Al Michaels continues to be the voice of the NFL

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 12:09 PM

The quality of the assignments, the number of zeroes in his paycheck and the level of recognition in airports and hotel lobbies around the country have all changed exponentially for Al Michaels since he broke in as a radio announcer for a minor league baseball team in Hawaii in the late 1960s.

But one facet of his professional life has never changed - the meticulous preparation that has been a cornerstone of his long-term success as a man many consider to be the most versatile and talented play-by-play voice of his generation.

Michaels will be at FedEx Field on Sunday night to call the Redskins-Colts game on NBC Sports, where he's handled the network's signature NFL broadcast the last five years. For 20 years before that, the 65-year-old Brooklyn native was the "Monday Night Football" play-by-play voice on ABC. He's appeared on prime-time network television longer than any broadcaster in history, more than 2,200 hours, and is the only sportscaster ever to call a Super Bowl, a World Series and the NBA Finals and host the Stanley Cup Finals and the Olympics.

After all these years handling NFL games, some might think his preparation for this week's contest between two 3-2 teams probably began the day after he broadcast the 49ers-Eagles game last Sunday night in San Francisco. They might be wise to think again.

"It really starts in the offseason, and when it comes right down to it, there's never really a time when I go away from it," Michaels said over the course of a 30-minute telephone interview this week. "When our [NBC] schedule comes out, I'll start looking at a lot of things, especially with the teams we'll be doing the next season. I always like to connect the dots. I'll pay attention to those teams from the start, just so I can say during a game that, 'Back in April, June, July, here was the feeling about this team.' "

Always a voracious reader of newspapers who still has four dailies dumped in the driveway of his Southern California home, Michaels spends more time on his home computer or iPad than he'd probably like to admit. He'll go online every day to read the hometown papers of the two teams he'll be covering that week, as well as a wide variety of pro football Web sites and blogs to expand his frame of reference.

Last Sunday, he watched most of the Redskins-Packers game in his hotel room before heading out to the stadium for his own broadcast, the better to get "a head start" for this week. When he gets back home on Monday, he tunes in to every NFL-related show he can, and reads as much as possible about all the games from the previous day, with a special focus on the two teams he'll be talking about on his next Sunday night assignment.

Last Tuesday, he reviewed the network tapes of the Redskins-Packers and Colts-Chiefs games, while his NBC partner, analyst Cris Collinsworth, was studying the same two games using the coaching tapes he's been provided showing midfield and end zone camera angles.

"I watch the network broadcast because I like to know what's been talked about the previous week," Michaels said."With a team like Indianapolis, for example, I want to know what stories were told about Peyton Manning. You don't really want to tell stories people just heard in the last game. You want stuff no one else has really used."

All during the week, Michaels also will get on the telephone and dial up a wide variety of sources around the league. He's looking for information about the teams and the players in his upcoming game, but also tries to stay current or ahead of the curve on any developments around the league that need to be referenced during a national broadcast.

Both he and Collinsworth also will be in frequent communication during the week with Fred Gaudelli, the Sunday night game producer, as well as members of the football unit's research staff to discuss various ideas and angles they may want to cover.

"By Thursday, I'm pretty well collected," Michaels said. "Friday is a travel day, and I'll be there to meet with the [home team] coaches and some players, or sometimes you do it on conference call. On Saturday, we're doing same thing with the visiting team.

"When it comes down to it, I'm thinking about football all the time. When I'm on the golf course, I'm thinking about it. It's never out of your brain. One of the things I can't do during the season is read books. I don't read anything but football. I climb into bed with a press release or the iPad."

But Michaels also has been doing this long enough to know when enough really is enough, and he is particularly wary about anything he reads, particularly on the Internet, that somehow does not ring quite true to him.

"If I see something dubious, say on a blog or a Web site and I don't see it anywhere else, I'll just go right to the source and check it out," he said. "I will never repeat something verbatim on the air unless I know it's accurate. And when you go to the source, sometimes there's a better story beyond the original story. That happens all the time."

Michaels's total immersion into pro football for so many years began a quarter-century ago and was totally unexpected at the time. He was already a highly acclaimed broadcaster best known for his baseball work and his classic line - "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" - delivered at the end of the underdog U.S. hockey team's stirring upset of the powerful Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

By 1986, ABC had been acquired by Capital Cities, and the great Roone Arledge, a pioneer in the televising of network sports, was then spending most of his time running the news division, as well. Veteran broadcast executive Dennis Swanson was brought in to take over the sports operation. A few days after he took the job, Michaels was stunned when he was told Swanson wanted him to do play-by-play for "Monday Night Football." Frank Gifford was handling that job at the time, but switched over to game analyst, working with Michaels for another 12 years.

Michaels said he asked Swanson years later why he had moved him to football.

"He was a huge college football fan," Michaels said. "He had been running a station in Chicago before he came to the network. He told me he had been watching a college game one day that was pretty routine and one-sided, and the network switched over to the Florida-Georgia game that I was doing. That was a great game, and I guess I had a pretty good day. I always tell people that if Florida-Georgia had been a lousy game, I might never have been on 'Monday Night Football.' "

Michaels and Gifford worked the booth together in 1986, then were joined by Dan Dierdorf for another 10 years. At ABC, Michaels also worked with former players Boomer Esiason and Dan Fouts and comedian Dennis Miller on the Monday night telecast before John Madden became the only other voice in the booth starting in 2002. Madden retired after the 2008 season, replaced by Collinsworth.

Michaels will always have a special place in his heart for Madden, arguably the greatest football analyst of all time. They hit it off immediately, and Michaels likes to say that by the time they reached the first commercial break in their very first broadcast in a preseason Hall of Fame Game from Canton, Ohio, it felt as if they had the chemistry of a team working together for five years. The transition to Collinsworth, he said, has been equally seamless, and the NBC game is averaging 22 million viewers a night, the most for a Sunday night NFL package in 14 years.

"Both of them share so many of the same traits," Michaels said. "They're just the best, the two of them. John was the gold standard. He changed the way it's done. Then Cris comes in and I feel like DiMaggio retired and I got Mickey Mantle. They obviously both knew a lot about football, but they are also great broadcasters. They know how to relate to the audience. I couldn't have gotten any luckier."

Both men have often said much the same about working with Al Michaels, himself the iron man of prime-time pro football and obviously one of the best there ever was, as well.

len.shapiro@washingtonpost.com


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