Last November I'd written a piece on CBS' old announcing team of Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier. The story already had been finished for a week when the phone rang, and it was Brookshier calling back because he had forgotten to mention a cute little incident from 1980. Their Thanksgiving broadcast — Bears at Lions.
"The last flight out of Detroit was around 4 in the afternoon," he told me, "and if you don't make that one you gotta wait until the next day to leave.
"It looked like the Lions were going to win, then the Bears scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to tie it, but all we're thinking about is getting home. We started packing up our stuff. It goes into overtime, and a guy from the Bears takes the kickoff all the way back. By the time he crossed the goal line, Pat and I were already getting in a limo outside. No way were we going to miss that plane. They guys in the booth covered for us … saying there was a little bit of 'technical difficulty' in our lines."
That was typical Brookshier, the yarn spinner. That was the way he handled business in the CBS booth, too, calling football games. Summerall would feed you the down and distance and the technicalities, the play-by-play maestro, and Brookie would fill in with the juicy stuff, the campfire tales, the cream filling. He was like a good bartender, the guy who'd keep you hanging around on a slow night. I wish more broadcasters worked that way.
Brookshier the player was a Colorado defensive back, an electric hitter and tackler, and he defended for the Eagles a bunch of seasons, winning a ring on their tough 1960 club as a first-team All-Pro.
Then in '61 he was zeroing in on a Chicago Bears sweep when a pair of blockers scissored him and snapped his right shinbone to pieces. Waiting for an ambulance in the Wrigley Field mud, he held up a cigarette; three years later he was holding a CBS microphone.
"I learned as I went along," Brookshier said. "The play-by-play announcers would let you do your own thing. They'd lead you at times, throw things at you like, 'Tom, what do you think Theismann was doing on that play?' Most of us color analysts are generally outspoken by nature, so the reply would be something like, He just threw his helmet. He's mad because he had a receiver wide open and he missed him. For a quarterback, that's about the biggest sin there is.
"The biggest fear I had was overhyping the situation. You know, a two-yard gain is a two-yard gain. Sometimes it's a good defensive play and sometimes it's just a lousy offensive play."
CBS was loaded with greats in those years, voices blessed by God, and so Brookie was paired up with names like Lindsey Nelson and Jack Buck and Ray Scott. In 1972, he made an uncomfortable name for himself, nationally, when he tried to interview a troubled Duane Thomas after Dallas had put away Miami in Super Bowl VI. Thomas had earned the nickname "The Sphinx" for his mysterious, tight-lipped behavior, and the night before the game The Sphinx came up during a late CBS production meeting.
"I knew this situation — interviewing Duane — was going to potentially be a problem for us if Dallas won the game," Brookshier remembered. "So I wanted to clear the issue with our whole crew, to make sure everybody was on the same page. I asked [CBS president] Bob Wood, 'What if Duane Thomas wants to talk tomorrow? What do I let him say?'
"Thomas hadn't spoken to the press for the previous six or seven weeks. Everybody else in the room thought it was a ridiculous question, but Wood paused for a minute and said, 'If he wants to speak, let him say anything he wants. We'll deal with it.' Thank God I'd cleared that up the night before. I wasn't counting on Thomas to spill his guts to us, but we would at least be ready if he did talk."
Well, Thomas agreed to talk, but when he stepped in front of the cameras, he clammed back up and the whole jerkiness of it threw Brookshier for a loop.
"During the interview, the first thing that flashed threw my mind was the play where Thomas had made a linebacker miss him at the goal line," Brookshier said. "I gave him one of those questions about his speed, and he gave me that infamous "Evidently" response. I said to myself, Oh … my … God. Is he going to stand here and give me one-word answers all day? Jim Brown, who somehow became Thomas' advisor of sorts, saw I was starting to sweat, so he tried to break the ice a little bit.
"He said, 'Are you nervous, Brook?' Well, yeah I am! I'm on national television trying to come up with questions for this guy, but I know he's not going to give me any kind of real answer no matter what I ask!"
My favorite Brookshier tale came out of another Super Bowl, No. 4, Vikings and Chiefs. They played that game in New Orleans, and one night Brookshier and a chunk of the CBS crew made a French Quarter tour and ran into a bunch of good-looking gals over in the corner.
"Turns out," Brookshier told me, "they were all wives of Minnesota players. One of them was the wife of Joe Kapp, the Viking quarterback. I said to her, 'You're gonna be with the Super Bowl champions tomorrow night.'
"She said, 'Oh no, we're not.' I was shocked. I asked, 'why not?'
"She said, 'Joe doesn't think his offensive line can block these guys. They're very worried. They think Kansas City is really tough.'
"I almost fell through the floor, but women are honest as hell and they'll tell you the truth. Well, we went ahead and did the game and as I watched I kept thinking, 'Kapp was right — the Vikings can't block these guys.' "
Brookshier and Summerall were the toast of football from 1974-80. Their last call together was the '80 NFC championship game, as the network brass had plans to move a new guy into Brookie's prime-time seat. The new guy was John Madden.
"There had been rumors floating around," Brookshier remembered. "Neither of us hoped they were true, but unfortunately Madden-Summerall was their plan. The one good thing that came out of it was me getting the chance to do some play-by-play work, which I enjoyed quite a bit."
I'm glad Tom Brookshier called back that December day, with his funny little airplane tale. I didn't know he was sick. I didn't know about the cancer that ended up taking his life at the age of 78 on Friday night. I didn't know it was the last Brookshier story I'd ever hear.