Boston, Pat Summerall, and Me: A Feel Story

By: Fern Solomon

I hate to be yet another person that takes a tragic event and finds a tangential personal connection towards it — as if they that person now has the right to eat more ice cream or watch the evolution of Chandler and Monica’s relationship on YouTube or however the hell he or she deals with depression.  In this case, though, the Boston Marathon incident and Pat Summerall’s passing occurring on consecutive days made me one of those people.  It made me take two events that in actuality have a limited relationship to one another and turned them into a sign that some action must take place stemming from my own insignificant self, goddammit. This is because despite being born, raised, and currently living the dream in Brooklyn, New York, I consider Boston a second home, and consider Pat Summerall — the greatest play-by-play man to ever strut this godforsaken rock — a key player in one of the happiest moments of my life.

Patriots’ Day always takes place in Massachusetts on the third Monday of April – Wikipedia says it’s “a civic holiday commemorating the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775,” which doesn’t sound like a lie, but in equal significance is it is a celebration for having an excuse to drink on a Monday morning, most notably because the Boston Red Sox are always at Fenway Park playing a game on the holiday with an 11:05 a.m. start.

FN1 In 1990, the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Red Sox on Patriots’ Day 18-0. Thankfully I didn’t attend that game, but I was in attendance the following year, on April 15, 1991, for the Sox’s 1-0 loss to the Indians in 13 innings, the only run coming from Cleveland first baseman Brook Jacoby redirecting Dennis Lamp’s pitch from home plate to somewhere above and beyond the Green Monster. I, however, missed the end of this epic, historical showdown, because my father – an individual that I am related to somehow – insisted that my 8 year old self, my 3 year old sister (who fell asleep after claiming to be bored during the second inning at Fenway fucking Park) leave early. To make matters worse, leaving after the 10th inning did absolutely no good, because my father had parked the car in an area that was closed off. For the Boston Marathon. Which we all know also occurs on Patriots’ Day during the afternoon.

I vaguely recall suggesting that we just risk it and run across to get to the vehicle, but instead the four of us went to a bar. I enjoyed a Pepsi — surprisingly content considering Pepsi is not RC Cola – with an inkling that my father royally fucked up but who was dealing with a 3 year old girl who doesn’t give two shits about baseball or marathon running and didn’t need any more shit, and kind of enjoying the absurdity of the whole situation: through the bar’s windows we could see runners jog on by, one of the biggest marathons of any year unfolding right in front of our stupid, poor planning eyes. 

Two years later, I had an announcement for my father; I proudly explained that I was following in his footsteps when it came to choosing a football team. He has been a Philadelphia Eagles fan since he was a child; he did not relate to any of the New York teams because “they did not play in New York,” and decided to root for the worst team in the NFL because it would “mean more when they finally won.”  Years later that logic would fall apart through basic internet sleuthing – the Giants and Jets both played in New York until at least into his mid-twenties, and the only year the Eagles had the worst record was when he was four years old in 1956. He more became a fan of the Iggles in 1963, when they went 2-10-2, posting the league’s second worst record (the San Francisco 49ers posted a 2-12 record that year). The Eagles of course have never won a damn thing to this day, while the 49ers have won five Super Bowls, and came close to winning one a few months ago. This is why you should always adhere to the bullshit rules you arbitrarily make up.  Anyway, my father thought I meant that I too would be an Eagles fan, but to his shock and disappointment I told him that I was going to start supporting the actual worst team in football: the 1-15 New England Patriots. In retrospect, I partially did this to be an asshole.

I also knew that it would be fun to root for New England. They were going to draft the really good quarterback Drew Bledsoe from Washington State with the first overall pick, and roaring asshole Bill Parcells was going to yell at Bledsoe until he single-handedly won games for us.  Everyone else would get better through osmosis and, of course, more yelling. In only my fourth year as a fan, they made it to the Super Bowl, and had the privilege of being that team that Brett Favre beat to win his first and only championship. Congrats on that, dude!

Parcells was rumored to be leaving the team in the days leading up to the game, which he denied and said was ridiculous – at least until he left like the next day, which in the business is now called “Sabaning,” or if you live in Georgia, “Petrinoing.” In 2000, after a short detour with Pete Carroll, the Patriots hired Bill Belichick to be The Man. Up to that point, Belichick was best known as Parcells’ genius defensive coordinator who helped begin the Buffalo Bills four year run of Super Bowl failures, but “failed” as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns (although he had the team doing pretty well until Art Modell pulled a Modell and announced he was moving the team to Baltimore during the 1995 season.  Baltimore.).He stunk his first season with the Patriots, going 5-11, but in the sixth round of the draft he picked up that Tom Brady guy from the University of Michigan.  In exchange, Brady was given the privilege of sitting his ass on a professional football bench, hoping for his opportunity for just one of Drew Bledsoe’s technically perfect arms to shatter into a million pieces — just kidding not really — just kidding — kind of kidding — waiting for the chance.

On September 23, 2001, the first NFL game after 9/11, New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis hit Drew Bledsoe hard in the chest at the end of a Bledsoe scramble (Bledsoe was hit so hard by Lewis that he was bleeding internally from the hit.  What people don’t remember, however, is that he finished the series before leaving the game.  He had emergency surgery later that day which probably saved his life.  – Ed.)  Tom Brady walked in and the next thing you knew the team was 11-5 and in the playoffs with this Brady guy. For Christmas my sister – showing her continued lack of interest in paying the fuck attention – presented me with a Drew Bledsoe jersey. (Throwback jersey!) Bledsoe would get to see some time in the second half of the AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, holding down the fort and even throwing a touchdown pass after Brady went down with an injury to help the team advance to Super Bowl XXXVI to face off against the big bad St. Louis Rams, winners of the Super Bowl two years before and 14 point favorites to win again.

This is where Pat Summerall comes in, sort of.It’s actually one of the last places the former NFL kicker comes into the story: Super Bowl XXXVI was supposed to be the last game the man would announce. From 1981 on, Summerall provided the ballast to John Madden’s soundbite friendly, somehow cogent nonsense. Now,after a long broadcasting career for CBS and Fox, the man that gave football games the same importance as to an announcement from the Rose Garden via his ridiculously beautiful, cigarette stained, gravel voice, was calling it quits, ending “Summerall/Madden,” which was synonymous with “best” just like “Lennon/McCartney.” If you ever picked up a USA Today on a Thursday you would be able to read a list of all of Sunday’s upcoming games and which broadcasting team was assigned to them, and if a game had the privilege of Summerall/Madden that meant Fox was betting on that game to be THE game of the week, and everybody knew that, and everybody expected that, and even when it wasn’t the case it felt like that anyway. Buck/Aikman, the current number one Fox team doesn’t have that feel, even though Joe Buck clearly was influenced by Summerall in his matter-of-fact narration of games.  With sports, sometimes after a game has concluded, the result is so absurdly obvious in retrospect.  Summerall and Madden’s last game? Of course it wasn’t going to be a Rams blowout. Of course it was going to be a close game. And of course, the Patriots were going to lose, their unbelievable run only a set-up to a punchline I could never really appreciate.

But then again…Belichick had the Patriots during the opening introductions come out as a team. A team. Belichick kept the narrative to his team going in that they were only going to win as fifty-three men united in one purpose and not as individuals (it didn’t hurt that they had a lot less all-star players than the Rams). (Knowing what we know now, it is also entirely possible that Belichick pulled this stunt to make the Rams look bad since, you know, like his mentor, Belichick is kind of an asshole, although we didn’t know that yet). Summerall’s inflection change when he announced that the Patriots were coming out as a team  gave me chills, and I’m a little ashamed to admit that it did just now when I heard it again.

The entire game is on YouTube, but it is of the international broadcast from Sky Sports, with Dick Stockton and Daryl Johnston working the microphones, occasionally being forced to pretend to give a shit about the NFL Europe League. All that remains of Summerall and Madden’s interpretation of events comes in the final drive of the game, the final drive Pat Summerall and John Madden would ever call together. The Patriots, somehow, had a 17-3 lead, which they not so surprisingly blew. It had seemed obvious early on that the Rams were just about to destroy everything in sight and run away with the thing. But then, wouldn’t you know it, stupid Ty Law intercepted a Kurt Warner pass rushed by a Mike Vrabel blitz… and then… he kept running towards the Rams end zone… and nobody was there to stop him. The Patriots had the lead. That was when I got sucked in. But with 1:21 to go in the fourth quarter, after a Rams touchdown, with the momentum clearly behind St. Louis, the Patriots had the ball on their own 17 yard line without any timeouts. Madden famously said that the right thing to do would be to kneel a couple of times and let the game go to overtime. It would be the first overtime in Super Bowl history, which would be cool, but also THE RAMS HAVE ALL THE MOMENTUM. Back in the Dark Ages of 2002, before the recent overtime rules, all the Rams had to do was win the coin toss and the game would basically be theirs. So instead, Tom Brady, who didn’t really do that much throughout the game besides not fuck up, was tasked to get the ball down the field, and fast, without fucking up.

Without watching I can tell you every play on that final drive.  Two passes to J.R. Redmond.  Spike.  Another pass to Redmond, with Redmond managing to dive out of bounds with 33 seconds left, provoking Madden to admit “now I kind of like what the Patriots are doing.” *Singular dramatic thud.* After Brady kind of gets away with an intentional grounding call (likely another part of the officials doing the right thing and not having a Super Bowl ruled by penalties. *Mike Holmgren is nods his head*) came the big play.

“Here’s Brady again. Up the middle CAUGHT. And it’s Troy BROWN and he gets out of BOUNDS and they MIGHT be in Vinatieri’s range with 21 seconds left.”

*Four consecutive dramatic thuds.* Every syllable, spoken just right, for maximum drama without Gus Johnson’s “shit, is this dude like ‘OK’?” hysterics (I love Gus Johnson, by the way). And Madden, the former Oakland Raiders coach from all those years ago, right after Summerall finished:

“This is amazing. This is something, and I’ll admit that as a coach and as an analyst I don’t think they should have done but they have the guts, they have a young quarterback, and they did it they were backed up they were inside their own 20, they had no timeouts left, and they’re calling these plays, and not only calling these plays but MAKING these plays.”

Then:

“At some point when you’re in the Super Bowl you have to let it all hang out, and I’ll say this Charlie Weis and this Bo- and this Patriot team they are letting it all hang out.”

A few things to note here: 1) Charlie Weis was the corpulent Patriots offensive coordinator; 2) Madden almost said “Boston Patriots.” That is what the franchise was known as during their AFL days, before the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and they became the New England Patriots from the 1971 season on (apparently for two months in the winter of ’71 they were the “Bay State Patriots.” Holy fuck.) Madden briefly was unstuck in time, thinking back to his AFL days coaching Oakland. A minute or so after the game concluded, Madden admitted that it was nice to see one of the old AFL teams win a Super Bowl, not bothering to point out the obvious – it was especially poignant because the NFC had been dominating the AFC in the big game for a long time before that night; 3) Before it was wiped off of YouTube, the entire Fox broadcast was available, and I remembered that right before the kickoff Pam Oliver interviewed Troy Brown, who distilled New England’s strategy to win the championship to “letting it all hang out.” Three and a half hours later, John Madden remembered this, possibly triggered by Troy Brown himself catching the key pass, not at all thinking that it was really weird to use that turn of phrase.

Madden, in the line that gets the most goosebumps of all says, “What Tom Brady just did gives me goosebumps.” But Summerall starts talking about Vinatieri without saying his name, instead launching into “He has certainly got plenty of distance.” Fox goes to footage of Vinatieri making a field goal at practice before the game and Summerall says, “Well, he pulled that one.” A lot is being thrown at Pat, and it doesn’t matter, so forget I wrote anything. All that matters is he nailed the coda:

“And it’s right down the pike. Adaaam Vinatieri with no time on the clock and the Patriots have won Super Bowl thirty six. UnBElievable.”

Madden: “That’s the way you should win a Super Bowl.”

Summerall: “Man alive.”

Man alive. Man alive! Pat Summerall said “Man alive”! He said it like a man ordering a turkey sandwich at a deli, and it was shocking in its bluntness, and it was perfect.

Like any good fan who had just had a lifelong curse lifted, I did not hear Messrs. Summerall and Madden the first time around, opting instead to shout and jump up and down – I also had to hang up the phone with my friend Wilson because he called as the kick was sailing through the uprights to shamelessly poke his head into a memory I would always have — and hug my mother who had been too afraid to watch with because I had watched the divisional playoff win a certain way and god help you if you were a jinx and if you fucked this up and I was too young to go to a bar. But Pat Summerall was a huge part of that night, the night things can go my way.

The Patriots went from underdogs to the most hated team in professional football, and after winning two more Super Bowls, I was privileged enough to be told to go fuck myself on more than one occasion by strangers in New York.  And in 2007, in a year where the Patriots were caught cheating sorta-kinda-everybody-does-it-but-they-got-caught-and-uh-who-the-fuck-rats-a-dude-out-like-that-and-why-does-he-get-to-cameo-in-the-penultimate-episode-of-The-Sopranos-are-you-shitting-me, the team went 18-0 but lost the perfect season and the unquestionable title of being the greatest football team of all-time  in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants

FN2 And even though I just lied and that game never happened I made the dumbest mistake ever and watched it with Giants fans and not in my apartment stupid stupid stupid and it was a pretty shitty night and I decided first to give up sports entirely but ultimately to not root for a team that everybody hated and kinda-sorta cheated, take a year off, and start the process again. Let’s go Lions, is what I’m getting at.

Besides the Patriots, Boston and I had a lot more to do with one another. When I was a senior in high school in April of 2001, a couple of friends and myself went to Boston for Spring Break, which…what? We weren’t on fucking television so that was the most exotic place we were able to afford, and I got the chance to catch a Sawcks game at Fenway and see it to its completion. This time, the Red Sox won. I remembered that the newly acquired Manny Ramirez got a standing ovation just for having the courage to step up to the batters box with the bases loaded and nobody out, only to strike out. Boston would be the city where my friends and I come to realize that we were horrible at spatial reasoning; it ended up being a two hour walk to the hotel. Admittedly, we stopped for a pizza at a strange place where they put a Pepsi and Coke vending machine right next to each other. WHERE THE FUCK AM I?! But we managed to appreciate Boston for the first time as the cultured city with a New York mentality that you can traverse through in the course of a day. Then we waltzed into the Sheraton or whatever at 2am, which was appreciated by exactly zero people, including the front desk, because Boston goes to sleep at some point, apparently.

Two years later, I had started to have torrid nightly quip-offs over AOL Instant Messenger with my high school friend’s college friend at Boston University. On New Year’s Eve she came to visit Brooklyn, and we mashed our tongues together to indicate attraction to one another. To make the long-distance relationship work I usually traveled to Boston every other weekend, taking the incredibly cheap and dangerous buses from Chinatown to Chinatown.  It was in Boston where I had my first real honest-to-goodness long-term relationship. It was in Boston where for the first time something was clearly bothering my long-term girlfriend. It would be back in Brooklyn (at least for me) where we would break up over the phone.

It would be back in Boston yet again, a couple of years after, that where I surprised my high school friend by taking the dangerous Chinatown trip to Cambridge and appearing at her housewarming party with her boyfriend. My ex agreed to host me for that night, and I rewarded her generosity by and making out with her roommate, something the ex wouldn’t find out about until the roommate moved out two years later (and something the ex didn’t care about, which annoyed me in principle). One weekend in 2009, for my high school friend’s birthday, I came back to Beantown, and went to my third Fenway game. On the first pitch of the bottom of the ninth inning, with the score tied at 5, Nick Green led off with a home run to right field, close to where we were sitting. First pitch.  Well then. After the game, before my trip home, I managed to get some time in with the ex’s former roommate. A depressing little happened. Upon helping me realize the word I was looking for (but could not find) was “auteur,” I distinctly remember her laughing so hard that she spilled some of her wine. Not only did I feel I was being laughed at, but she ruined the whole “oops I spilled wine on my shirt” fantasy that all of my beloved pornography insisted meant that things were about to go my way. Boston.

I think that is why I never went back to Boston, except for weddings: one for my cousin, and another for my high school friend, who married her roomy and still live in Cambridge. I think the town has become too associated with darkness to me – I can still see and feel that long walk to the train on that June night that I didn’t even realize was only four years ago and how crappy it was. At one time, it was just 30 bucks round trip to take a weekend vacation. Now those death trap buses are being shut down because they are “death traps.”

And people are blowing people up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon? What’s this world coming to? It’s falling apart once a month now and I did not sign up for that shit, and there’s no broadcaster in the world that could make it right.

I cried – not a torrential downpour of tears mind you – the other night at my favorite bar in Brooklyn. It was late, I had eighty seven whiskeys, and I had just been talking about the bombing and thinking to myself about how I had an idea in my head for an ending to this piece but it was so fucking embarrassingly hack and dumb, and I told my two friends there out loud what it was, and they were kind to not say anything dismissive about it.  It was a memory I have from when I was with that lady friend in Boston. We both had a weird pride in being insomniacs, but I would always win and find myself the only one awake on her bed late at night. She had a window, and even with the blinds shut, if you peeked from the side, you could see a light on the corner across the street. There was something about light in the darkness. I thought about why it was so comforting, and initially I chalked it up to a lifelong obsession with “missing something,” which was never articulated better than by Kevin Bacon in Diner – Do you ever get the feeling that there’s something going on that we don’t know about?  Only always Bacon: it’s why I have 15 columns on my Tweetdeck, and it’s why I hate falling asleep before the sun rises. If I’m not writing to a glowing machine, I have the television on some shitty movie from HBO Zone, illuminating me, keeping me distracted from life’s bullshit, letting me think about why Molly Ringwold doesn’t just get Robert Downey Jr. arrested for pretty much harassing her for the first ninety minutes of the movie (The Pick-Up Artist, 1987.)

But I thought harder and turned the television off and realized that it goes much further back than that for me personally, back to a story I read in elementary school about an old woman.  One morning, for whatever reason, she decided to not do what she always did, and opted to not open her blinds at 6:30 a.m.  This caused a chain reaction, beginning with a couple not waking up on time and being late for work, and on and on, all precipitated by that decision.

The lesson I took from it at the time was the obvious — the entire butterfly effect from her action — but finally I realized that the lesson from that story was something else.  I realized that whether we know it or not, that we all need each other, and if you provide a light to someone, even if you never get acknowledgement for it, even if you don’t receive gratitude, that you should keep providing it – because man alive do we all need it.