Together, these two men, worked fluently. Al Michaels and Tony Dungy let the game flow. On the screen, it started to finally seed from boredom on the field. It wasn’t until the competitive action heated up in the second half. It was then that the duo captured the riveting progress, doing so with no hysteria on-air. Not their styles. Dungy isn’t Tony Romo.
Al and Tony had little experience together in the booth. Al knows that the bigger the game, the less juicy and frenzied he gets. Less is more. Eleven Super Bowls say a lot.
The unforeseeable finish Saturday night was eye-popping. It looked hopeless for the hometown Jacksonville fans, trailing 27-0. Who knew then that QB Trevor Lawrence would lead his team to a win as the clock wound down?
Michaels is a sports announcer who just about every fan in America knows. He did his first World Series back in 1972, his second of three years in Cincinnati. He was with the Reds and was all of 27. Vin Scully was younger when he did his first in 1953. At Al’s ripe young age, standing near his partner, NBC’s top play-by-player Curt Gowdy, he was so simply nervous. He just hoped he wouldn’t stumble and stagger. He didn’t.
He was so nervous, Al feared stuttering his first couple words. The half-century broadcaster will tell you that his two early mentors were Curt Gowdy and Vin Scully whom he grew up with, first in Brooklyn and later in Southern California. When I visited with Curt in Palm Beach, he paid his praises for Michaels. Once Al settled in the ABC booth, there was no diffidence at all. Always on it and confidently so.
At that ’72 Series, he didn’t realize that he was initiating a long and brilliant career. Still, yes, his signature is the NFL, 37 prime time seasons. Yet his stamp was on the World Series, Harness Racing, some NHL, college football and hoops, MLB and yes the Olympics. He authored what is likely the highest enshrined play ever. When the Americans knocked off the Soviets in 1980, “Do you believe in Miracles?” became the most unlikeliest of wonderful replays to hit the network airwaves. It was spewed so naturally from Michaels’ lips. Never forgotten!
Jim Spence who was Roone Arledge’s lieutenant, says in his late 1980s book about network sports that ABC shortly later acquiesced to a $1 million demand for his annual salary.
Shots at Michaels this past weekend by fans were myopic. Interpreting the nuances of dialogue since, I sensed that he faced challenges. Back at NBC for the first time after 13 seasons and joining a one time rookie in Dungy there were lots to juggle. (Ideally, it would have been Cris Collinsworth, his longtime cohort. But he did the Cincinnati -Baltimore game the next day with Mike Tirico.)
Al and Cris were agreeable colleagues. “It was great. We had, whatever it was, 13 years together,” Collinsworth underscored. Dungy used an economy of words. It takes time to figure it out. Today, younger fans want announcers to holler more like CBS’ Ian Eagle, Fox’ Kevin Burkhardt and NBC’s Tirico. A matter of style by generation. None yet in their 60s were screamers. Michaels is still sharp as a tack at 78.
Go through some of the NFL’s greatest ever, in no particular order. Pat Summerall, Ray Scott, Lindsey Nelson and Dick Enberg. Michaels maintained his equanimity on the stunning Jacksonville comeback.
Did Don Criqui, Tim Ryan, Tom Hammond or Charlie Jones scream themselves powerless? No. Did Vin Scully? No, he built embedded drama. (“Gibson is using the bat as a cane.”) To the very end, there was durability and endurance. Al’s been at it on the networks, presiding neatly for more than fifty years. What happened in Jacksonville on Saturday didn’t warrant a miracle, it was as what Al said, “unbelievable.”
Al Michaels is to the NFL what Mel Allen was to baseball in the 1950s and early 1960s. The difference was that Michaels never lost it. Still hasn’t! He’s in his fifth decade. Mel though was chased. By 1964, the Yankees realized Mel was losing it, their beloved voice was losing it. Mention Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio or Whitey Ford and either name triggers Mel’s.
This past weekend, those who missed Michaels on NBC all season when replaced by Mike Tirico, got Uncle Al back for what turned into a suddenly heart-pumping Jacksonville-LA Chargers finish. I appreciated his greatness and what he’s produced all these years. Why is he in the Pro Football HOF and why do broadcasters consider him the greatest NFLer ever.
He’s not about himself. Al let the memorable and record-setting Lawrence game-breather, Dungy, talk when he had something to say. Al and Tony reminded me of the early NBC team, Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis.
After the telecast, people began to make something out of nothing and mountains out of molehills. I asked Scully who excelled on perfection if he ever made mistakes. “Oh, of course!” the gracious man said.
Al Michaels finishes the game broadcast: “Ok, here we go (Jaguars) for the win. He got it (in front of our vivid eyes), but there’s a flag down. there’s a flag down…and they call it on the defense.” And if Al would have called it a win before the officials confirmed it on the airwaves? Michaels would have been lip-lashed for prematurely calling a win that could have been reversed.
Michaels still loves the game, his voice is still sharp and current. I feel for him because his yearlong partner, Kirk Herbstreit was overbearing. More importantly, he wants better games each week, every Thursday night. For the billions it’s shelling out, Amazon deserves a more appealing schedule.
But there comes a point when the league can’t meet the demand for every gate. It becomes impossible to fairly share.
No worries. The NFL always figures it out.