Friday, 12 July 2013

The voices of sports in the ‘80s

The last few months have been tough for sportscasters. If you grew up in that gray zone that straddled Canadian and American TV sports, you certainly would remember three names, or at least the voices that were recently silenced: Johnny Esaw, Pat Summerall, and Geoff Gowan.

Canadian television pioneer
Johnny Esaw
Johnny Esaw was synonymous with CTV network sports. He broadcast Canadian football for years, and was the one interviewing Phil Esposito after Game 4 of the 1972 Canada-Russia Summit Series when Canada’s captain addressed the whole country. Much of this was before my time. What I do remember of Johnny Esaw was his role in broadcasting the Olympics, and figure skating in particular. Skate Canada was I think where I first saw him on TV. It was only later, through highights, that I saw Esaw on the sidelines or at ice level. That's when I realized how good he was. He understood the power of timing, like when he just let Esposito go. He didn't try to cut him off, or steer him in any particular direction. Anyway, by the time I started watching TV, he was doing specialty sports and building an empire. Still, he was responsible for the CTV productions I did watch.

Pat Summerall
Voice of the NFL
Long ago, before specialty sports channels, the only way you could see NFL football on peasant vision was after the CFL season ended, which meant after the Grey Cup in November. At that point, the CBC started broadcsting NFC games, and CTV broadcast AFC games. Most of the NFC games, especially back in the early ‘80s, featured “America’s team” – the Dallas Cowboys. The voice I equate with that period, and for the next couple decades, is Pat Summerall. He was the voice of the national NFC game. A few short years later, he was joined by former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden, and they formed an entertaining duo.

Summerall had played the game, but he was not your typical retired player sharing war stories. He was a good narrator of the action, stern and serious, but not dour or gloomy. I just recall his broadcasts being like old news reels from the war years – and I liked it.

He eventually moved over to FOX Sports when it outbid CBS for the NFC broadcast rights. He retired a few years ago, but I heard him back in 2010 do a game between Ole Miss and Oklahoma, because I recall his forceful pronunciation of the name “Dexter McCluster”. That may have been his last broadcast.

Geoff Gowan
Track and field legend
Whether it was unbeatable athletes such as hurdler Edwin Moses, decathlete Daley Thompson, or sprinter Carl Lewis, or Canadian favourites such as sprinters Desai Williams, Tony Sharpe, and yes Ben Johnson, hurdler Mark McCoy, decathlete Dave Steen, high jumper Debbie Brill, or heptathlete Diane Jones-Konahowski, I was introduced to them all on CBC Sports by Geoff Gowan.

He had an immense knowledge of track and field, and a keen analytical mind. For example, I recall in the 1984 Olympics how Edwin Moses was unbeatable. Yes, Danny Harris had ended his years-long winning streak earlier that year, but there would be no repeat. One of the dark horses was the third American, Tranel Hawkins, but Gowan said he was too inexperienced. Then illustrated how. Between each hurdle, Moses had an even number of strides to the next hurdle and flowed over each one. Hawkins, by contrast would jump, land, run, then chop his stride as he approached the next hurdle, thus limiting his speed. It was just one example of how Geoff Gowan did more than just describe the action on the field. He analyzed it, and gave us a unique insight.

There are so many other broadcasters who were there explaining sports to me. We remember the big plays but sadly, only when one of the people describing them to us passes on, do we remember them. So, thank you Johnny, Pat, and Geoff, for teaching me about axels and lutzes, four-down football, what ten sports make up the decathlon, and so much more.

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