Note: Columnist Dave Lieber always admired Pat Summerall – who died April 16, 2013 – for one specific reason: his will power. After a long life as a hard-charging drinker, he suddenly quit. After Dave wrote this tribute column, he got to know Pat. Cheri Summerall, Pat’s wife, said, “Pat! He’s the guy that wrote that column about you.” They met and even worked together on Dave’s charity, Summer Santa.org. Here’s that 1999 column.
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Pat Summerall walked by my table at Friday night’s Carroll Education Foundation charity benefit where he was the honoree. All I could think of saying was “Hi!”
“Hi,” he said back.
There was so much more I wanted to say.
I’ve only written one fan letter in my adult life. It was to Pat Summerall. Yet the letter had nothing to do with the fact that he is one of the greatest sportscasters of the century or that he was a high-scoring place-kicker for two National Football League teams.
I don’t have a copy of the 1992 letter, but I remember that it went something like this:
Dear Mr. Summerall:
I just read in the newspaper that you have taken an indefinite leave of absence from your sports announcing duties on CBS. The story said you had a drinking problem and you enrolled in the Betty Ford Clinic for treatment.
You have always been my favorite TV sports announcer. I grew up listening to you broadcast the Sunday afternoon NFL games. I spend my Sundays with you!
On behalf of your millions of fans, I am one more who wishes you a speedy recovery. I admire your courage and eagerly await your return to the airwaves.
Summerall never wrote back, but that was OK. I wasn’t writing for an answer. I wanted him to remember that people whom he had never met cared deeply about him.
When I learned that he was to be the guest of honor – and target of a roast – at the Carroll foundation dinner, I immediately got a ticket. I wasn’t disappointed. Summerall carries himself with great dignity. His is a voice I could listen to for hours.
Perhaps out of respect for Summerall, the roast contained only brief references to his personal problems.
When the lengthy live auction ended, master of ceremonies Dale Hansen, a WFAA/Channel 8 sports anchor, walked to the podium holding a beer.
“I don’t know about you, Pat, but I’m drinking this,” he said.
When KLIF/570 AM sports host Norm Hitzges mentioned Summerall’s days with broadcasting partner Tom Brookshier, Hitzges said the pair drank “10 rounds a night.” Summerall corrected him.
“Way low,” Summerall said.
And when Star-Telegram sports columnist Randy Galloway roasted Summerall, he ended by saying: “When Pat Summerall had to change his personal lifestyle, he did it with grace and personal dignity.”
A greater acknowledgement of Summerall’s achievements was not discussed. But this was a dinner supporting education. And on the issues of alcohol and drug abuse, Summerall has carved out a new role for himself as an educator. In recent years, he has talked about his own experiences to help others.
For more than 40 years, Summerall has said, he spent most of his nights at the bar.
“I was usually the last guy there, telling the longest stories and drinking everybody under the table,” he once said in a documentary about alcoholism.
He began as a social drinker while playing football at the University of Arkansas. By the time he was a National Football League player, “I had a vodka after a game, or a Jack Daniels on the plane, or a few beers with friends during all those nights on the road.
“I took painkillers every day, too, for the knees I banged up playing football. The combination of painkillers and booze were slowly ripping a hole in my stomach.”
In 1990, after broadcasting a Bears-Redskins game, he stayed up late drinking. On the airline flight, he became terribly ill with a bleeding ulcer. He was rushed to the hospital, where he almost died.
“I promised myself I would never drink again,” he said.
It was a promise he didn’t keep.
At first, he drank secretly in his hotel room to let off stress. If anyone asked, he said he had quit.
By 1992, he was covering the Masters Tournament for CBS and got so sick before a broadcast that he barely finished.
“I looked in the mirror and I knew at that moment I didn’t like what I saw,” Summerall told a Tarrant County substance-abuse banquet a few years ago.
A few days later, his daughter wrote him a letter: “I’d always been proud that we had the same last name, but now I can’t say that.”
He enrolled in the Betty Ford Clinic and spent 33 days attending lectures, going to counseling and learning how to stop drinking.
Now he makes videos in which he tells his story to help others. He and his wife, Cheri, who live in a Southlake home they call “Amazing Grace,” were the leaders behind an expansion of the Betty Ford Clinic into Irving.
The Betty Ford Family and Children’s Program opened last year and helps children whose families have substance-abuse problems. The Summeralls helped raise much of the $5 million needed.
Pat Summerall also spent tearful lunches with Mickey Mantle, persuading him to enter the Betty Ford Clinic, which Mantle eventually did.
And often, pro sports teams ask Summerall to have personal chats with troubled players.
He probably tells them something he often says: In football, the hardest shots are the ones you don’t see coming. But the toughest blows he absorbed came from the drinks he ordered.
Those days are over. Pat Summerall, more than ever, is worthy of a fan letter.
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Here’s Dave’s story about Pat Summerall working on the Summer Santa children’s charity: “Pat Summerall Partners with Summer Santa.”