Preseason Football NFL Style — Once a Big Deal
Preseason football NFL style used to be a big deal.
Teams would play six games prior to the regular season opener and the starters were on the field most of the time.
Coaches would also get to see the rookies and other prospects in action as well, and it was the solid way to get teams ready for the real thing.
Fans would fill the stadiums, getting their first glance at their favorites, grateful that football was back.
In fact, Art Modell, the former owner of the Cleveland Browns would stage a doubleheader on one of those August Saturdays, and 80,000 would show up.
Since those days a half-century ago, the games have been reduced to four.
Lately, the regulars would hardly see action, the games were unexciting, and the crowds in many cases minimal.
Now, in the face of the pandemic and the uncertainty of sports returning anywhere, the NFL has cut the pre-season schedule for every team to just two games.
The NFL Players Association now do not want any pre-season games to be played, saying team workouts, not games, would be more beneficial. So the issue of pre-season remains up in the air.
The games played in August were a key element in my career. Either as a way of getting ready for the regular season broadcasts, or merely having an opportunity to work NFL games if I had yet to hook onto a network for the real competition.
My first NFL broadcast was in Pittsburgh. As Sports Director of KDKA-TV, which had the rights to the Steelers six pre-season games, I was able to get play-by-play experience.
They were called exhibition games in those days, and my first one was in St.Louis between the Steelers and the Cardinals. My partner was an amiable veteran named Stu Nahan, who was a CBS regular season NFL announcer.
He worked Philadelphia Eagles games during the campaign, and the plan was for us to split the play-by-play.
I worked the first half of the telecast and to say I was nervous is an understatement.
I had never done football of any kind, and when the game began it was moving too fast for me.
On a simple handoff to a running back I was scrambling to make sure I had the right guy carrying the ball, how many yards he gained, and who made the tackle. My head was spinning. I actually wanted to shout out to wait for the action to continue so I could get my bearings.
The fact is, despite the fact I was prepared and knew the game, I was inexperienced.
Things got easier, as the game, and the schedule marched on.
It’s funny, after over 50 years of football play-by-play, the games actually move in slow-motion for me.
I guess the reps have paid off.
The one game that sticks out, was calling the very-first game at Three Rivers Stadium.
Terry Bradshaw was making his home debut, and the Steelers defeated the New York Giants.
That was in August, 1970. The final Steelers game at there was a Steelers victory over the Redskins December 16, 2000.
I called that game as well for CBS, with the great Merlin Olsen at my side.
So, I am honored to have broadcast the very first, and the very last Steelers game at Three Rivers Stadium.
When I moved to Boston in 1971, I had the opportunity to call the Patriots exhibition games, and during my time in Beantown, the chance to call Baltimore Colts games as well, became a possibility.
As the sports reporter on the nightly 6 and 11 o’clock news programs on WBZ-TV, one of my trademarks was delivering a commentary which more often than not was a critical and controversial view of one of the local teams, or of a national story.
That kind of approach is commonplace today on the airwaves, but back in the 70’s, it was unorthodox.
The ratings went through the roof. Viewers were curious who I was going to attack next. It must be also said that not all of them were critical.
When my name was offered to the Colts, their public relations director, who was responsible for selecting their broadcaster, said he would veto my bid because of my controversial style. There was no way he would accept me, considering the Colts were in a re-building mode and the last thing they needed was someone knocking the team.
His name is Ernie Accorsi, and I didn’t blame him one bit.
I called him and had to convince him that my intentions were to promote the team, and not be negative. It wasn’t easy.
I knew from that moment on, that if I were to become a play-by-play announcer anywhere, the style I had employed doing the news had to go.
Not only did I work Colts games with the legendary, and personable defensive tackle Art Donovan, but Ernie and I established a deep and lasting friendship that has lasted up until this very day.
My life as a pre-season NFL announcer extended to other teams as well, including the Rams.
But my longest times with a team came when I worked games for the Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens, and most recently, the Miami Dolphins.
My six-year tour with the Redskins was rewarding, working with Matt Millen, Daryl Johnston and John Riggins.
I particularly enjoyed the owner of the club, Jack Kent Cooke, who I was obligated to interview at halftime during one of the games each year.
Jack Kent Cooke
It turned into an almost terrifying experience, as Cooke, a delightful but irascible gentleman, would turn the brief interview around and ask me questions, such as “Dick, why do you work NBA games?”, and “Dick, did you know I own the Chrysler Building in New York where you live?” ” What do you think of that structure?”
Finally, he would blurt out. “well, what is it you want to ask me?”
It was the toughest part of my assignment doing Redskins games.
When Dan Snyder bought the Redskins from Cooke, we switched over to the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens were owned by Art Modell, mentioned earlier as owner of the Cleveland Browns, who moved this fabled franchise to Baltimore. The move was heralded by Baltimore football fans who had lost their beloved Colts to Indianapolis years earlier, and despised by Cleveland fans who could never fathom their great franchise leaving town.
One event that stands out during the six-year Ravens tour was the game that was never played.
My partners were Daryl Johnston, and newcomer Troy Aikman, the former Dallas Cowboys teammates. Troy was there to gain on-air experience. It was his TV debut. As most fans know, he has became the lead expert-analyst on the Fox broadcasts in 2001.
At the game that was never played! Dick, Troy and Daryl.
Our opening game on August of 2000 was in Philadelphia. Kickoff was scheduled for 7:30pm.
Veterans Stadium was shared by the Eagles and the baseball Phillies, and during pre-game warmups it was apparent that uneven cutouts around the bases would affect the players’ footing.
The game was originally pushed back 35 minutes, but shortly after 8:00, the game was “temporarily suspended”, then officially postponed 15 minutes later.
We all had planned to have a relaxing cocktail after the game in the lobby bar of our hotel.
But who would have expected that it would come as early as 8:30 that evening.
For the last decade I have been the TV play-by-play voice of the Miami Dolphins.
It has been a most enjoyable experience working with two Dolphin legends, Bob Griese, the two-time Super Bowl quarterback, and wide receiver Nat Moore, who played for 13 seasons and was as favorite target of both Griese, and the great Dan Marino.
Last year, Jason Taylor, the Hall of Fame defensive end and linebacker joined the team.
Being associated with the franchise which is a reflection of the legacy of recently-deceased head coach Don Shula has been an honor.
As the NFL pre-season schedule remains a questionmark, this is a good year for me to step aside and get ready for whatever the regular season holds.
But the memories of this part of career, which are more about sidebar stories than the games themselves, represent still another chapter in a blessed career.
The season before the season in pro football was once prominent. Now, it’s been diminished, and not as significant.
I am glad I’ve been a part of that wonderful ride.