One of the most influential sports writers ever was Green Bay native Red Smith. Smith went to Green Bay East High School, which was where the Packers played their home games until 1957, when the team moved to City Stadium (a place that was later renamed Lambeau Field). Smith wrote for the Milwaukee Sentinel, New York Herald-Tribune, and New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer in 1976. But before his time in New York, Smith spent nearly ten years writing for a daily newspaper called The Philadelphia Record, where he honed his command of the English language and journalistic approach to covering sports. He once described his craft like this:
Sports is not really a play world. I think it’s the real world. Not in who wins or loses as it is reflected on the scoreboard, but in the people in sports who are suffering and living, and dying and loving and trying to make their way through life just as bricklayers and politicians are. The man who reports on these games contributes his small bit to the record of his time.
It’s appropriate then, I think, for the Green Bay Packers and Red Smith’s ghost to visit Philadelphia on Monday Night Football, where the Eagles will induct Merrill Reese (and Jeremiah Trotter) into the team’s Hall of Fame.
If you need to know anything about Reese, know that he prepares himself for each Philadelphia Eagles gameday as everyone should, with a hot bath and a plate of pancakes. For Reese, however, this day will be even more special (so please forgive him the extra syrup). Tonight, Reese will be formally accepted into a club usually reserved for exceptional-but-battle-weary players, savvy team executives, and influential owners. It’s rare for broadcasters to get in. Nearly unheard of. But Reese is arguably the most deserving of the lot, especially if one weighs time of service above all else. And that is the weight that barely matters. He’s that good and that deserving of the honor.
How deserving? If there was an advanced stat for such things, adjusted goosebumps per play might be the best indicator:
The Best of Merrill Reese
Reese is a native Philadelphian, born in the city’s Overbrook section in 1942. He went to Temple University where he broadcasted Owls football games and co-hosted a weekly radio show with a fullback named Bill Cosby. Reese joined the Eagles in 1977 and was the color analyst for play-by-play man Charlie Swift, who had been the voice of the Eagles since 1969.
Reese would most likely admit that his transition to becoming the Eagles’ play-by-play man was tragic and regrettable. Early Wednesday morning December 7th, 1977, Swift’s wife, Patty, found her husband in their kitchen, dead from a single gunshot wound to the head. He had committed suicide. Reese received a phone call at 2:00 AM. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he said. Later that morning, Reese received a call from WIP’s Dean Tyler who told him, “Merrill, you’re doing the play-by-play.” Former Green Bay Packer Herb Adderly served as the color commentator. In his book, The New Eagles Encyclopedia, Ray Didinger describes Reese’s first game:
On the Sunday after Swift’s death, there was a moment of silence at Veteran’s Stadium, and the public address announcer asked everyone to turn toward the radio booth as a tribute to the late broadcaster. Reese recalls seeing all those eyes looking up at him and feeling his heart pound. “I never was so nervous in my life,” he said.
At the end of the season, Reese was named the team’s permanent play-by-play man, and he’s done it every game since, putting Check Bednarik to shame.
Reese’s appeal is his ability to build suspense and excitement, from a fan’s perspective. How endearing it is to hear him admonish the coach for calling an ill-advised time out, or a player for failing to make a play. Conversely, how thrilling it is to hear his voice explode after a once in a lifetime comeback:
The Miracle of the Meadowlands II
Reese’s distinctive voice has been a part of thousands of car rides and living rooms, even my own. Every Sunday, my dad and I would routinely mute the television and turn on the radio. And we’d always hear Reese describe the play a few seconds after seeing it happen. Now, thanks to the miracle of DVR, those delays don’t exist, but the charm is no less apparent.
Despite his successes, Reese would be the first to tell you that he would not be where he is were it not for his partners in the booth. But only because chemistry is so easily developed. In his interview with Josh Paunil of Birds 24/7, Reese described what happened behind the scenes with Mike Quick:
When Mike Quick first started, to have the timing between us, if he had something to say in between plays, he would tap me. When I wanted him to come in, I would tap him back. But after a year, that gradually disappeared to the point when we could finish each other’s sentences. I can now sense when he wants come in and he senses when I need it back. He knows to get out of what he’s saying by the time they break from the huddle, or if it’s a no-huddle offense, by the time the quarterback is behind the center so I have time to set the formation and give the score, time, down and distance.
Other booth partners included Jim Barniak and Bill Bergey, but perhaps the most revered (or irreverent) was former Eagles’ offensive lineman Stan Walters, who worked with Reese from 1984-1997, and is also a member of the Eagles Hall of Fame. Walters is known for his extreme hatred of the Dallas Cowboys and perhaps best drew from Reese his ability to be the voice of the Eagles fan, for the Eagles fan.
And this will be Merrill Reese’s legacy. He is a warrior poet, a Philly guy whose love and passion for his city and his team are broadcasted live on the radio every Sunday (and occasional Thursday and Monday) during football season. He has been, currently is, and now will always be the “Voice of the Eagles,” or rather, the “Voice of Us,” contributing in his own unique and special way a youthful exuberance that belies his age, as said by Red Smith, “to the record of his time.”