Summerall: My Life On and Off the Air
By Chris Carpenter
CBN.com Program Director
CBN.com Sadly, the following scene is more common than many people would care to admit. A group of family and friends gather to inform a loved one that he or she has a drinking problem and must get help. The tension is palpable, the outlook grim, as one by one each person shares how alcohol is ruining their loved one’s life. The tears are flowing freely as the alcoholic denies there is a problem. With persistence there is eventually a breakthrough.
Sound familiar? For legendary sportscaster Pat Summerall it was sobering in more ways than one.
So begins the opening chapter of Summerall’s new autobiography “Summerall: My Life On and Off the Air” (Thomas Nelson). Written in a straightforward, conversational style, Summerall shares his remarkable journey of humble beginnings in rural Florida, his college football days at the University of Arkansas, and his 50 years in the NFL as a player and broadcaster. But more importantly it chronicles his terrible battle with alcoholism.
It is his fight to overcome demons with drink that make Pat Summerall a remarkable story of redemption through God’s grace.
“The intervention really opened my eyes about what life is all about, who was accountable and who wasn’t,” recounts Summerall, in a recent interview with CBN.com. “Where the advice or the message or wherever the consideration, the choices that I made, who told me what was right and who told me what was wrong; I finally discovered that there was a higher power.”
At its best, “On and Off the Air” weaves in and out of the various stages of Summerall’s life with a collection of witty, sometimes side splitting stories of life in the NFL as both a player and broadcaster. But what readers will remember are the darker moments of his life, the ones he could control and the ones he couldn’t.
As a youth the odds were stacked against Summerall. His parents separated before he was born. Due to the volatility of their relationship, Summerall was raised by an aunt who considered placing him in an orphanage at one point. Further complicating matters, he was born with a club foot. Doctors surgically repaired it, a radical procedure by 1930’s standards.
Summerall remembers, “They told my family that I would never be able to run and play, maybe I could walk, just maybe.”
The surgery was successful. With his foot recovering nicely, Summerall fell in love with sports. It was not uncommon to him find him wherever there was a bouncing ball. This love for athletics coupled with some valuable life lessons from his grandmother provided an interesting precursor to a later collision between football and his long dormant faith.
“I basically learned the difference between right and wrong from her,” explains Summerall. “She had such a sense of what we would call ethics today. She was such a good person and she was very religious. I didn’t get that part of it (religion) until later on. But she was just a warm, loyal, loving, intelligent human being. And a lot of that rubbed off, I think.”
Despite his grandmother’s wisdom, Summerall eventually found himself immersed in the pressure packed, sometimes rowdy lifestyle of professional football. First, a decade spent playing for the Detroit Lions, Chicago (now Arizona) Cardinals, and New York Giants, then a incredibly successful broadcasting career, one that would earn him legend status in that vocation.
Along the way, Summerall found himself spending more and more time drinking to help combat the pressures of his highly visible broadcasting profession. Years of alcohol abuse eventually landed him in the Betty Ford Clinic, an event that turned out to be a blessing in more ways than one.
“When I was at the Betty Ford Clinic there were two books you could read,” remembers Summerall. “One was the Holy Bible and the other was Alcoholic Anonymous Bible – every chapter is about a drunk in the AA Bible. So, I started reading the Holy Bible, started in Genesis. The more I read, the more inquisitive I got, the more I wanted to know about the Bible and what it was all about. It gave my conscious information about making the right choice. And when I got out I never had a craving. I have never had another desire to have another drink.”
Pat Summerall’s life is a prime example of it never being too late to change. That is the single most compelling outcome of “On and Off the Air”. Sure, there are plenty of zany sports-laced anecdotes to fill up a few evenings of reading but it is Summerall’s no-nonsense rhetoric detailing his alcohol abuse and subsequent conversion to Christ that make the book well worth the read. I highly recommend it.
Life was changing for Pat Summerall. He still had a lot of unanswered question but felt he was headed in the right direction. Eventually, through the aid of his wife’s pastor, Summerall found Christ and requested to be baptized at the age of 64.
“It was such a magnificent feeling,” smiles Summerall. “After the baptism I felt so clean I knew what people were talking about when they talk about being born again. I had that feeling. I had a feeling of peace. I felt smarter, lighter, quicker; it was a feeling like I’ve never had before.”
In recent years Summerall has battled not with drinking but with a near death experience instead. Heavy alcohol abuse over the years had damaged his liver beyond repair. Complicating matters, due to his age and public notoriety, medical officials feared it would be difficult to find him a suitable donor for a transplant. That donor came with just 18 hours to spare.
“Eighteen hours they told me I had,” says Summerall, shaking his head in disbelief. “But now I have a new life. That’s why I decided to write the book.”
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