A Conversation With Pat Summerall
January 1, 2003 - Whether he's making the plays or calling them, Pat Summerall's association with the NFL is more than 50 years strong. And it's still going, despite Summerall's age of 72. Or last year's announcement that, after 21 years, he and broadcasting partner John Madden were parting ways. Or a struggle with alcoholism—including an intervention from friends and a stay at the Betty Ford Center.
by Jim Dailey
So what keeps Summerall going? Last fall, before a packed Texas Stadium, he answered that question as he gave his testimony at the Metroplex Mission with Billy Graham. Decision Executive Editor Jim Dailey recently spoke with the Hall-of-Fame sports announcer about his career, his alcoholism and his Savior.
Q/ How has your approach to work changed since your placed your faith in Christ?
A/ When I started in the broadcasting business, I had the reputation of someone who was very easy to work with, particularly with the young people. But, as I started to drink, I became more irritable, less patient, more difficult to work with. If anybody couldn't grasp something quickly, I thought that person was inferior. I had no patience with him. Since then, I've gone back to the way I was in the beginning. I've become more tolerant of people that are trying to do what they are supposed to do, but can't get it done. If it requires a certain presentation, I think that's something I've acquired. I find myself more easily expressing myself. I've become someone who's pleasant to work with, rather than someone who had grown gradually more difficult to work alongside.
Q/ When did you recognize you had a drinking problem?
A/ I didn't recognize it. People told me I was drinking too much. They told me I had a problem. I didn't think so. My upbringing was in the world of athletics, and you can overcome anything. That's the way you're taught, the way you believe. I believed that. I was a big macho guy who would not be defeated by a substance. Thank goodness a group of friends intervened about 10 years ago. They sort of tricked me into coming to a meeting where they were sitting in a room in circle. As soon as I walked into the room, I knew what was happening. They read aloud letters they had written about how much they cared for me, loved me, and how sorry they were to see me do the things that I had begun to do. They recalled instances of things they had seen me do that they knew I wouldn't be proud of. These were influential people—the commissioners of two of the professional leagues, people from industry that I knew, people from various businesses that I played golf with—14 of them in all. If you cannot do what they ask after a presentation like that, you've got to be one tough, hopeless guy.
Q/ They recommended that you go to the Betty Ford Center.
A/ Right. When I got there, I was bitter, mad, and I didn't think I needed to be there. In fact, I stayed 33 days instead of the usual 28 days, because the counselors said that I was so angry for the first five days, it didn't count. But, I got over it as I began to understand. As I went through the repetition of the Twelve Steps from Alcoholics Anonymous, the whole approach to spirituality begin to hit me. I began to realize that the repetition was not something that you heard every day—I got something different out of it every day. That was the beginning of hope and a quest to find a better life, one that I watched others live and didn't understand. The stay there, as much as anything else, really kindled the fire inside me. I didn't feel like I had the answer. I knew I couldn't do it by myself. I discovered that I had to have help. I didn't understand quite where the help was coming from; but, by the time I left, I knew the track I wanted to follow, and we started to go to church on a regular basis. I was still missing something, but wasn't sure what it was. I guess you could say that I wasn't sold on the whole thing.
Q/ When did you discover what was missing?
A/ One evening, the minister of the church I had been attending was visiting at our house and I told him the story. Before he could answer, I asked if he would baptize me at the age of 66. He thought a moment and said, "Of course I will, but have you been baptized?" I said yes, but I was a baby, and I didn't remember anything about it. Two Sundays later, I went to the church and put on the robe. I stood in the water up to my hips, as high as it would go. When I crossed my arms and went backwards into the water, I felt myself go totally helpless. I thought, "I hope he gets me out of here!" He was a little guy. When I came up, I felt like I could now grasp the reality of Christ. I knew what it is to be reborn. Ever since then, my life has been happier, both mentally and physically. I'm closer to the family. I'm more tolerant in my work. I do better work. People tell me I look better. I feel better. I can't tell you the change. My family life is better. The relationships with our friends are better. We don't hang out with some of the people we formerly did. As they tell you at the Betty Ford Center, you find new playgrounds and new playmates. We've never been happier; I've never been happier. This was about four years ago.
Q/ You're obviously more joyful ...
A/ Yes, and it radiates. My director and I were talking last night, and he asked me how much longer I am going to keep on broadcasting. I said that I frankly don't know. As long as my health is good, I can't give you an answer. I like it so much. He said, "Well, I'm having more fun than I've had in my whole life working with you, and I hope you come back and do it again." I also find myself having a lot more stamina these days. I don't get tired. Since I've come to know Christ, he's given me strength that I didn't have before.
Q/ At age 72, you're still very busy broadcasting sports. How do you maintain your walk with Christ in the midst of such a hectic schedule?
A/ It all begins at home. My wife and I have seven devotional books, one of which is by Billy Graham. We read those, along with the Bible, every morning before we have breakfast or coffee or anything. That puts us in a positive frame of mind. On the road, you can find a service somewhere if you want to go. It's a matter of wanting to go—you can always find a place. Sometimes when we have an early game, it's difficult to get to a church service and get to the game. Quite honestly, sometimes I miss that. I look for a church to go to in a lot of places that we have games. If I happen to miss church, I take a 10-minute period where I find as much privacy as I can. Usually it's in the corner of a broadcast booth before anyone is there. I have my own private service where I pray. I carry my Bible with me in my briefcase. I typically read a chapter in the New Testament. I find out that most people think that I'm studying my notes or thinking about what I'm going to say on the air that day, but that's not what is going on. I just have my own private meditation and service.
Q/ Do you miss your broadcast partner of many years, John Madden?
A/ Yes, we had become very, very good friends over 21 years. In addition to our working partnership, we knew each other's families. He knew if I had problems at home. You miss a friend like that. Honestly, from a professional standpoint, John required a lot of room, so I talked less, perhaps, when I was working with him. Now that I'm working with Brian Baldinger, I say a lot more.
Q/ Many athletes today publicly profess their faith on and off the field. Yet, the media, for the most part, does not cover that aspect.
A/ No, and I've tried to make sure that we do cover that part—such as when players gather for prayer following a game. But it usually doesn't happen. Networks can sell commercial time there, so that's what they choose to do. But, yes, I see around professional sports more and more individuals standing up and professing and announcing their faith, with less shame or embarrassment. By the way, most of the Christian players that I know don't pray to win. They pray that no one gets hurt, and that they will do their best on the field.
Q/ Were there some people whom God placed in your path before you came to Christ who modeled the Christian life in an attractive fashion?
A/ Back in the days when I was a player, part of the macho image was you had to dislike the people on the other team. In some ways, you developed a hate for them. I can remember when I was playing for the New York Giants, we would play someone who was known around the NFL and among the players as a "Jesus freak." They were different, and we didn't have anything in common with them. Then, as I matured a little bit more, I got to know a coach, Chan Gailey, who at that time was with the Dallas Cowboys. He was a good friend of mine and very much a Christian. He had a tremendous impact on me as I watched him live the Christian life, give of his time and his heart, and still he could be a good football coach. That was a guide to me watching him live and work. There were others, of course, that I saw who were Christians. Kurt Warner, the quarterback of the St. Louis Rams, is a good example. All of those people were influential.
Q: Do you have opportunities to share your faith with others?
A/ Sure. I speak frequently to many different groups. They want to hear about my recovery and my faith in Christ. They ask, "What happened to your family? How did you overcome this?" They give me examples from their lives and ask how I would handle them. I tell them I don't have all the answers, but I can tell them what happened to me.
The greatest desire I have is to help the guys or gals who are going through what I went through to some degree, when they become addicted or alcoholics, or whatever. I think I can relate to them, and sharing my story helps them. I spoke to a group of about 100 transportation personnel, recovering alcoholics. They were really seeking help and still struggling with it. That was the most difficult group I have ever spoken to because they had been successful, much like I had been.
Q/ What encourages you the most in your new life with Christ?
A/ My life has been very good. I've been very lucky. When I was in high school, I wanted to become a professional athlete, and I got to do that. Then I became a fan of the games I played and I wanted to continue that association. So, I pursued broadcasting, and, thankfully, it worked. Everything sort of fits into place. Everything is in perfect place now. I have faith; I have hope. As good as this world is, I know it's going to be better. Sometimes it's hard to believe that it's going to be better, but I don't doubt it. I'm proud to say and spread the word that I am a Christian, that I believe in Jesus Christ. And I'm so glad He has accepted me into His house and into His life. I shall be eternally grateful.