Speak, Sega: (Mis)Remembering Pat Summerall

Remembering something only vaguely related to Pat Summerall.
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Here is a non-controversial statement: for me, the voice of NFL football will always be that of Pat Summerall. Not just for his reverence for and knowledge of the game or that magisterial baritone, although there's that. Not just because my youth and adolescence coincided with his position at the top of the NFL broadcast heap, although I can't deny the prejudice one's formative years exert in this regard.

Summerall had both those advantages, but he was also lucky to preside over the final years of great NFL sure things. While the game hadn't yet reached its apex of ratings and profitability when Summerall (for the most part) retired in 2002, it had by then started to say goodbye to the era of certainty, when a good game on paper reliably tended to become a good game after the kickoff.

By the 2000s, the success of the league's will to parity—a roulette wheel of universally accessible mediocrity on any given weekend—resulted in big-name showdowns that had every chance of being meaningless, lopsided dogshit or a sports story derailed with a single injury. Executives could try to put John Madden and Pat Summerall on a game that should be important, yet have the best game of the weekend called by Kenny Albert and some recently retired meat-mannequin who prefaced his every utterance by saying "I'll tell you what." Summerall started walking away from the game at the same time that—without flex scheduling—it became impossible to pair the most important voices with the most important contests.

This would suggest that my most significant memories of Pat Summerall are tied to actual football games—which they are not. Nor, in fact, are these memories even accurate. The most indelible mark Pat Summerall made on my brain was with his play-by-play commentary for the Sega Genesis game Joe Montana II: Sports Talk Football—a game on which Summerall did not in fact work and with which he was in fact completely unaffiliated. The man who did that play-by-play—as Twitter user @KevSaidBoogaloo pointed out to me on the day Summerall died—was San Francisco Giants and San Francisco 49ers announcer Lon Simmons.

In my defense, I will note that it has been a full 20 years since I last played Joe Montana II: Sports Talk Football, which has allowed me to slowly conflate the two men's voices. Summerall sounded like a clearer-throated, sunnier Simmons; Simmons sounds like Summerall after a night of smoking in a cocktail lounge. (Note: That comment has nothing to do with Summerall's long struggle with alcoholism and everything to do with Simmons' voice sounding thicker and sleepier.) On the other hand, as witness for the prosecution, I should note that I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and probably heard Lon Simmons over 500 times before reaching puberty. I really have no excuse.

And yet, when I think of Summerall, I think of that football game for the Genesis, because it was awesome, and because it, too, belonged to a time that's now lost.

***

A few things: Joe Montana II: Sports Talk Football wasn't awesome intentionally, nor was it unintentionally awesome via some happy clusterfuck of accidents. It was a football game like any other of its era, which is to say, neither particularly good at simulating football nor likely to make you unhappy to play it. So far as I can tell, there was nothing about its quarterback gameplay that made it uniquely Joe Montana-esque; at the same time, its features were not quite anathematic to the Montana legend, arm or ability. I just happened to love playing it, love the way that balls doinked off receivers, the way runners occasionally seemed to back into a virtual wall—like ineffectively attempting to turn 180º on a tricycle—while everyone else glided as if on an unreal, glass-like surface.

Moreover, I have always been mostly terrible at video games, ever since designers decided that they required more than two buttons, one directional pad and goals understandable even to Benjy Compson from The Sound and the Fury. To my eternal shame, it was not me but my dad who worked out which warp pipes to go down on the last level of Super Mario Brothers; there's some backstory to this, hinging on me being eight years old and the Nintendo living at his house, which I visited only on weekends, but it doesn't matter.

Despite their riddle-free structure, I am somehow even worse at sports games. I cannot, for instance, play any version of the Madden franchise of games without being humiliated by the CPU, unless I drop the artificial intelligence to the sort of level we associate with a person who has a clawhammer buried in his frontal lobe. I once played a late-1990s version of Madden with a college graduate who has since gone on to a successful career as an editor for a global wire service, and neither he nor I could defeat the Arizona Cardinals unless we selected the 1988 Super Bowl Champion 49ers and ran Roger Craig up the gut on every down because at least a draw play was unfuckupable.

Thus my sympathies for a title like JM2:STF. It was complex enough to allow you to do multiple things after the snap but not so specialized that you couldn't just click one or two buttons and remain an effective part of the play. The three-button format of the Sega Genesis meant that on defense you could run fast, dive for a tackle or switch to the player closest to the ball. On offense, if I remember correctly, you snapped the ball and handed it off, or the three buttons gave you three choices of where to throw. Compare that to the buttons and options available to the current Madden series:

  • Audible
  • Hot Read
  • Deke
  • Spin
  • Chaff
  • Nitro
  • Respawn
  • Bort
  • Switch Player
  • Hashtag
  • Fourthmeal

For whatever else JM2:STF did or did not do as a video game, it succeeded in being something that almost anyone could play right out of the box, with the ability to work up to a "NORMAL" level of CPU difficulty on day one.

Of particular pleasure, if you were either lazy or a sadist, was the defensive options on the EASY setting. The game showed you exactly the play that the computer offense had decided to run, which allowed you to tailor your defense for maximum cruelty. After only a few games, I determined that cornerback blitzes against a power sweep enabled you to approach the running back at the same precise angle at which he was trying to turn upfield. Combined with a correctly timed dive/tackle, this let you to hit the poor fucker so hard that he coughed up the football at least two thirds of the time.

Things were easier on offense, with the "Halfback Pass" option a virtually guaranteed touchdown on every play. Simmons' disjointed, recorded-out-of-sequence voice made every one of these sound like they'd lurched out of the huddle and been set in motion with all the fluidity of a cerebrovascular accident. "Pitch OUT... to the... back," Simmons said, as you ran around in circles behind the line of scrimmage, waiting on your wide receiver to get 40 yards downfield.

The real platinum offensive play was the fake punt. (Although the fake field goal was also excellent. This video illustrates the many similarities between the two.) Running it on first down prompted not-Summerall to exclaim, "The kicking team comes on. It's first down! I can't believe it!" which, to those familiar with the game, sounded like beautiful music.

The optimal use of the fake punt came during cooperative two-player games, with you and a friend taking on the computer. Your buddy needed to select the upback, while you snapped the ball to yourself. Assuming, for instance, that you were moving from right to left on the dial, instead of throwing or rushing for the line of scrimmage, you immediately dropped back at about 45º, heading for the corner of the goal line on your right sideline. However, as you neared it, you turned toward the left sideline, running down parallel to the goal line. Once you got close to the bottom-left corner of the goal line, you turned upfield in an all-out sprint. From there, it was an easy 99 yards for a touchdown.

Only a fucking clown would score, though.

No, if you really knew what you were doing, you immediately wheeled 90º rightward toward the right sideline as you neared the opponent's goal line, then wheeled 90º again to go back from where you came, sprinting all-out as if to score a safety. In this way, you could go clockwise around the field until the game clock ran out on the (accelerated) five-minute quarter and reluctantly score once time had expired, resulting in a game you won 28-0, with your opponent running no more than 12 downs per game, while you ran no more than four.

Only a fucking clown did that for those reasons, though.

No, the real pleasures of the fake punt and the cooperative gameplay were these:

1. With the computer totally baffled as to what you were doing, the game automatically started triggering Not Pat Summerall's calls seemingly at random. While, "He gets away!" and "Better hurry!" and "He's in trouble!" all made sense within the context of your regularly re-approaching the line of scrimmage and both end zones while a snake of 11 opponents fruitlessly pursued you, the computer eventually went nuts. The crowd noise would die. The half-ending gunshot noise randomly rang out. Sometimes, beautifully, Simmons said, "Pitch OUT... to the back," despite no such thing occurring.

2. The thwarted computer, perhaps as a sick act of vengeance, sometimes sent your own teammates out to pursue and tackle you, which could lead to your evading 11 opponents and as many as five of your comrades, in some kind of multicolored football-like Chinese New Years tackle dragon.

3. The ultimate reason for doing this, the most satisfying: While you did clockwise 100-yard doughnuts around the stadium, your friend operating the upback did counter-clockwise doughnuts to intercept your would-be attackers. A simple decision like, "I go high, you go low," could see you break up toward the sideline at the last minute as your friend's player's body went hurtling through the air at the place you used to be, tackling the lead pursuer and knocking 11 people down at once. This was insanely fun. People as bowling pins. Grunting. Mass pain. Laughter. I do not care what you think.

And so this is how I remember Pat Summerall, even though it wasn't Pat Summerall at all who bore helpless, blurting, apparently good-natured electronic witness to them. I don't know when Lon Simmons morphed into Pat in my mind, but it happened so long ago that I am now ineluctably nostalgic for a sweet falsehood. I do not care. Remembering Summerall this way will certainly do nothing to bring him back, but I don't see how anything anyone else did would accomplish that either. So I'll choose to luxuriate in my willful mistake, in that bygone time's happy anarchy. Thank you, Pat Summerall. Thank you, Joe Montana II: Sports Talk Football. Thanks for the memories, right or wrong.


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