The highlights this time accompany what is known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played" — the 1958 NFL championship showdown between the...
BRISTOL, Conn. — The highlights this time accompany what is known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played” — the 1958 NFL championship showdown between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants.
The narration for the ESPN special on the game’s 50th anniversary is typical Chris Berman, enthusiastic but not reverential, full of the shtick that has made him famous, complete with “rumbles, stumbles, bumbles and in this case, fumbles!”
He has made his career this way — being respectful of the sports he covers but having fun with them, too.
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Hired by ESPN nearly 30 years ago from his job anchoring weekend sports on local television, Berman has helped change how fans get their news and how sportscasters approach their work.
“He created an overall perspective that many others covering sports at that time did not, of keeping it light,” said Malcolm Moran, director of the Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. “It’s not war, it’s a game. He maintains a tricky balance of keeping his shows informative, without taking himself too seriously, and that can’t be easy to do.”
Berman was hired in 1979, weeks after ESPN went on the air, to anchor the 2 a.m. (Eastern time) “SportsCenter” program. But he made his mark handling the NFL, where he has covered the draft since 1981 and started hosting ESPN’s pregame show in 1985.
At 23 consecutive years, Berman is television’s most tenured pregame-football-show host, besting Brent Musburger’s streak of 15 years from 1975 to 1989.
Berman got perhaps his biggest break in 1987, when ESPN won rights to broadcast a Sunday-night football game and exclusive extended highlights of the afternoon contests. Berman and ex-Denver Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson were named to host the 60-minute “NFL PrimeTime,” which quickly became the crown jewel of ESPN’s football coverage.
Viewers tuned in for Berman’s humor and antics as much as for Jackson’s analysis.
Berman calls players by wacky nicknames (Curtis “My Favorite” Martin), wears a genie headdress to predict games as “the Swami” and famously imitates Howard Cosell’s exaggerated touchdown call (“He could … go … all … the … waaaaay!”). He readily acknowledges that he is part sportscaster, part entertainer.
“Just don’t call me a personality,” Berman said. “What is that? That’s a morning disc jockey. I entertain, but I take what I do, the journalism part, seriously. Sportscaster, that’s fine. That encompasses all of that.”
ESPN considers him to be more than that.
“He is our most important person,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN’s vice president of production. “He is the face of ESPN.”
Berman’s career coincides with an unprecedented growth in the NFL’s popularity, and some credit Berman with at least part of that success.
Others accuse him of being more style than substance, or contend he is a master of self-promotion.
“He could have become the sage voice at ESPN by now, a voice of maturity, credibility and wisdom,” said Phil Mushnick, New York Post columnist. “Instead, he’s the voice that does the imitation of Chris Berman.
“He’s the head clown in the circus over there.”
Former ESPN ombudsman George Solomon said it is not that simple.
“When you are that big, and you’re that important, it’s difficult,” said Solomon, former sports editor at The Washington Post who is a faculty member at the University of Maryland. “You tend to lose your role. He wants to be a journalist. He could be a journalist, but at this stage of his career, it’s not as easy. But he’s certainly a major force in television sports.”
ESPN dropped “NFL PrimeTime” in 2005 when it won rights to Monday Night Football. NBC, which airs the league’s Sunday-night name, carries the NFL’s extended highlights on its “Football Night in America” program hosted by a team of Bob Costas, Chris Collinsworth and former ESPN “SportsCenter” anchors Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann.
Berman and Jackson continue to work ESPN’s Sunday-afternoon preview show, and Berman hosts a short highlights package that runs during “SportsCenter” on Sunday nights.
“We miss that [“NFL PrimeTime”] more than anything we’ve ever done,” Jackson said. “That was his baby, and mine as well, and we miss it.”
During football season, Berman says he works the phones as would any journalist, calling coaches and team sources to get tips on who is playing and what viewers should expect at kickoff.
“He’s one of those guys who can talk to anybody,” Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid said. “He can talk to the president of the United States; he can talk to a football coach.”
“He’ll ask how [quarterback] Donovan [McNabb]’s feeling. He’s been around me and Mike [Holmgren, Seahawks coach] long enough to know what plays you have in. He’s seen it enough.”
Though he covers some other major events — opening day of the baseball season, the Home Run Derby, the World Series, and golf’s U.S. Open — Berman said he is happy to be known as the face of the network’s NFL coverage.
Berman’s children are grown, and he says he doesn’t see himself still at the network when he is 65 years old, or 60. His contract expires on his 55th birthday. He won’t say how much he makes, or whether he wants a new deal.
But at 53, describing action as “rumbling, stumbling, bumbling” still feels right.
“It’s kind of fun having been one of 80 [ESPN employees] in the beginning and now there are what, 5,000 or whatever the number is,” Berman said. “We all have our little hand in the cornerstone, and I kind of like that.”