Chris Berman: ‘The Vin Scully of the NFL’
As he steps back from more than three decades as the face of the NFL on ESPN, players, peers and Berman himself reflect on a seminal broadcasting career
Chris Berman, who has been with ESPN since 1979, has agreed to dial back his workload for the network in 2017, at age 61. This is Berman’s 31st and last year as host of “Sunday NFL Countdown,” and also the end of his tenure on “NFL PrimeTime.” He’ll stay with ESPN to do some programs and will appear weekly on the network’s Monday Night Football broadcasts. His 31 years are more than double the tenure of any other studio host on NFL programming. The MMQB spoke to his colleagues in broadcasting, current and former players and other NFL figures—and Berman himself—about his career.
SAL PAOLANTONIO: The guy has spanned “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” and “Breaking Bad.” He’s had the same impact on the NFL as Steve Sabol had. He took the helmet off the players. The NFL owes an incredible debt to Chris Berman. Players owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Chris Berman. It’s not going to happen again, someone in the media with his impact. It’s once in a lifetime. It’s a moonshot.
BRANDON MARSHALL, Jets receiver: I don’t have to dig deep for this one. Every kid in America playing ball mimicked his, “He’s at the 30! The 20! The 10! … ” We all wanted to hear Chris Berman over the loudspeaker as we ran for a long touchdown.
PEYTON MANNING: My memories of Chris Berman? Growing up, it was more to do with baseball and his great nicknames. Bert “Be Home” Blyleven, Todd “We Are The” Worrell, Ozzie “Like A” Virgil, Jose “Can You See” Canseco. I used to always look forward to see which new nickname that you hadn’t heard before. One night: Tommy “Not Him But” Herr.
Then, obviously, if you played football, Chris Berman, along with Tom Jackson, had to be a part of your football life. You play the game and then you go home and watch “NFL PrimeTime” to see the highlights from the other games. He has been a part of my football life, and I know I speak for football players and baseball players … He has been a part of so many athletes’ sports lives, and I think we are all lucky for that. To me there will never be another one quite like him.
RANDY MOSS: People might not think this, but one thing I’ll never forget is watching his highlights and how much happiness he brought me. He brought a smile to my face, the way he did TV. He put a different spin on it, like no other.
STEVE YOUNG: Sports on TV is not calculus. It is authenticity. That’s what you got from Chris. The nicknames, the stories, the fun … Chris Berman is relentlessly himself. With Chris, there’s honest cheerleading. He loves football. He loves sports. People can treat that as Pollyanna stuff, but fine. Sports should be fun. That’s why people watch it.
BILL POLIAN: Boomer is in status, if not style, the Vin Scully of cable television and of the NFL.
CHRIS BERMAN: Did you know when I came to ESPN, I announced billiards? Minnesota Fats versus Willie Moscone. And while I was doing it, I was really interested. It’s sports! How can you not be interested?
I never could have dreamt of any of this. I was in the right place at the right time. Not only coming to ESPN—“We have this new show; we’d like you to be our Brent Musburger,” and I said okay, fine—but doing the NFL. That was great. I didn’t know the friendships, the relationships, I’d form when I signed up for the job. I am so much richer because of it. I hope some of that still comes through on the screen today.
STEVE YOUNG: I go the USFL, with the L.A. Express, in 1984. And one day they tell me, “Go do an interview with this guy.” So I go outside the L.A. Coliseum, and there’s this guy with a stick mike with funny letters on the mike. I had no idea who he was, what those letters were … E S P N … and I did what I was supposed to do.
And then, well, then … he had a pretty big role to play in what we all did for the next 25, 30 years.
MEL KIPER: So ESPN hires me to do the draft. In 1984, I go up to Bristol, Conn., and we’re going to do the first round, and I go to the ESPN building, and there’s one building there, not a campus like today, and who greets me at the door? Bob Ley. Chris Berman. So I’m nervous at the beginning, for maybe the first 10 seconds, then, you know, you’re just talking to Chris. Normal guy. I will never forget, compared to today, how crazy it was. We finish the first round, and I leave. I get in the car to go to Bradley International Airport in Hartford to fly home. End of the telecast. They’ve got some other programming on, and the NFL’s in the second round, but for us it’s over. It wasn’t quite as formal as today. I remember in one of the early years, Chris is eating a big tuna fish sandwich. He’s got his earpiece out, and we’re 10 seconds to air, out of the commercial. And I tell him we’re going back on the air. He spits the tuna out, he’s got mayonnaise on his cheek and he’s like, “Welcome back to the NFL Draft!“
BILL POLIAN: This may have been my first or second year in Buffalo [around 1987]. Boomer called, and I told him who the first draft choice would be on the condition that it was confidential. Naturally he kept it so. As we were about to pick, ESPN went to commercial. I told the person speaking to New York to hold the pick until they came back from commercial. [Owner] Mr. [Ralph] Wilson asked why, and I told him I would explain after we made the pick. Just as we were about to send it in, Boomer speculated on TV that the guy I told him would be in fact the guy we were going to pick. Mr. Wilson looked at me and winked.
That started a tradition that existed all the years I was in Buffalo and right on through my time at Carolina and Indianapolis. During the Indianapolis years we were always drafting low. I would give Boom the order of priority, and he would somehow divine our choice. Swami indeed. In a larger sense it speaks to Chris's professionalism and integrity. I never for a moment doubted that anyone but he and I would know who the pick was going to be.
STEPHEN JONES: I started watching him in college. A giant in our game. A real game-changer.
RICH EISEN: I was a fan who became a colleague. He was the first one who started making the pop culture references while doing sports. I would see him doing the football highlights after the Sunday games, must-see TV for me when I was in college, and I would see others on the show, like Robin Roberts and Bill Pidto, maybe doing a few of the games. And I would think, “That’s what I want to do—I want to be on that show and do those highlights. As a football fan, you have to watch that.
The draft was big too. I really remember the draft. It’s 1989. I’m at my frat house at the University of Michigan watching the draft, and my team was the Jets, and when the Jets drafted Jeff Lageman, I was getting all kinds of grief for that pick.
But the lesson from him was, You can have fun doing TV. I get out of college, and I’m working in Redding, Calif., and I will never forget the rodeo coming to town. So I go over there and I interviewed a bull. That was kind of my homage to Chris. And when I do my résumé tape to send to ESPN, you can bet that interview with the bull was on that tape.
MIKE ZIMMER: I started watching him when ESPN came on the air. I loved, “HE … COULD … GO … ALL … THE … WAY!”
MIKE TIRICO: Summer of 1986, between my sophomore and junior years at Syracuse, sharing an apartment with Todd Kalas( son of Harry, new TV voice of the Astros) and Paul Peck (over 25 years in TV and radio in Buffalo) and Charlie Pallilo (over 25 years in Houston radio). We were all chasing the dream and enjoying summer, and SportsCenter was always on at our place. We left a legal pad near the couch and collected as many Berman nicknames as possible. After about six months we sent the list to ESPN PR hoping that it would be our little bit of notoriety that we could parlay into something down the line. Apparently we weren’t alone. Years later ESPN came out with a list of all the Berman nicknames.
MATT MILLEN: The AFL had Al DeRogatis. “Monday Night Football” had Howard Cosell. Chris Berman is that guy for our time.
BRUCE ARIANS: So different. As unique as Cosell but in a humorous way. “Rumblin’ bumblin’ stumblin’ fumblin’!” That’s my favorite. And WOOOOOP!
RICH EISEN: We all have a place. We all have a role. Not all of us have the incredible brain and cleverness of Keith Olbermann. Not all of us have the dry wit and quickness of Dan Patrick. Not all of us have the off-kilter filter of Craig Kilborn. Chris had some of that. He also had the common-man quality that touched every viewer. Still now, there’s this pinch-me quality to him, like he’s still the kid in the candy store.
CHRIS BERMAN: I think it’s kind of cool when I’m getting gas in town, and some guy looks over at me and says, “Hey, Chris Berman! I like the way you say ‘RAY-dizzzzzz.’”
SCOTT BERCHTOLD, longtime Bills PR man: Years ago, a couple of days before a home Monday night game, I was in a local hardware store, and they were promoting a line of paint with a near-life-size cardboard display of Chris holding a can of the product. After the store manager was nice enough to give me the display, I presented it to Chris on game day with a Bills media guide taped over the paint can. We shared a few laughs about it before he was scheduled to do a live report from the field before kickoff. It was classic Chris Berman. He started his segment with, “I’m live from Orchard Park and I’m so excited to be here—I’m beside myself!” The camera panned out of the single shot to show the cardboard display standing next to Boomer, and the fans went crazy.
The man is loved wherever he goes, but Bills fans have enjoyed a special bond with Chris for many, many years. He’s family in Western New York.
CHRIS MORTENSEN: What I believe may surprise his fans and his critics is that Boomer just about outworks everybody who people would consider his competition. So if you hear that he gets occasionally irritated in the studio about a glitch, it's because he cares. The great ones demand much of themselves and others.
I count myself among that circle of friends, which is a joy in my life. He has granted me the license to have some fun with his idiosyncrasies. On that front, I think I rank up there with his daughter Meredith as somebody who freely pokes the bear. He likes to call me “Jackass” or “Jackass The Sequel” or “Jackass The Box Set” whenever I exercise that license. Unfortunately, my wife, Micki, heard about those monikers, and occasionally I become “Jackass The Husband.”
TOM BRADY: As far back as I can remember, I was watching Chris count down the plays of the week. I loved everything about it: his nicknames, his unique slogans, inflections, etc. He brought so much entertainment to sports.
HINES WARD: “When he first called my name on a highlight, I felt like, ‘I’ve arrived in the NFL.’ I wish he’d given me a nickname.”
JAY FEELY: Jay ‘Feel Me Touch Me’ Feely. He said it my rookie year in the NFL, and my wife and I were watching the highlights. I felt like that signified I had made it."
Berman gave out some others. I asked folks—some famous, some not—for their favorites. They were not shy.
John “I Am Not A” Kruk
—veteran NFL linebacker A.J. Hawk
Joaquin “The Dog” Andujar
—Retired NFL center Matt Birk
Jose “Can You See” Oquendo
—Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells
Peyton “You The” Manning
Ryan “Beyond Be” Leaf
—ESPN Draft partner Mel Kiper
Darryl Strawberry “Shortcake”
—Buffalo guard Richie Incognito
Jim “Two Silhouettes On” Deshaies
—NBC’s Mike Tirico
Oddibe “Young Again” McDowell
—Longtime baseball scribe Jon Heyman
Eric “Sleeping With” Bienemy
—Kansas City coach Andy Reid
—Hall of Fame GM Bill Polian
Chris “One Bad” Ma’afala
—NFL Network’s Mike Mayock
Carlos “One If By Land, Two If By Sea, Three If” Baerga
—Former minor-league pitcher Steve Palazzolo, now with Pro Football Focus
Greg Gagne “With A Spoon”
—Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times
Bernard “Innocent Till Proven” Gilkey
—Joe Ribelli (from Twitter)
“Hey Hey You You Get Offa” Mike Cloud
—Phil Falardeau (from Twitter)
Vincent “Ultimate” Brisby
—J.C. (from Twitter)
Mike “You’re In Good Hands With” Alstott
—A thousand people
Kirt “What Was That” Manwehring
—Joel Moehler (from Twitter)
Jake “Daylight Come and You Gotta” Delhomme
—Tyler Loechner (from Twitter)
Rick “No Time To Wallow In The” Mirer
—Benjamin Feinberg (from Twitter)
John “Tonight Let It Be” Lowenstein
—ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio
Joe “Actual Retail” Price
—NFL Network host Rich Eisen
Rich “Bette Davis” Eisen
Kevin Greene “Acres”
—Hall of Fame linebacker Kevin Greene
CHRIS MORTENSEN: He captured me as a viewer during the early years of NFL PrimeTime. He is the best highlights broadcaster ever. I always marveled at his energy, his brilliance and, yes, his occasional predictability when doing those highlights. PrimeTime was must-see viewing, and I do believe it was a significant loss for NFL viewers and ESPN when we lost PrimeTime immediately after the Sunday games. That's no knock on anybody else. It’s just that Boomer is that great, and, yes, Berman together with Tom Jackson was television magic that we’ll never experience again. Once I joined ESPN 26 years ago, I got a true insider's view of Chris. Nobody I know blends his passion, energy, his spontaneous descriptive language, his underrated knowledge of the game, his preparation and his ability to connect the past to the present. He was a history major at Brown, and he also is an NFL historian.
CHRIS BERMAN: I interviewed Bill Belichick for 30 minutes on Wednesday. We’ll have it on the air [this] weekend. But I didn’t want to just ask him the regular stuff. I wanted to know how the game’s changed in the 30 years since he coached LT with the Giants in 1986 in that Super Bowl season. That’s the stuff that interests me.
When we were consumers and fans at 30, we had to search out stuff on Johnny Unitas, or Sammy Baugh. It wasn’t all there at our fingertips, so we sought it out. We had to work for it. Our generation’s overall knowledge of football history is— … We’re in a way the Last of the Mohicans. The generation after us, they’re interested, but there’s so much available on today’s games—more than ever—that they don’t really care very much unless we show them. I feel it’s my duty, not to teach—I am not a professor of football, but I am a lover of it, so I feel my duty is to point out stuff from yesterday. If we do it in an interesting way they will embrace it. I’m not trying to do it at a blackboard with a pointer, you know, but as I sit here today [last Friday], tonight is the 35-year anniversary to the week of The Catch. So why shouldn’t I take two minutes to show Joe [Montana] and Dwight [Clark] and the bellwether game of my life? I’m writing it right now, figuring a way to spend enough time on the games of this weekend, but still having two minutes for this great game. I like holding the torch for the game. Because I love the game. I am honored to do it.
SAL PAOLANTONIO (on Saturday morning): I’m in O’Hare right now. On my way up to Green Bay for the Giants-Packers game. I’m starting my 22nd year as a field reporter for ESPN, and I believe I’m the longest-running field reporter at ESPN. Chris Berman has done more for my career than anybody. I came out of the Philadelphia Inquirer as a city hall reporter. I’m thrown on TV. I don’t know what I’m doing. Right away I learned from him, because he had an uncanny ability to know what people would remember from a game, from a story. I covered Eagles-Bucs in Philadelphia, and one of the stories that day was Ricky Watters short-arming a pass over the middle. That’s not going to be tolerated in Philadelphia. Not at all. After the game Ricky says, “Why am I going over the middle? For who? For what?” I called Chris and told him, and he told me, “That’s it. That’s the story.”
He was the first one who encouraged me to use the local paper as a prop. To hold up the paper, so people could see the headline in that city.
But he also was about having fun. He’d say, “Hey Sal, it’s football. Okay?”
STEVE YOUNG: When you’re on TV at a place like ESPN, it’s pretty big. When I first got there, I’d be taking everything I said very seriously, and when you do that, sometimes it’s hard to really be yourself. So Chris would say to me, “Steve, don’t worry about it. It’s on its way to Pluto.”
RANDY MOSS: Now that I work with him, I get to see why’s he good. How he does his work, how he directs traffic, is eye-opening. I think I speak for everyone on this set when I say we cherish every moment of every show because we know it’s not going to last. No one will know how good he is till he’s gone.
I played with the Patriots and got to play with Tom Brady, which was of course so special. We created some magic. It’s amazing Brady’s still playing. Reflecting on Boomer, he’s in the same category as Tom.
CHRIS BERMAN: We’re all disappointed in criticism, especially when it’s inaccurate. Part of what I have had to think when it comes is, I’m the quarterback here, and I have been that for a long time. I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain in my 38 years here. Just like in football: The quarterback gets a lot more credit than he deserves when he wins, and a lot more criticism than he deserves when he loses. A long time ago I realized I’m the quarterback of our team, and maybe of this company. There’s a lot more good than bad. I’m good with it, because when I go somewhere, people are so genuine. I am still touched every day.
If in some way NFL PrimeTime and NFL Countdown have made people fans of football, then we have done our job.
Why am I friends to this day with the rank and file of the Niners of the ’80s and Bills of the ’80s and ’90s? I don’t know if it can happen anymore. I was welcomed in. Could that still happen today? Ted Williams and Curt Gowdy went fishing together. Could that still happen today? Highly unlikely. That’s too bad. That is too bad for football.
The media onslaught—media must be times 10 what it was when I started … It seems so immediate and so personal. We get taught to think before we speak. Now—I suppose I am a little disappointed. There is so much positive out there.
RICHIE INCOGNITO: He’s one of the few people I’ve ever met that made me star-struck. I met him a few years ago at Jim Kelly’s charity event. He rattled off my career bio. I was blown away. My favorite Boomer nicknames all come from baseball. Baseball was my first love, and I thought I would be playing first base for the Yankees when I grew up. Mike “Pepperoni” Piazza. Moises “Skip to My Lou” Alou.
RICH DALRYMPLE, veteran Cowboys PR man: We had him emcee the early morning event on the day Texas Stadium was blown up. Who else were you going to get who could show up at 5:00 a.m., full of enthusiasm, tell a few jokes, interview Jerry Jones, and then provide play-by-play for a Texas institution being brought to the ground.
Very versatile guy. “Home Run Derby.” “Gameday.” “Countdown.” Stadium implosions.
A.J. HAWK: I began watching him when I was probably six of seven years old. I always love hearing the “Fastest Two Minutes in Football.” When you hear the theme music playing, you would get excited to hear all of his nicknames and different ways to describe the action.
MATT BIRK: January 2001. I’m playing in my first Pro Bowl, wide-eyed and star-struck. I come off the field after a series and he’s walking over to me. He sticks out his hand and says “I’m Chris Berman. I went to Brown, class of (whatever).” Obviously I knew who he was. I was excited and caught up in the moment, and I say “No s---. I went to Harvard.” He didn’t try to act big-time. He is a real guy. Very humble.
CHRIS BERMAN: I won’t be every week, Sunday-Monday, like I have been for 31 years; ’86, ’87 is when PrimeTime started. So what football will I be doing? I will do the Super Bowl show at the end of the game, from the stadium. I will do Conference Championship PrimeTime. I will be doing a TBA piece for the Monday night games. Historical, but I don’t know exactly what. I still will do special things, special interviews. The [Pro Football] Hall of Fame asks me to emcee the Hall inductions. I will not do the draft. I won’t do Home Run Derby. I will call the division round of baseball on radio with Rick Sutcliffe. It keeps me in the postseason.
I always looked at life this way: age 1 to 20, school. Age 20 to 60, work. Age 60 to 80, what I want to do. I’m 61. Is my enthusiasm at 61 the same as in my 20s? I would like to think yes. I can tell you, it’s not manufactured. I think that’s helped me. Now, when I go a high school game on a Friday night, and I will, I’ll care who won and who lost, and why. That to me, is not an act. I’m fortunate.
The beauty of it is, I’m not done. I’m not ready to unplug the toaster.
ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE 2017 SEASON
CHRIS BERMAN: It’ll be bizarre. Like: Did you remember to put both socks on today? It’ll be an out-of-body experience. Next fall I may smile and say I enjoyed watching from afar. It’s hard to say.
But about a month agoI got an interesting opportunity. A doctor friend said to me, “We’re taking a trip, seven of us, we’re gonna play golf in Northern Ireland in September. Would you come with us?” And I think, wow, I have worked 40 Septembers in a row. Can you give me time to answer that? I thought about it a lot. So I saw him on Christmas, I said I’m in.
I said, “When are we leaving?”
He said, “We’re leaving September 9th.’’
I thought, “Wow. Opening weekend of the NFL season. I’ll miss it. I won’t know a thing.”
He said, “You’ll know the soccer scores.”
So this is one of those things—a week or 10 days of golf in Northern Ireland!—that, between 60 and 80, I never counted on. It’s so cool. And when I come back, some teams will be 2-0. Some teams will be 0-2. I’ll catch up. Life goes on.
TOM BRADY: After many years of being his fan, it is tough to see him go. There will never be anybody like him ever again.
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