News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: Pat Summerall’s new life

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–As the final seconds tick off the game clock, players stream off the sidelines until the two waves of team jerseys meet at midfield.

Football fans watch this colorful scene Sunday after Sunday on television. Many combatants trudge together to the locker rooms, while others rush to embrace former teammates. Soon, a circle forms as players from both teams kneel in prayer.

“That’s when we pull back to that wide shot of the stadium and cut away as quick as we can to the studio in New York,” noted Pat Summerall, who has called his last Super Bowl with John Madden, his professional partner of 21 years. “For years, I’ve been trying to tell people up in the booth that something interesting was going on down there and we ought to show it. …

“Those players praying together on the field stand for something. This is one of the uncovered stories in sports today.”

Summerall knows what is happening in that circle because he has lived it.

It would have been unthinkable, said the 71-year-old broadcaster, for his old New York Giants teammates to exchange friendly greetings with their opponents before the game and they sure wouldn’t have been seen praying with them afterward. There were unwritten rules about that sort of thing 40 or 50 years ago in the National Football League.

Today, there are prayer groups inside and outside locker rooms. More players are openly talking about their faith and they don’t care who listens. This has caused tension in some teams, while creating unique bonds of unity in others. Meanwhile, there are — as always — scores of professional athletes who abuse alcohol and drugs and whose private lives are, at best, confused.

Summerall has seen it all. He almost drowned in alcohol before drying out in 1992 at the Betty Ford Center. Then, at age 66, he found new life in the waters of baptism. Now, as he enters a new stage of his media career, Summerall is trying to figure out how to tell both sides of this story.

“You don’t stay in the business he has been in as long as he’s been in it without being able to grow and change and learn. That’s just part of being somebody like Pat Summerall,” said Claude Thomas, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Euless, outside Dallas. “But as his pastor, I think it will be fascinating to see how his growth as a professional is going to fit in with the continuing growth in his faith. …

“I know one thing: God has a purpose for Pat’s life and his talents.”

In the weeks since Super Bowl XXXVI, Summerall said he has spent most of his time responding to the hundreds of letters and telephone calls that followed his graceful swan song with Madden and Fox Sports. It’s too soon to start talking about contacts with other networks, but it isn’t too soon to start thinking about options.

It would be easy to spend months doing nothing but public speaking, Summerall said. But even this part of his life is changing. In the past, groups asked him to come tell a few funny stories, share a few touching memories and serve up some insider sound bites about sports and television. Now, Summerall is being asked to focus on something totally different — the very personal story of his battle with alcohol. That will mean talking about his faith.

“I know that I have a story to tell,” he said. “What I’m discovering is that quite a few people actually want to hear about the baptism part, too. I can’t be silent about that.”

Summerall said it helps that he no longer feels helpless and alone.

Wherever he travels, he has been able to find athletes and coaches who are on the same path. Sometimes they even have to meet in football stadiums. It’s getting easier to spot them.

“It’s like an alcoholic looking for a drink. If he wants it bad enough, he can find it — no matter what,” Summerall said. “I’m like that when it comes to finding prayer services and Bible studies. No matter where I am working, I know that they’re out there and I can find them.”
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic College and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C. Used by permission of the author.

    About the Author

  • Terry Mattingly