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The Golden Age of Al Michaels

Michaels’s play-by-play has been the soundtrack of prime-time NFL for decades. The Super Bowl is likely his swan song as the voice of the sport’s biggest event.

Joel Kimmel

There’s one play that will give you a sense of why Al Michaels is great. You’ve seen it before, but you may not have listened to it lately. At the end of Super Bowl XLIX, the Seahawks were at the Patriots’ 1-yard line. They were supposed to run the ball for the winning touchdown. They threw it instead. “The pass is intercepted at the goal line by Malcolm Butler!” Michaels said on the broadcast.

Play-by-play announcers can say things a half-second before the rest of us think them. On that play, Michaels saw Butler’s no. 21 flash toward the ball. He somehow pulled the name of a lightly-used Patriots cornerback out of his head.

At the same instant, Michaels did something more amazing. He told us how we should feel about the interception, the Seahawks throwing the ball, Malcolm Freaking Butler. Listen to the call again. You hear surprise, incredulity, almost outrage on behalf of common sense. That’s not play-by-play. That’s a person. That’s Michaels saying, “You know that was unreal, right?”

On Sunday, Michaels will call his 11th and perhaps last Super Bowl. His NBC contract ends after the game. If he doesn’t re-sign, it’ll end Michaels’s 36-year run of calling the biggest NFL night game, a timeslot so much his own that it was jarring to see him in sunlight during the playoffs. Michaels reportedly wants to call Thursday Night Football for Amazon. Everyone agrees this would bring the company’s broadcast instant credibility. It’s worth explaining why.

Michaels’s career is proof the best broadcasters are two different people. On the one hand, Michaels is a machine-like play-by-play announcer. But Michaels works very hard to tell us he’s not a machine, that he knows about wisecracks and over-unders and the peculiar magic of Malcolm Butler. Put another way, Michaels has a TV professional’s skill but not his blow-dried soul. It’s the same message Joe Buck spent 15 years trying to get across.

Michaels was 41 when he called his first Monday Night Football game. He’d already announced several World Series and the Miracle on Ice for ABC. But for a ’70s institution, he counted as a fresh face.

In 1985, Monday Night Football had Frank Gifford calling his 15th year of play-by-play, with Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson handling the analysis. Or trying to. ABC was so down on Simpson that it’d replaced him on the Super Bowl broadcast with Joe Theismann, an active player.

The next year, Roone Arledge, the presumed emperor-for-life of ABC Sports, was moved out during an ownership change. His replacement, Dennis Swanson, gave Michaels the play-by-play job. Gifford was demoted to analyst. “I thought it was precipitous, to say the least,” Gifford complained at the time. He was given the honor of opening the show each week before turning over the mic to Michaels.

The refurbished Monday Night Football was a show built for the moment in cultural time when the ’80s was turning into the ’90s. In 1987, ABC stole former offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf from CBS (Dierdorf had agreed to a contract without signing it) and created a three-man booth. Dierdorf offered sharp, booming opinions characteristic of the period. In 1989, Monday Night added Hank Williams Jr.’s theme song. One version included a shot of Bob Saget. When Williams sang, “Everyone watches this prime-time show,” you could believe him. Network TV was still that big.

Al, Frank, and Dan formed a really good, mostly friendly triumvirate. In 1991, they called a Super Bowl 10 days after the start of Operation Desert Storm. Before the game, a SWAT team told them that if they were taken hostage in the booth, they should make their bodies as small as possible so snipers could take out the terrorists. Dierdorf, who stands 6-foot-3 and played at 275 pounds, pictured Michaels and Giffords having lunch a few days after the game, saying, “Boy, that’s a real shame about Dan.”

Monday Night Football was always susceptible to an identity crisis and still suffers from one today. By the turn of the century, the show’s particular problem was trying to figure out whether it was sports or entertainment. Producers tried both. Gifford’s eventual replacement, Boomer Esiason, feuded with Michaels. Dennis Miller did color for two seasons. The opening teases had George W. Bush, Halle Berry, and crocodile hunter Steve Irwin asking, “Are you ready for some football?”

If Monday Night Football had an identity during this period, it was Michaels. “He’s probably the best thing that ever happened to prime-time football,” said Swanson. In 2002, ABC hired John Madden away from Fox, creating a best-with-the-best pairing you almost never get on TV. Four years later, NBC lured Madden to Sunday Night Football. After entertaining a brief, loony idea of having Cris Collinsworth do play-by-play, NBC hired Michaels. In 2009, Madden retired and was replaced by Collinsworth.

Michaels’s career stretched across eras of TV. Once, Monday Night was a Top 10 show alongside Cheers and The Golden Girls. After sitcoms crumbled, Sunday Night Football has been no. 1 in prime time for a decade—and probably still will be if it’s called by Mike Tirico. Monday Night once opened with a Toby Keith song. Now, the Sunday Night honors go to Carrie Underwood.

The first thing that makes Michaels technically great is that he rarely makes mistakes. Dierdorf told me that when was hired in 1987, Michaels took him aside and said: “Look, you’re about to assume the biggest bully pulpit in television sports. And the only thing I ask of you—and you should ask of yourself—is if you are going to say it, by God, make sure you’re right.”

For a play-by-play announcer, being right isn’t just about getting the correct jersey number. It’s about being right in a greater, artistic sense. It’s not having your voice UP HERE when it should be down here. Listen to how Michaels called the Titans’ Kevin Dyson catch on the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV: “IT IS CAUGHT BY DYSON! Can he get in? NO, HE CAN-NOT!”

For a play-by-play announcer, being right is telling the correct story. One problem with Tony Romo’s fever dreams is that a football fan like me often can’t figure out what’s going on. Sunday Night Football is produced by Fred Gaudelli and directed by Drew Esocoff, Michaels’s partners for more than two decades. Their broadcasts are oriented around answering the question: Why is Team A doing better than Team B? They almost always figure out the answer.

If you listen to a Michaels game, you’ll notice he doesn’t talk all that much. “Al’s not Pat Summerall,” said Dierdorf. “He’s not that concise with using words. But Al never says too much.”

Michaels has a trick for helping his analysts not say too much, either. After he calls a play, Michaels tells the audience the obvious thing that happened: the protection broke down, the cornerback got roasted. That allows the analyst to skip the basics and make a substantial point. As Michaels said of his analysts, “You guys don’t need to start with A or B. Go to C, D, E, and F.”

A lot of announcers have a measure of Michaels’s technical skill. But the price of being a flawless machine is they no longer seem human. Before his public renaissance, Buck told me a lot of people thought he was “a stiff, prudish dork that nobody would ever want to have dinner with.”

When Michaels calls a football game, he gives it a sensibility. Though he was an ’80s man at ABC, Michaels’s sensibility belongs to an unspecified era that occurred long before. He uses words like “rascal” and “kibosh.” Seconds are “ticks.” Michaels doesn’t eat vegetables, ever. He knows the over-under.

“I’ll throw in a line or two just to let people know I get it,” Michaels told me. It’s his acknowledgement that there’s a sub-rosa conversation going on about a football game that isn’t getting on the air. Announcers should at least let us know they’re aware of it.

You can imagine Michaels having a kickass postgame. These imaginings turn out to be true. During his Monday Night days, the ABC limo was stocked with everything the announcers needed, Dierdorf said delicately, “in terms of rehydrating ourselves.” One time, Michaels and Dierdorf arrived at their hotel and learned the bar had closed for the night. “Al and I sat in the back of that car for like two hours,” said Dierdorf, “because the bar in the limo was not closed.”

Howard Cosell once claimed Michaels was almost unknown outside the booth. That seems funny now. We’ve learned a lot about Michaels. We know he’s an actual sports fan—not always a given with announcers—who as far back as the ’80s had a satellite dish at his house so he could watch baseball. In 1994, when Michaels was pressed into newsman duty during the O.J. chase, he recognized a prank caller was a fan of The Howard Stern Show. “OK, thanks Al,” said the anchor, Peter Jennings.

Remember, Michaels worked mostly in a pre-podcast era when people got to know announcers through odd remarks they made during a game. Michaels counterpunched with his partners just like Summerall did. Five years ago, he made an insensitive joke. He offered the occasional political take. After watching a turnover in a 2004 game in Foxborough, Madden said, “This is what you call a flip flop.” “You’re in the right state for that,” said Michaels, casting an eye on John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president.

That same year, there was a remarkable segment on CNN’s Crossfire in which Robert Novak, the show’s conservative pundit, argued on behalf of Michaels (“the best sportscaster in America”) and Paul Begala, a former Bill Clinton aide, took the opposing side (“he stinks”). Dick Enberg wasn’t a big subject on Crossfire.

Michaels’s duality might seem easy to pull off. Call a few plays. Have a few laughs. It’s not easy. First, a play-by-play announcer needs to have a personality. (This eliminates a few of them.) The personality has to be good. (Many more are eliminated here.) Then—here’s the toughest trick of all—you have to be fully human in the same instant you’re saying Malcolm Butler’s name.

“If it’s just cut-and-dried play-by-play,” Michaels told me, “you might as well have a PA announcer do it.” I hope that’s not another example of Michaels saying something the rest of us are about to see for ourselves.