John Madden and Pat Summerall Were Tremendous Thanksgiving Theater

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John Madden and Pat Summerall Were Tremendous Thanksgiving Theater

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John Madden and Pat Summerall Were Tremendous Thanksgiving Theater

Author’s note: For the past few years, I’ve searched for videos of John Madden and Pat Summerall celebrating Thanksgiving. Much to my chagrin, they did not exist online. Much thanks to Fox Sports for putting this compilation video together to accompany this piece.

For over 20 years, John Madden and Pat Summerall were a quintessential part of the American Thanksgiving experience. They were an institution. On Thanksgiving and Sundays throughout the Fall, they had a gravitas that conveyed the game at hand was a big deal and a relatable sincerity, in their triumphs and struggles, that made them transcend the screen. You felt like you were watching the game with them in your living room.

“[That] is the goal,” their longtime producer Bob Stenner, whose legendary 50-year run included a vast majority of the Madden and Summerall partnership at CBS and Fox, tells The Big Lead. “Viewers are more perceptive than they get credit for. The goal is for you to feel like you are sitting with these guys watching a game. They’re not preaching to you. They’re not insulting you or your intelligence. It’s just yourself and these two guys watching a football game. They had that ability. It was natural to them.”

FESTIVE OCCASION

The banquets held with the network broadcasting team one or two nights before Thanksgiving were the stuff of legend. As Richard Deitsch noted in 2013, the tradition dates back to when Summerall and Tom Brookshier were the top NFL announcer team at CBS, and continued with Madden and Summerall at CBS, when they moved to Fox, and with other broadcasting crews ever since. (After working with Summerall at CBS and Fox for over 20 years, Madden did Monday Night Football on ABC and later Sunday Night Football on NBC with Al Michaels.)

“With a lot of people working on television on Thanksgiving day, you think about how they’re away from their family and they don’t get to have the [holiday celebration], but the dinners that we had the night before Thanksgiving were as much about family as anything else,” Madden’s longtime agent Sandy Montag tells The Big Lead. “It was a special time and an emotional time. You spend that much time on the road together and you are family. Sometimes, people there were having more fun in that environment than they would at home anyhow.” 

These banquets were festive and inclusive; Montag recalls that Madden nudged the networks to invite the referees. While everyone is aware that the players, coaches, and broadcasters are away from home and family during the holiday, Madden wanted to make sure that the oft-forgotten officiating crew was not left out.

These evenings were such a profound part of their experience that Madden brought them up in his eulogy for Summerall in 2013.

“We had 22 straight Thanksgivings,” he said. “Now most people talk about Thanksgiving, and they say, ‘You know, it’s family. How is it being away from your family? And we said for years, and they weren’t idle words, ‘This is our family.'”

For the production team, the actual broadcasting of the game wasn’t much different, but there was an element that Bob Stenner, stressing that he did not mean this word pejoratively, classified as “window-dressing.” The booth was thematically adorned. Segments were pre-shot visiting schools, or with players’ families. “We kind of did the same thing at Christmas time, but we tried to bring the families in and explain what the holiday means and bring the thankfulness of it into the game,” Stenner says.

And of course, they talked turkey.

YUM

Of much intrigue throughout the game was which player(s) would earn the coveted turkey leg from Madden. “It first started as a regular, traditional two-legged turkey that Pat got from a BBQ restaurant in Dallas, and then it ended up being a six-legged turkey and then at the end it ended up being an eight-legged turkey,” says Lance Barrow of CBS Sports. “It was always a big deal. There was a police escort. Policemen, or other people from the crew, would bring the turkey out in the fourth quarter.”  

Directed by Sandy Grossman and produced by Bob Stenner, the Madden/Summerall broadcasting crew was a breeding ground for behind-the-scenes workers who ascended to the top of the industry and remain there today. Barrow worked as a spotter for Summerall at CBS in the mid-70’s, became a Broadcast Associate then Assistant Director on the Madden/Summerall crew, and is now the Coordinating Producer for the network’s top NFL team and its golf coverage. Rich Russo and Richie Zyontz direct and produce the biggest NFL games on Fox. Mike Arnold is a Lead Director for CBS.

One of the enduring cultural impacts of the Thanksgiving broadcasts has been the turducken. The reason there was not a red squiggly line when I typed that word is John Madden. It was no secret that Madden loved to eat. Rather than being someone who would dine at fancy steakhouses or cosmopolitan hotspots, he had sophisticated tastes in unsophisticated food and was constantly on the hunt for dishes and spots like you’d see Guy Fieri eat.

For Madden’s “All-Madden Haul of Fame,” he put up plaques commemorating players at his favorite dives across America, which he famously crisscrossed by bus (if you’re interested in what that was like, Peter King rode along in the Madden Cruiser on a 1990 trip from Oakland to Manhattan, and aptly called Madden a “witness to America”).

Mike Singletary and Anthony Munoz were inducted in 1991’s inaugural class at Chuy’s, a Mexican restaurant outside El Paso where there was a big-screen TV and a husband and wife served what Madden wrote were “the best tamales I’ve ever had. Not that fancy Mexican stuff and foamy margaritas you get in those trendy places. Just real food and real beer.”

It was not uncommon for Madden to receive unsolicited turkeys around Thanksgiving, but one weekend before the holiday in the 1980’s would change everything. He was introduced through a Saints assistant to Glenn Mistich, proprietor of The Gourmet Butcher Block in New Orleans, who sent a turducken up to the booth. This was a duck stuffed inside a chicken stuffed inside a turkey — all deboned — with crawfish dressing and Creole dressing in between, that you sliced like a cake. “It was the most unbelievable thing you ever tasted,” recalls Sandy Montag.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune delved into the origin story in 2005:

“I’m there eating this turducken with my fingers,” Madden recalled. “(Saints owner) Tom Benson comes in and I have all this stuff on my fingers and I’m doing that thing in my head where I’m wondering, ‘Do I shake his hand?'” (For the record: Madden did shake Benson’s hand, sticky fingers and all, and he said the two haven’t spoken since.)

If you’re like me and wondering, the “All-Madden Turducken” is available online, for $139.95 plus shipping, which is not outrageous considering it feeds 20-25 people.

SUMMERALL’S BACKGROUND

By the time John Madden joined CBS in 1979, Pat Summerall was an established broadcaster. He’d been working in the field for two decades, and long since risen to the top of the profession.

Summerall had played in the NFL from 1952 through 1961 on the Detroit Lions, Chicago Cardinals, and New York Giants. The Cardinals were a lousy organization by the end of Summerall’s time with the team, and Summerall received a major blessing when Frank “Pop” Ivy lied when, upon his hiring in 1958, he told Summerall, “You’re one of our building blocks, one of the keys to success.”

Summerall was told he’d be playing both ways and place-kicking. Shortly after that, he read in the Jacksonville newspaper that he’d been traded to the Giants.

Those Giants had Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry as their offensive and defensive coordinators. Everything was first-rate. “From the uniforms and helmets to the towels and the soap in the locker room shower, it was like moving from the No-Tell Motel to the Ritz Carlton,” Summerall wrote in his 2006 autobiography.

Summerall’s most memorable moment was a 49-yard kick in the snow and swirling wind against Jim Brown’s Cleveland Browns that gave the Giants a spot in the famous 1958 NFL Championship Game against the Baltimore Colts. According to Summerall, Wellington Mara called that kick the most significant play in franchise history. (Vince Lombardi had been against the decision to kick, and Summerall recalled him later growling, “You son of a bitch, you know you can’t kick it that far!”)

The former kicker caught a lot of breaks as he climbed the ladder to the height of sports broadcasting. He had always been pretty resourceful; during some of his NFL offseasons he worked as an entrepreneurial farmer. Though he’d never again have this lucrative a harvest, there was one season where he grew watermelon, bell peppers, tomatoes, and squash and wound up with $50,000 profits, which he wrote was “nearly 10 times” his NFL salary.

Summerall’s first broadcasting break came before the 1960 season when he answered the phone for someone from WCBS-880 Radio in New York, trying to reach his roommate, quarterback Charlie Conerly. The station rep also invited Summerall to come along to audition for a weekly five-minute sportscast gig that was being vacated by Frank Gifford, who had a conflict of interest in his cigarette endorsement (Gifford signed a deal with Lucky Strike, while Camel sponsored the program). Summerall discovered he had a “knack” for it, and did those CBS spots during the 1960 and 1961 seasons.

Another conflict of interest opened the next door for Summerall. Former Bears quarterback (and Notre Dame Heisman winner) Johnny Lujack left the CBS television analyst job for Giants games, after he married into a family that owned Chevy dealerships, while Ford sponsored the games. Summerall leapt at the opportunity, where he was paid $325 a game plus travel expenses. His move coincided with a period where both the NFL and television were skyrocketing in popularity. Between 1960 and 1965, Summerall said that CBS’s NFL annual broadcasting fees went from under $5 million to $36 million.

Summerall credited play-by-play man Chris Schenkel with teaching him attention to detail in preparedness and also general tips he’d use for the duration of his career: “[Schenkel] also stressed that television was a visual medium and that I didn’t need to tell people what they could already see.” Schenkel also tipped Summerall off to a WCBS radio sports director job paying $75,000 plus advertising endorsements — a nice chunk of change in 1964.

“Even though I was working for the primary radio satellite of the CBS broadcast mothership, my job wasn’t much different from that of the radio sports guy working high-school games in Dubuque,” Summerall wrote. “I took my little tape recorder to team practices, interviewed the stars and coaches, brought the tapes back, edited them, wrote the shows, and engineered each day’s broadcast.” While this was arduous work, “it beat lugging melons to market.”

Early on, Summerall landed a big interview with Mickey Mantle. Mantle was not always friendly with reporters, but Summerall had a prior relationship with him. In a brief baseball stint with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Class C minor league team in Lawton, Oklahoma (“I might have had a chance if they’d outlawed the curve ball”) while still in college at the University of Arkansas, Summerall had been teammates with Mantle’s twin brothers Roy and Ray. Later, as a member of the Giants, Summerall shared a Yankee Stadium locker with Mantle during the months baseball and football season intersected. This access begot more access.

After only a few months doing the sportscasts, station management presented Summerall with the opportunity to take over the whole 4.5-hour morning show, a gig with an upside potential of half-a-million dollars a year. In addition to this, he remained doing football broadcasts and also picked up some reporting assignments for WCBS-TV. In early 1967, he was tapped to do pre- and post-game analysis with his old Giants teammate, Frank Gifford, for Super Bowl I, and later began doing the role of what we now refer to as a sideline reporter.

Summerall ultimately became the color analyst, working alongside Ray Scott and later Jack Buck. Buck stressed to Summerall that this was a diversion — “not Westminster Abbey” — and instructed him to loosen up. “Jack believed if we were having fun, our audience would, too,” Summerall wrote.

In 1974, after CBS Sports president Bob Wussler felt the duo of Buck and Summerall had run its course because they sounded too much alike, Summerall asked the network if he could do play-by-play. He’d soon be working alongside Tom Brookshier.

Summerall and Brookshier were opponents in their playing careers; Summerall wrote that in garbage time of a 1959 game between the Eagles and Giants that after catching a short pass “he belted me so hard in the head that my helmet split open.”

Nonetheless, when Jack Buck and Summerall got split up, Summerall and Brookshier been working together on the This Week in the NFL highlights show for NFL Films, and Summerall suggested his former adversary for the job. In addition to NFL, by the mid-to-late 70’s Summerall was also wetting his beak with calling NBA, figure skating, and the Westminster Dog Show. He’d later add golf and tennis majors to his repertoire.

Summerall and Brookshier would be a stalwart team into the 1980’s. “I still recall my days on the road with Brookie as one of the most enjoyable periods of my life,” Summerall wrote. “We painted every town red, and we had so much fun doing our jobs that the fans could feel it, too. People would write and say they’d sit down as a family and watch a football game and feel like we were a part of their gathering.”

“The rest of the world was caught up in the Bicentennial, the red dye scare, the dawn of Apple computers, the Son of Sam killer, and the Jonestown Massacre; we were focused on the next broadcast and how many drinks it would take to get us there and back.”

The carousing aspect of it was of utmost concern to CBS, which felt that the excessive drinking would either deeply embarrass the network or that one or both of their top NFL announce team would wind up dead. The final blowout was Super Bowl XV in New Orleans in early 1981, where the duo ran up a tab that was so extensive Summerall recalled Brookshier analogizing it to the Magna Carta.

Consequently, the pair was split up. The new top color commentator would be former Raiders coach John Madden, and Summerall had to audition against Vin Scully, for a half-a-season each, to keep his job.

Later on, CBS staged an intervention for Summerall, after which he went through rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic, and was very open in his later years about his recovery.

MADDEN’S BACKGROUND

Because John Madden ultimately became such an icon in broadcasting, as a pitchman, and for the video game bearing his name, his immense success during his 10 years as Raiders head coach is arguably underrated in present times. In the regular season, his teams went 103-32-7, which is good for the best winning percentage of any coach in modern NFL history. (Guy Chamberlin coached the Canton and Cleveland Bulldogs, Frankford Yellow Jackets, and Chicago Cardinals to a 58-16-7 career record in the 1920’s.)

In 1959, Madden was a 21st-round draft pick for the Philadelphia Eagles, trying to make the team as an offensive tackle. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in an August scrimmage before the season even began. In the abundance of free time, he wandered into the film room where quarterback Norm Van Brocklin was meticulously breaking down film. Throughout the season, this would be an incalculably valuable learning experience.

“For the first time in his football life, Madden was becoming a true student of the game,” Bryan Burwell wrote in the biography entitled Madden. “Van Brocklin taught him how to recognize everything an opposing defense could do. He taught him how to decipher zone, man-to-man, and combination coverages. He showed him how the secondary worked in concert with the linebackers. He revealed the secrets to attacking those defenses and took Madden on a crash course to understanding how every pass route could be used to pick apart holes in defensive coverages.”

The next year, Madden began his career as an assistant football coach at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif., became the head coach there in 1962, and then went to San Diego State as a defensive assistant for three seasons. In 1967, Al Davis hired Madden to coach linebackers for the Raiders. Two years later, at the age of 32, Madden became the head coach after his predecessor John Rauch had burned out from paranoia over Davis’s cunning idiosyncrasies, leaving a team that had gone 25-3 the past three years and was one season removed from a berth in Super Bowl II.

Madden’s tenure with the Raiders, though quite successful in the aggregate, produced a lot of playoff heartbreak along the way. For years, the Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle, knocking them out of the playoffs three times in four seasons in the 1970’s. The Immaculate Reception in 1972 delivered one of the most iconic gut punches in NFL history, and the Steelers’ defeats of the Raiders in the AFC Championship Games for the 1974 and 1975 seasons were also devastating.

This was an intensely bitter rivalry with violent play on both sides:

Madden and the Raiders finally got over the hump in 1976, vanquishing the Steelers in the AFC Championship game 24-7, and defeating the Vikings 32-14 in Super Bowl XI. Starters on this Raiders Super Bowl team included Ken Stabler, Fred Biletnikoff, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Willie Brown, George Atkinson, Cliff Branch, Dave Casper, Ted Hendricks, and Jack Tatum.

Madden was regarded as perhaps the first prominent “players’ coach.” Whereas the popular image of a football coach in this era, and many eras for that matter, is a no-nonsense drill sergeant, Madden commanded just three simple rules: Be on time, pay attention, and “play like hell” when he told them to.

“What I always remember is that as a player I was a little rebellious about things I thought were stupid,” Madden told Bryan Burwell. “I always thought some of those traditional drills teams did before games were a waste of your energy. I never wanted to do them. But most of all, when I was looking at these grown men I had to deal with — a lot of them were weirdos — and I knew the only rules I was going to have for them were rules that pertained to winning and losing. I didn’t care what they wore. I didn’t care about their facial hair. So I didn’t ask for it much. Be on time. Pay attention and play like hell when I ask you to. There was nothing else I needed.”

This was not an altruistic act from Madden. He wanted to win. Sometimes this meant taking character risks. “He was more concerned with the present and future than their pockmarked pasts,” wrote Burwell. “As affable as Madden could be with his players, he was absolute about what would happen if the guy couldn’t help. If he was a nutcase and he could play, he was an eccentric. If he was a boozer, criminal, or pill popper and couldn’t contribute, he was an asshole soon to be unemployed.”

By the end of his tenure as head coach, Madden was on a collision course toward mental and physical burnout. While he and Al Davis always had mutual respect in their relationship, the unyielding demands and late-night hours were not exactly stress-free. The film study was grueling. He binged on Maalox, Pepto-Bismol, and antacid tablets. The flying was torture. There was seemingly always an off-field fire to put out. He was missing his kids growing up. The money wasn’t even that fantastic in those days — he was making $100,000 a year in the end.

And so, at the age of 42, just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl victory, Madden left coaching and never looked back.

In June of 1979, Madden had signed a temporary deal with CBS to be a television analyst and was dismayed by the laissez-faire attitude the network was taking with his preparation and development. A summit in New York that he’d hoped would clue him in on broadcasting training wound up being for administrative and social purposes. He wanted practice and guidance, and he finally wound up getting it.

In September, he was given a rehearsal game between the 49ers and the Rams. His partner that day? A 27-year-old Bob Costas. Beforehand, nobody knew that these two would become broadcasting legends, but Costas impressed Madden with his voice and command, and Madden showed some promise.

“I’d be lying if I said I walked out of that booth thinking, This guy is going to be the next Big Thing,” Costas told Bryan Burwell. “I’d like to say I did, but I wasn’t that prescient. But did I think he had a chance to be good? I definitely did. There was something about him that was genuine. He wasn’t trying to sound like an announcer. There was something potentially spontaneous about him.”

“I always tell people this,” Costas continued. “He was extremely nice to me. And when I do say that, a lot of people might hear this and will say, ‘Well, what’s the big deal about that?’ You have to remember in 1979, he was a year removed from winning a Super Bowl, and at that time outside of St. Louis no one knew who the heck I was. There was no way he could have known that I would be subsequently successful in the business. Yet he was extremely nice to me….He wasn’t patronizing. He was really respectful. I always remember that. I am a firm believer in this: one of the measures of a person is how do they treat someone they have no reason to believe can do them that much good. I will always remember John Madden for that.”

Madden’s upward trajectory from that point on afforded him the opportunity to work with Summerall on the top team on an occasion where Brookshier had a family commitment. Summerall’s initial booth impression of Madden (who was sweating profusely over his fear of heights) was that he “certainly didn’t appear ready for primetime.”

However, he eased into the broadcast, and the pair quickly developed a natural familiarity. Summerall wrote: “With other temporary partners, I had often resorted to hand signals to let them know when I was done speaking, but it wasn’t necessary in John’s case. We were in sync.”

In 1981, two years after Madden joined CBS, he became a permanent fixture as a color commentator on the top NFL team. As previously mentioned, the first season was a battle between Vin Scully and Pat Summerall to earn the play-by-play job; as Rob Weintraub detailed in the New York Times this past May, there were a lot of competing interests and politics involved at the network executive level, and after much back-and-forth Summerall kept his job by virtue of being a better fit for football.

Summerall was unlike any other former jock in the booth, and called games with a soothing voice and a historically skilled brevity. Though he was not happy about being split from Brookshier, who was like a brother to him, his style complemented with Madden impeccably.

Summerall’s conciseness, in whatever sport he was calling, gave his analyst a chance to shine. “What made him wonderful, and one of the best who’s ever done that job, he let the analyst — be it Tom Brookshier, John Madden, or Ken Venturi or Tony Trabert on golf and tennis — he’d make them the star, and he let them be what they were supposed to be,” says Lance Barrow of CBS Sports. “Analyze the action. Analyze the game. And Pat would get them from Point A to Point B or Point C, and he never got in the way of his analyst.”

maddensummerall1982

Madden and Summerall in 1982; Photo Courtesy CBS Sports

“What’s interesting is that they were not the kind of guys who would hang out together, but on Sundays, they just complemented each other,” says the producer Bob Stenner. “It was just a great style. Pat didn’t say much. John could be all over the place like you put in a pinhole in a balloon and it would fly all over the place; Pat had an ability to land safely.”

With them, football games felt like an Event. “A lot of network executives have said over the years that they were such an entertaining listen they were better during a blowout because they retained the audience because of how entertaining they were,” says their agent Sandy Montag.

Madden, between his broadcasting talents and his appearance in a series of fun and campy Miller Lite ads, was on his way to becoming one of the most recognizable pitchmen in America. Last month, he told SI’s Andy Gray that he was recognized more in the 1980’s for running through a wall in a Miller Lite spot than for having won a Super Bowl as a head coach.

Montag told me that the beer company initially coveted Al Davis for this role; Davis had zero interest and encouraged them to get Madden for it instead. The commercial has endured enough that it re-aired on a Thursday Night Football telecast a few weeks ago. Later, commercials for Ace Hardware, Tough Actin’ Tinactin, and Outback Steakhouse would also become staples.

Madden’s video game is probably his biggest source of fame and fortune. It debuted in 1988 for MS Dos and the Apple II, and landed on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis consoles in 1990 (and so on and so forth). Though his voice was also in the games, Summerall was not quite so lucky financially. EA Sports gave him an option for a four-year contract worth $75k per year, or stock in the company. Summerall chose the former; Madden chose the latter, and his stake in the company became worth millions and millions of dollars.

Taping calls for the video game was arduous work, requiring the announcers to go over thousands of scenarios with only slight differences in the mind-numbing repetitions — “running back X for one yard, two yards, etc.” — over and over and over again for five days. “The challenge in doing voice-overs is not to go insane at the sound of your own voice,” Summerall wrote.

In the booth, Madden and Summerall’s partnership excelled for over two decades, a testament to their combination of talent and likability. They personified the American Dream, ascending from little means to the utmost status by their tremendous fortune combined with seizing their opportunities. This all arose from their connection to games. By all accounts, it never went to their heads.

“I always preached that you can’t be a different guy when that red light goes on,” says Bob Stenner. “You’ve gotta just be you. It’s not like you’re an actor, where you’re one way before a game and another during it. That really doesn’t work. People see through it. Don’t take the viewers for granted. They’re smarter than we think.”

“I don’t think there’s a big secret to being good,” Stenner continued. “The secret is just to have people like you. Likability. I don’t like tension. There’s enough shit going on. I just want to relax on Sunday. I don’t want to sit on the edge of my chair. I want to sit back in my chair and enjoy the day. Pat and John allowed you to do that. You felt like you could approach them on the street and tell them you liked their work without their jumping down your throat. They were people’s people. They just were. To me, that’s the secret. You’ve got to want people like you. Don’t be phony about it. Just be who you are.”

Thanksgiving, with the love that Madden and Summerall had for the holiday, is as great of a time as any to reflect on that.

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