After the Broncos jumped out to a 10-0 lead over the Redskins in Super Bowl XXII on Jan. 31, 1988, Al Michaels figured his first Super Bowl play-by-play assignment would be another championship rout. The previous 21 Super Bowls were decided by an average of 15 points, and the closest margin of victory over the previous four years was 19. Michaels was right, but not before a record-setting offensive outburst completely changed the story of the evening in San Diego.
“This has the makings of the Super Bowl we’ve been waiting 22 years for,” Michaels declared after the Redskins took a 21-10 on Timmy Smith’s 58-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Washington quarterback Doug Williams threw two more touchdown passes before halftime, and like that, an apparent Broncos blowout-turned compelling contest had transformed one last time into a prolonged Redskins coronation.
“In a blink,” Michaels said in a phone interview this week. “In a blink.”
Thirty years later, Michaels is preparing to announce his 10th Super Bowl on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis for NBC. Only the late Pat Summerall called more. For Michaels, the week leading up to his Super Bowl play-by-play debut proved to be more exciting than the game itself. Two days before the showdown between John Elway and Williams, Michaels’s broadcast partners, Dan Dierdorf and Frank Gifford, got stuck in an elevator at the San Diego Marriott.
“There were no cellphones in 1988, so there was no way to contact anybody,” said Michaels, who was waiting for Dierdorf and Gifford in the lobby ahead of a meeting with Broncos Coach Dan Reeves. “Word doesn’t filter down that there’s an elevator that was stuck, so I had no idea what was going on. Those guys were in there for close to an hour. Thank God it wasn’t John Madden in there. John would never get in another elevator and he’d have passed out for sure.”
Michaels remembers then-Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard telling him before the game that Smith, a rookie running back who rushed for only 126 yards during the regular season, would be an NFL star. Smith erupted for a Super Bowl-record 204 yards rushing and two touchdowns before fading into obscurity. Michaels also recalls thinking Williams might be seriously injured after he slipped and landed awkwardly in the first quarter, which forced Jay Schroeder, the quarterback Williams had replaced in the regular season finale, to enter the game for one play.
“Then Williams comes back and the rest is history,” Michaels said. “Four touchdown passes, a rushing TD, 35-10 at the half. The second half was not memorable in any way. Every year the Super Bowl was one-sided and we caught another one. In a game like that, that’s where you can go deep into the saddlebag and just pull out everything you’ve got, because you’re going to need it.”
Michaels’s saddlebag for the second half of Washington’s eventual 42-10 win included the story of how the Redskins almost traded Williams, who was announced as the game’s MVP at the two-minute warning, to the Los Angeles Raiders before the start of the season. Michaels would call a considerably more exciting Super Bowl three years later, the Giants’ 20-19 win over the Bills that ended with Scott Norwood’s field goal attempt sailing wide right as time expired. In fact, Michaels has called more Super Bowl thrillers than duds over the years.
“I’ve done five that went down to the last minute of the game, I’ve done three complete routs, including both times I was in San Diego, and then the one in the middle is a weird one — the Pittsburgh-Seattle game in ’06.”
That game, which ended in a 21-10 Steelers victory, featured a Super Bowl-record 75-yard touchdown run by Willie Parker, a touchdown pass by wide receiver Antwaan Randle El and Ben Roethlisberger winning his first title despite a 22.6 passer rating. Michaels ranks the Steelers’ 27-23 win over the Cardinals in 2009, which turned out to be Madden’s last game, and the Patriots’ 28-24 win over the Seahawks in 2015, as the two best Super Bowls he’s called. Fully aware of how fortunate he’s been, Michaels began composing a sympathetic email in his head to Fox’s Joe Buck and Troy Aikman after watching the Falcons build a 28-3 third-quarter lead over the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh man, these poor guys who had [Seattle’s 43-8 win over Denver] in New York three years earlier, now they get this game,” Michaels said. “The only thing I ever wanted was to do the first-ever overtime Super Bowl. Now I’d like to do the longest game in the history of football, so you go into like triple overtime. That would be kind of cool.”
Before welcoming millions of viewers inside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis next Sunday, Michaels expects to feel some of what he felt before his first Super Bowl in the booth in 1988.
“It’s a pretty exhilarating feeling and there’s a little bit of nervousness, anxiety,” said Michaels, who will call the game with analyst Cris Collinsworth and sideline reporter Michele Tafoya. “There still is. That really hasn’t changed in 30 years. I liken it to what a lot of the players say: Once the game starts, you’re doing what you do. You open the telecast and the three of us do the scene set and they kick off and the third or fourth play in, you’ve been there before. You know where you are and you understand the magnitude and the enormity of how it is different than a regular season game, but it’s, hey, here we are, we’ve done a lot of these. Every Sunday night game we treat like a mini-Super Bowl.”
Michaels and Collinsworth have called games together on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” since 2009. Tafoya joined the team in 2011. The program was the most-watched show in prime time for the seventh consecutive year in 2017 and Michaels, 73, intends to keep that streak going.
“I’m absolutely planning to be back next year,” Michaels said. “Contractually I’m good to go. I have one of the greatest jobs ever invented. I love it and I’m passionate about it. I still get very excited walking into a stadium. I love the feel and the atmosphere, have since I was a kid. … I know every crew says they have the best people, but I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve been with just about everybody, we’ve got the best people.”
Michaels said he draws inspiration from his friend and mentor Vin Scully, who retired after 67 years as the Dodgers’ play-by-play man at age 88 in 2016.
“No one’s heard more Vin Scully games than I have through the years,” said Michaels, who listened to Scully call Brooklyn Dodgers games as a kid. “I heard him when he was 28, I heard him when he was 48, I heard him when he was 88. He was every bit as good at 88 as he was at any point in his career. The bottom line is I feel good and I love what I do, so if I can keep doing it the way I want to do it, I’m here for a while, I hope.”
This story has been updated.
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