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- March 04, 1991
- Vol. 35
- No. 8
Kicking Booze to Stay Alive: One Sportscaster's Finest Call
Soon afterward, Summerall, 60, was told that if he wanted to see another football season, he would have to change the way he lived. Thoroughly disciplined and controlled on the air, Summerall had frequently been the last man at the bar as his TV crew wound down after a game. A lifetime of booze—exacerbated by large quantities of over-the-counter painkillers that he had taken for nagging back and knee injuries incurred during his pro-football days—had wreaked havoc on the walls of his stomach. If he continued to drink, his doctor told him, he wouldn't last another year.
An unlikely candidate for athletic stardom, Summerall was born with a backward right foot—the one he would later use to kick field goals for the New York Giants teams of the '50s. (Doctors corrected the deformity when he was a few weeks old by simply breaking his shin and turning the foot around.) An outstanding high school tennis and basketball player at Columbia High School in Lake City, Fla., Summerall accepted a basketball and football scholarship to the University of Arkansas, where he was also a placekicker and receiver and a Golden Gloves heavyweight boxer, as well as an accomplished drinker. When the 6'4", 220-pounder joined the NFL's Chicago Cardinals as a tight end in 1952, a chief inducement was a $250 bonus he used to pay off an outstanding bar tab. Five years later Summerall was traded to the Giants, where he played until 1961. That year CBS signed him to handle a five-minute daily sports-cast, and in 1962 he became one of the first ex-jocks to provide TV game analysis—for his old team, the Giants.
Unlike many professional athletes, Summerall was well prepared for life after sports. He had tried his hand at various off-season careers, ranging from watermelon farming to teaching high school English. (He has also received a master's in Russian history.) His marriage to his hometown sweetheart, Kathy, 56, has survived his constant travel for 35 years. Today they spend most of their time in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., 80 miles from Lake City, where they grew up. They have two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren, including Charlotte, born just after Summerall left the hospital last December.
Since he has been dry, Summerall has found his buddies understanding and helpful. In a Manhattan hotel suite recently, Summerall displayed a gift from Giants coach Bill Parcells: several small vodka bottles and an assortment of packages of painkillers—all of them empty. Then he spoke with writer-reporter J.D. Podolsky about his frightening brush with death.
I had no idea anything was wrong with me. I was flying home from the Bears-Redskins game, and I had a light snack. It didn't quite agree with me, and I threw up. When I made the connection in Atlanta, I started feeling sick again and threw up twice more. The second time it was almost solid blood. By the time I got to the Jacksonville airport, I guess I'd thrown up four, five, six times. I called my doctor, and he arranged for me to be admitted to the hospital and told me he would meet me there. By the time I arrived, I guess I was in shock. They took me right to the emergency room. I don't know how many people were there, but I threw up and sprayed blood all over them. When they finally got a tube down my throat and into my stomach, blood was coming out of that too. They laid me down on the table, and I heard one doctor say, "We've got to operate on this man right now." Another said, "We can't; he doesn't have any blood left." The next thing I remember, I was in the intensive care unit the following day with all these tubes stuck into me. Finally someone told me I had a bleeding ulcer, which the doctors had cauterized to stop the bleeding. But they also had to give me five pints of blood and three pints of plasma.
One doctor told me that if I had arrived 15 minutes later I'd have bled to death. I've thought about many things since then, like what if it had been a flight from San Francisco rather than Washington. I think I experienced what they call death flashing before my eyes. I mean, I wasn't thinking about dying, but I had a blur of memories about people and incidents.
My medical problem goes back many years, but I guess the drinks I had the weekend of the game triggered what happened on the flight to Florida. When I got up Saturday morning in Washington, I was running behind schedule, so I didn't have a chance to eat breakfast. I took two painkillers, got on the bus and went to RFK Stadium. Instead of lunch I took two more painkillers. Then after the production meeting that evening, I took two more painkillers and didn't eat. I had three or four drinks, but I went to bed with no discomfort. I got up Sunday to go do the game. Again, I didn't eat breakfast. But I did take more painkillers in the morning and before the game started. And then at halftime I had a couple bites of a tuna fish sandwich. After the game I took some painkillers and had a drink at the airport. On the plane I had a snack and a couple more drinks, and that's about when I started throwing up.
During the football season I hadn't eaten much that wasn't in some kind of plastic box. One doctor said to me that the combination of alcohol and painkillers, which are supposed to be taken with food, is like taking a rifle and shooting holes through your stomach. But another doctor said, "What did it to you is not painkillers, but whiskey." Doctors told me horror stories of people who were told the same thing as me—"If you drink, it's going to kill you"—and they couldn't cope with it. They just couldn't stop. You can't scare some people bad enough. But it scared the hell out of me.
When we were players, we drank mostly beers. We could only afford to go out once a week. But there's so much more money available to today's athletes that drugs have become as much a part of the scene as alcohol. I mean, you go into a hotel with a football team or a basketball team, and there's always somebody in the lobby dealing drugs. Athletes are a perfect target. Look at the baseball players who become addicted in one way or another. They play a night game and get out of the ballpark at 1 o'clock. They go out with their buddies and have four or five drinks. At 4 A.M. they get to bed. They sleep all day, and they go back to the ball yard. It's an unusual life. And broadcasting can be a continuation of that.
I drank Jack Daniel's when the weather was cold and vodka when it was hot. I was usually one of the last ones leaning on the brass rail. I enjoyed being with the guys, telling stories, listening to stories. You just sort of roll into it.
Kathy told me, hey, you don't have to be the star of the party every night. Alcohol had just become sort of a crutch. Kathy thinks I was an alcoholic, but I don't think so. It was more of a habit than anything else. I was enjoying life, having a good time, and then this happened. A doctor once told me to slow down, but I never wanted to do anything about it. I do now. I think it has to come from within your own heart. There has to be a legitimate desire to not drink. If you don't have that, I don't think you're ever going to beat it. I'm not as strong as I was. But I'm feeling good, getting back to probably the best health I've enjoyed in the last 10 years.
In the hospital, the first bouquet of flowers was from [CBS broadcaster] Merlin Olsen. John Madden, a good friend and colleague, called me every day when I was in the hospital. He would say. "Don't worry about getting back. The most important thing is to get well."
Next year will be my 30th doing the NFL with CBS. I don't have any plans to retire. I enjoy what I do. I don't know how many people are lucky enough to have a job where they really, really can't wait to get to work. It's almost like playing. You build yourself up for a peak performance. Then it's a new week, and you do it all over again.
I'm not on any crusade. I'm not saying I've got the answers. I'm not saying that I would have quit drinking if I hadn't gotten sick—probably not, to be very honest with you. But if I had the opportunity to advise anyone. I would say, "Don't." It's not necessary. My greatest fear was that if I didn't drink. I was going to lose my friends; nobody's going to want me around. But one of the amazing things is I'm having just as much fun. I'm laughing just as much. And I still have the same friends. I guess we'll just share a juice.
- J.D. Podolsky.
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