Pat Summerall: remembered, cherished here
The things we learn about people after they die never cease to amaze. Pat Summerall, who became one of the most famous kickers in football history, was born with a right leg twisted backward. That’s right, his hamstring was in front; his knee was in back. This would become his kicking leg. His doctor, trying an experimental procedure, broke little Pat’s leg, turned it around and reset it. For the rest of his life, Summerall’s right leg was shorter than his left.
And even after the procedure, the doctor thought Summerall would always walk with a limp and probably never play sports. Most of you know the rest of the story. In 1958, in a December snowstorm at fabled Yankee Stadium, Summerall kicked a 49-yard field goal to give the New York Giants a 13-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns and put his team in the playoffs. Those present say the kick would have been good from 65 yards.
This was back when all placekicking was straight-ahead. There was no soccer-style back then. This was when TV was black and white and placekickers and punters didn’t just kick. Summerall played both defensive end and tight end at different times in his career. Among his 563 points scored in the NFL, all came on extra points and field goals except for one pass interception that he returned for a touchdown.
Later Summerall became a beloved sportscaster, working as both a football analyst and as a commentator of The Masters. For so long, he was the “Voice of the Masters.”
Many of us here in Mississippi knew him more intimately than just through the TV screen. That was because of his relationship with our own Charlie Conerly, his Giants teammate and great friend.
Long-time readers of this column will know I believe one of sports’ great travesties is that Charlie Conerly is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Chunkin’ Charlie’s Pro Football Hall of Fame cause had no greater promoter than Pat Summerall.
“If Charlie’s not in the Hall of Fame, they ought not have one,” Summerall once told me.
“Pat was such a great guy, always in great humor,” says Perian Conerly, Charlie’s widow. “He and Charlie were so close. You know, Charlie was always the holder when Pat was kicking and Pat always gave Charlie a lot of credit, which tells you something about Pat.”
Perian became America’s first famous female sports writers during those years, writing for the New York Times, among other newspapers. Her best source on the Giants? Not her husband.
“Pat was my best source,” Perian says. “He helped me so much with what was going on with the Giants.”
Summerall visited Mississippi and Conerly often through the years. In the early days of the C Spire Conerly Trophy, Summerall served as a guest speaker. Ordinarily, he or his agent would have charged thousands. Here, he paid his own way.
Ole Miss legend Archie Manning received the eighth annual Pat Summerall Legends for Charity Award at this year’s Super Bowl. Manning knew Summerall well.
“Well, you know, Pat loved Charlie Conerly and I always thought he loved me because I was another quarterback from Ole Miss,’ Manning said Wednesday. “What a nice man, a sweet man. We’ve gotten to be really good friends over the last few years. I, as everybody else who knew him, will miss him.”
Summerall became too ill to present the Summerall Award to Manning in New Orleans. Instead, the presentation was made by Manning’s three sons, Cooper, Peyton and Eli.
Pat Summerall remains, without question, my favorite football TV broadcaster of all-time, not because of his friendship with Conerly but because he was such a natural. He was the calm in the storm. He had a soothing voice. He told you what you needed to know and no more. He didn’t yell at you. He didn’t speak in exclamation points. He made you as comfortable as your easy chair. He was the yin to John Madden’s yang. He was the same way at The Masters. He let the pictures speak for themselves. Hyperbole was just not his style. He should be required viewing and listening for anyone who aspires to sports broadcasting.
Again, it’s amazing the things you learn after someone dies. Pat Summerall’s parents separated before he was born. When he was 3, his mother no longer wanted to care for him. He was raised by an aunt, an uncle and a grandmother.
Perhaps that explains, to some degree, why later in life he had severe problems with alcohol abuse. In his memoir, he told all: “As the years and parties passed, I became more erratic in my judgment and less patient as I drank more frequently and recovered more slowly. In addition, I had lowered my standards along the way — professionally, personally and physically. To my shame, I became a practiced liar and a seasoned cover-up man. I was spending more and more time on the road just to be around the party scene, always to the detriment of my family. I had walked away from my marriage and alienated my three kids. They didn’t deserve that treatment.”
In 1992, Summerall entered the Betty Ford clinic. He emerged sober and remained so, becoming a born-again Christian. He didn’t shy away from his past problems; no, he tried to use his own experiences to help others.
Pat Summerall was 82 at the time of his death. He will be fondly remembered at your Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.