The best call of last year’s Super Bowl didn’t come from Al Michaels. It was delivered by an excited Australian. When Tom Brady fumbled in the fourth quarter, the announcer yelled, “The Eagles get the ball back! The script is flipped! Tom Brady bereft on the turf!”
“Bereft on the turf” was treated with the reverence Americans usually reserve for over-the-top SEC homer calls. Deadspin gave it a place of honor in its Super Bowl reel. The catchphrase was printed on a T-shirt. One Eagles fan, agog at the sheer Australianness of it, wrote on Reddit, “My god that call is amazing. Is all your sportscasting like this?”
Gerard Whateley, the Australian announcer who delivered the call, said that it is not. Whateley (pronounced wait-ly) is 44, with thinning hair and a polite, exceedingly soft-spoken manner. He finds it strange that he briefly became America’s latest evidence of Australian wackiness—sportscasting’s answer to Paul Hogan and Yahoo Serious. “I feel like I’m a long way from that,” Whateley said.
On Monday, I met Whateley on Radio Row as he prepared to call his second Super Bowl, as well as broadcast his daily radio show from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET—which is 9:00 a.m. to noon Tuesday morning in Melbourne, where he is based. In American media terms, Whateley is like the love child of Bill Littlefield and Bob Costas. He started his career as a “journo”—Australian for ink-stained wretch—before moving to a career at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation announcing cricket, Australian rules football, and horse racing. This month last year, Whateley left the ABC for radio station SEN, where he is “chief sports caller”—Australian for play-by-play announcer.
Whateley, one critic admitted to the Melbourne Herald Sun, “will end up the most decorated bloke in the history of Australian sports broadcasting.” The funny thing about casting Whateley as a clichéd Australian is that he has cast himself as the opposite: the brainy, worldly antidote to the yokels that predominate on Australian (and American) radio. Whateley wrote a well-received book about the great racehorse, Black Caviar. On a show dedicated to Australian rules football, he plays the straight man to a journo-of-the-people called “Robbo.”
For years, Australians have watched the American TV feed of the Super Bowl. But Whateley’s call marked the first time an Australian has announced the game for the country’s radio. It was also the first NFL game Whateley had called in his life.
The broadcast began inauspiciously. During the national anthem, Whateley’s equipment conked out, so the first, historic plays were delivered to Australia over a telephone. Whateley said that’s the kind of thing that happens when he calls cricket matches in India. “I must admit, I hadn’t really thought that would be a possibility in the States at a Super Bowl,” he said.
The NFL doesn’t allow Whateley to bring his own partner, so he must recruit a color analyst who already has Super Bowl media credentials. This year, the man explaining football to Australia will be the unlikely figure of Larry Fitzgerald Sr., the sportswriter and father of the Cardinals wide receiver.
Whateley has been interested in the NFL since he was young, when he watched American Don Lane’s NFL highlights show and “barracked”—rooted—for the New York Giants. Last year, he was given a scant four weeks to prepare to call the game between the Patriots and the Eagles.
Whateley discovered that crafting a narrative for his countrymen was far more important than trying to explain RPOs. “Tom vs. Time was pretty rich in Australia, so people knew that,” he said. “The idea of the Philadelphia underdog story, the echoes of Rocky …” Indeed, just about every Australian could understand the idea of the questing, championship-starved Eagles, who are the rough equivalent to the Australian football club Richmond. Pats fans, meanwhile, are sort of like the title-expectant fans who barrack for Hawthorn. “People were able to tap into it whether they fully understood third-and-8 and the magnitude of it or not,” Whateley said.
Australian rules football has so much continuous action that two callers often hand off the mic every minute or so, like a wrestling tag team. The NFL “actually reminded me a little bit of cricket,” Whateley said. “It’s a continuous conversation punctuated by the moments of action.”
“I loved the rhythms of it …” he continued. “Ultimately, it’s a march down the field or repel back down the field. I think that’s got a lovely flow.”
Though America and Australia are parallel media universes, the house styles of TV announcing differ slightly. “The great announcers here stay very measured,” Whateley observed. “Where in Australia, the big moments are marked by going up and up and up again.” To prepare for the Super Bowl, Whateley listened to Kevin Harlan call games on Westwood One. He thinks Harlan would make a great Australian sports caller.
Outside of the odd run-in with a cricketer, which he called “unedifying,” Whateley is a determinedly mild presence on the air. A big play delivers him to another emotional plane. “There’s been the odd moment at the peak moment of a Grand Final [Australian football’s Super Bowl] where you call it and then you suddenly realize you’re standing up,” he said. “You don’t know when you stood up and you don’t know how you stood up. But you’re just moved to stand up by it. You sort of finish it and catch yourself and go, ‘Alright, I’m sort of hanging out the window here.’”
I asked Whateley how he came up with the “bereft” line. “I have a mental catalog of all words that I’ve read from all walks of life,” he said. When he saw Brady’s hands resting on his knees, in the perfect posture of perplexed loserdom, the word seemed to fit. “If something pops into your head at the moment that looks like ‘bereft,’” Whateley said, “then ‘bereft’ ends up being it.”
Whateley’s fans quote the line back to him. When Whateley posted a photo to Instagram of a recent L.A. shopping trip with his daughter, someone commented, “Dad’s credit card left bereft on the turf.”
Australian announcers work different emotional latitudes than their American counterparts. But in listening to Whateley’s other highlights from last year’s Super Bowl, I was struck by how familiar they sounded. “He goes for Gronkowski. Stretches … catches!” “He kicks … true.” Like wrapping your hands around your neck when you’re choking, play-by-play is an international language whose rhythms and word choices transcend cultural difference.
Take Whateley’s call of the final play, when Brady heaved the ball into the end zone. “Ball is loose!” Whateley said. “Incomplete! Time has run out for Tom Brady! Philadelphia has a new ultimate underdog story. His name is Nick Foles. And for the first time, the Eagles are Super Bowl champions.” For better and worse, that call sounds perfectly American.