Super Bowl XIII, 1979. Pittsburgh leads Dallas 21-14 in the third quarter.
“Third down and three, Dallas at the Pittsburgh 10 … Roger back to throw, has a man open in the end zone … caught, touchdown -- dropped! Dropped in the end zone! Jackie Smith, bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America.”
* * *
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- We’re inside the CBS Sports bus, cool and plush on a steam-pressed Florida afternoon. The next day, Verne Lundquist will do the play-by-play on Florida’s big win over LSU. But for now his words have transported us to another place: Everett, Wash., where he grew up in the late 1940s. He is talking about religion, and sports, and voices.
“In third grade we would play tackle football every afternoon in a vacant lot next to my dad’s church,” he says. “I would insist on wearing a jersey with the number 37. Doak Walker. He was the biggest star in college football then, and they used to carry all Doak Walker’s games on the radio nationwide. I’m not sure who called those games. Maybe a guy named Al Helfer. He used to do the Mutual baseball games back then.
“Anyway, I would sit there and listen to the call of Doak Walker’s games on the radio, and in a way it would remind me of my father in church. I have such vivid memories of participating in the liturgy, of hearing him speak. I inherited my dad’s lack of fear of speaking in public. To some extent, I inherited his voice.”
Verne Lundquist thought about becoming a Lutheran minister like his father. He decided he was more suited for broadcasting sports. It was a good call. Verne Lundquist has made a lot of good calls.
We will deal with his most famous ones along the way, but first, the slightly less famous: Verne called Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan at the ’94 Winter Olympics. He called George Mason over UConn in March Madness. He called the Fog Bowl. He called Happy Gilmore’s epic Tour Championship win over Shooter McGavin. We could go on for a while here. If you have watched a lot of sports over the past 40 years, Verne Lundquist has been a part of your life. He has put words, in the moment, to some of sports’ most meaningful stories. He saw what just happened, same as you, and he can’t believe it either.
He was the radio voice of the Dallas Cowboys in that great Super Bowl against the Steelers. A few days before the game he had interviewed Jackie Smith. Smith was 38 years old, a future Hall of Famer who played 15 years with St. Louis and signed with the Cowboys for one last season. He told Verne he hoped he could end his career with a catch that mattered for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. The ball bounced off his chest. The Cowboys lost by four.
“The reason I said ‘Bless his heart,’” Verne says, “was I knew what it meant to him.”
* * *
The Masters, 1986. Jack Nicklaus, 46 years old, looks over his putt on the 17th green.
“Go back 11 years to 1975, and Nicklaus in that terrific tournament with Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller. Replace the names for 1986 with Ballesteros and Kite. It’s remarkably reminiscent. And here’s the constant. (Pause.) This is for sole possession of the lead.”
(Nicklaus hits the putt.)
* * *
Before the Masters and the Super Bowl, there were thousands of hours of games in nearly empty stadiums, to tiny regional audiences, watched on TV by just girlfriends and gamblers. His first network job was with ABC, and here’s how he knew that job had run its course: ABC didn’t give him a slot for the 1980 Winter Olympics. Instead, they assigned him to bowling in Peoria.
Then they called back and said they were sending somebody else to bowling in Peoria.
But Verne tended to stick with things. As a kid, he and his best friend went to 62 straight Everett High School Seagulls basketball games. At age 12, after the family had moved to Austin, Texas, Verne got his first broadcasting job -- doing radio plays at the University of Texas. He played kids’ parts for 20 straight weeks, until his voice changed and got too deep for the roles.
So as his ABC contract wound down, he stuck around, hoping. In 1982, CBS made him an offer, but it wasn’t much -- six football games and two basketball games. Verne had just remarried. Eight games were not enough to live on. But it beat bowling in Peoria. He took it and started over. Two years later, he made the team for the Masters. Two years after that, Nicklaus made his charge.
Jack was 46. Verne was 45.
Nicklaus walked to the 17th green just as Seve Ballesteros bogeyed 15, leaving them tied. Verne was watching from a tower 20 feet off the ground and 30 feet behind the green. He had time to think. He knew what the putt could mean. He gave himself a pep talk.
Just don’t screw it up.
He uses this clip when he gives speeches, so he has seen it a thousand times. He is proudest of two things. One: At the instant he says “Yes, SIR!” Nicklaus raises both arms in the air, as if they had choreographed the moment together. Two: After he sets up the putt -- “This is for sole possession of the lead” -- he doesn’t say another word until 15 seconds later, that quick “Maybe ...” just before the ball drops in the hole.
“The silence,” he says. “I think I’m as proud of that as the call itself.”
I ask him about something I’ve always wondered about that moment. As Nicklaus crouches at the edge of the green to eyeball the putt, you can hear a train whistle. It blows in the background as Verne goes through his setup. It blows again just as Nicklaus strikes the putt. Didn’t that train drive you crazy? I ask. Didn’t the guys in the truck go nuts when the stupid train horned in on the big moment?
Verne pauses. It’s a long pause.
“There’s a train?”
* * *
The NCAA East Regional final, 1992. Kentucky leads Duke 103-102 in overtime. A lot of people watching believe it is already the greatest college basketball game ever played. But there are still 2.1 seconds left. Grant Hill throws the long inbounds pass.
“There’s the pass to Laettner. Puts it up … YESSS!”
* * *
In the beginning, Verne watched and listened to his game tapes over and over, picking out the spots where he repeated adjectives, or talked about the same player too much. Now he trusts himself.
“You talk to people, you learn things, you absorb all the information,” he says. “Every memorable call. … Well, we all know guys who write things out. I think the most memorable calls are the ones that come from reaction and response.”
Think about Laettner’s last shot for a second. Imagine yourself with the microphone. Could you limit yourself to nine words? Could you resist talking over the Duke players in a dogpile on the court, Thomas Hill off to the side crying with joy, the Kentucky players slumped in pain? Could you let your nine words, none too fancy, stand for the moment?
Frank Chirkinian, the longtime producer of the Masters, once told Verne: You’re a headline writer. Verne tells himself all the time: Don’t get in the way.
After he said his nine words, and the buzzer sounded, Verne took off his headset and put it down.
“I didn’t watch that replay for 11 years,” he says. “I thought we did a pretty good job with it. I didn’t want the reality to intrude on my remembrance.”
A few minutes after the game ended, Verne walked out on the court. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was still there. He turned to Verne and said, “I knew if we could get it in the son-of-a-bitch’s hands, he’d make the shot.”
Verne does not consider himself a selfish man. But three years ago, he was watching the Big East tournament when Syracuse and Connecticut played six overtimes. Along the way, somebody started talking about whether it might be the greatest college basketball game ever played.
Oh no, no, no, Verne said to himself. I did the greatest game ever played.
* * *
The 2005 Masters. Tiger Woods chips from just off the sloping green on 16. He hits the ball well to the left of the hole. It lands and turns toward the pin.
“Well, here it comes …”
(Four feet from the hole.)
“Oh. My. Goodness.”
(The ball rolls to the lip. Hangs.)
(Then drops in.)
“Oh, WOW. (Pause.) In your LIFE have you seen anything like that?”
* * *
The only complaint he has about his life now is the travel. He has a new left knee, and that means pat-downs at every airport. Verne is not fond of the TSA.
He recently signed a new two-year contract with CBS. He’ll still do SEC football and the Masters. He’s cutting back on basketball some -- just four regular-season games before the tournament. It means he can take off January and February, then May, June and July. Verne is 72 now. He and his wife, Nancy, have been married 30 years. They live in Atlanta during football season, and Steamboat Springs, Colo., the rest of the year.
If you poke around on the Internet, you can find people who think Verne is a lousy announcer. He might or might not have called Nick Saban “Dick Saban.” He might or might not have started the phrase “bucket list” with an F. He does, without a doubt, say “Oh. My. Goodness” a lot.
He also, during the Florida-LSU game, called Mike Gillislee’s game-sealing TD with the economy of a martial artist: Run blitz … Gillislee … touchdown, Florida!
His favorite call of all time is Vin Scully on the Kirk Gibson home run against Oakland in the 1988 World Series. The home run call itself is wonderful -- “High fly ball into right field … she is … GONE!” But Verne loves what happened next. Scully didn’t speak again for more than a minute. And then he said: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”
“I met Vin one time and I said, how did you do that?” Verne says. “He said ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know where what I say comes from, either. I just know we all talk about television being a visual medium, and then we destroy that concept. We don’t need to say much. A few words can mean everything.”
I didn’t understand, even as I was talking to Verne Lundquist, exactly why I wanted to write about him. Then I was telling my wife about the Jack Nicklaus putt, and the Christian Laettner shot … and all of a sudden I started to cry. Those moments touch something deep, in the same way a great song does, or an incredible movie, or a beautiful painting. They show us what we’re capable of feeling. And trying to put words to those feelings … well, that’s not a bad job to have. Because a few words can mean everything.
After Tiger Woods’ ball drops into the hole, and Verne Lundquist wonders if in your LIFE you’ve ever seen anything like that, he is silent for 28 seconds. And then, just as the crowd has caught its breath, he adds four words:
This guy’s pretty good.