Dick Enberg: “Draw to Byner … Ernest Byner … fumbled the ball and Denver has recovered. Oh, my!”
Here’s how good Dick Enberg was: He brought me the worst sports news of my life. Repeatedly. And I loved him anyway. He always seemed to be there when my world came crashing down, there to call the John Elway drive against the Cleveland Browns, there to call the Byner fumble the next year as you see above, there every year it seemed to deliver that devastating news that, no, the Browns were not going to make it to the Super Bowl again, sorry about that.
Maybe it was the “sorry about that,” part of Dick Enberg’s broadcasting style that made me and so many love him. He didn’t want your team or my team to lose. You could tell. He didn’t want to bring you bad news. You could hear it in his voice. Enberg was, first and foremost, a sports fan. There was comfort in that. Dick Enberg knew how you felt.
He was, on the air, entirely without ego. He was, best I could tell from my own encounters with him, entirely without ego off the air too. That’s a rare quality. But Dick Enberg was a rare announcer. There are people you come to know, a few of them, who seem entirely happy with their lives. And there are others, even fewer, who simply seem born to do what they are doing.
Enberg, somehow, was both of these things.
“I’d rather be me,” he wrote in his autobiography, “than anyone else I know.”
Enberg spent the core years of his childhood on a farm in Michigan where on weekends he would work the family fruit stand and, between customers, listen to sports on the radio. He only came to understand that he would not become a sports star when he got to Central Michigan and found he could not quite make the varsity baseball team and was either the sixth or seventh quarterback on the freshman football team. At some point, you are low enough of the depth chart that the precise number no longer matters.
Not long after that, he applied for a job as a janitor at WCEN radio in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. The general manager said the job was his but added, “Enberg … you have a nice voice.” The GM asked Enberg to go into a studio and read. Dick Enberg was then hired as a weekend disc jockey.
Enberg … you have a nice voice. That’s how one of the great sportscasting careers in American history began.
And, in so many ways, it perfectly described Enberg’s style. He did have a nice voice, one that rose and fell melodically with the action on the field. But he also had a NICE voice, meaning he always seemed like such a nice guy. He was like a friend calling games. No self-importance. No conceit. No need for you to even notice him.
With Enberg, much of his brilliance was in what he didn’t say. Few have ever called games more precisely — his words tended to be exact and explicitly and specifically what mat hed the moment. Al Michaels has talked about how a broadcaster’s job is to blend into the broadcast, to say the right words that keep the viewer in that slightly dreamy state of being inside the game. One wrong word can pull any of us out of that reverie. No one kept us inside the game better than Dick Enberg.
But, just as much, when you go back and listen to Dick Enberg call a game on television — a football game, Wimbledon, college basketball, baseball too — you can’t help but notice how often he stayed silent and how long he would let the crowd and the action on the field and the tension of the moment tell the story. He understood the power of silence when broadcasting television..
There was something else, something harder to describe but it’s the thing that everyone who grew up in my time understood: His very voice lent significance to whatever you were watching. When Dick Enberg called a football game, you knew it was important. When he called a tennis match or a basketball game or a baseball game or anything else — he called more or less everything in his 60-year career as an announcer — you knew that it mattered. He helped make it matter. At the end, he called baseball because that was the sport he loved most, the one that he said was embedded in his DNA. A few times during the season, I would tune into a San Diego Padres game for only one reason: To hear to an inning or two of Enberg’s voice.
And, remarkably, it was just the same. He didn’t call too many big games for the San Diego Padres, but the games took on a more meaning when he called them. He turned meaningless July games between the Padres and Marlins into something a little bit more. “Touch ’em all!” he would say when a home run was hit, and that home run mattered even if it only cut the Padres deficit to four runs.
Yes, he did call The Drive, and The Fumble, two of the most the heartbreaking moments of my young life, but I never connected Dick Enberg’s voice to that. His voice was bigger than my Browns troubles. His nice voice captured the spirit of the big game.