach.

Cope is ornery: he urinated off the roof of Cleveland Stadium to protest the lack of a men's room in the upper reaches, where the radio booth was. And he is tough: he resisted a security officer's demands that he not smoke at Sun Devil Stadium, saying the booth gave him diplomatic immunity, like a foreign embassy on American soil.

But is he a homer? Although he is completely identified with the Steelers, Cope said no. Ecstatic when the Steelers win, he is more than willing to rip them when they play badly.

Still, with his 76th birthday approaching a week from Sunday, the day of the American Football Conference championship game, he is looking beyond Saturday's game to a Pittsburgh victory.

"I've got to get that damned birthday gift from the Steelers," he said.

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