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Broadcaster Al Michaels Gets Ready To Provide 'Lyrics' For The Super Bowl

Michaels will anchor the Feb. 1 game between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. He tells Fresh Air about falling in love with sports and the hardest sport to announce.


Other segments from the episode on January 22, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 22, 2015: Interview with Al Michaels; Review of Tom Varner's new album "Nine Surprises";


January 22, 2015

Guest: Al Michaels

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's off this week. When the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots go at it a week from Sunday in Super Bowl XLIX, the broadcast booth will be anchored by a man who's done play-by-play in eight previous Super Bowls. Al Michaels is currently the announcer for NBC "Sunday Night Football." But that's just the latest assignment in a broadcast career that dates back to the '70s. Michaels is the only broadcaster to have done the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup Final - not to mention the Olympics, the Triple Crown and plenty of more obscure events.

We invited Michaels in to talk about the big game, what it takes to do good play-by-play work and his new memoir about his life in sports. It's called, "You Can't Make This Up: Miracles, Memories, And The Perfect Marriage Of Sports And Television."

Well, Al Michaels, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start by talking about the craft - what you do - and I thought we'd begin by just listening to a play. This is a couple of weeks ago - the AFC divisional playoff game between the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots pull off a trick play, and let's listen to your call.


AL MICHAELS: Edelman in motion. Edelman takes the swing pass. Edelman is going to throw. Deep downfield wide open - Amendola - touchdown.

DAVIES: And that's a day at the office for Al Michaels, I guess. You know - but, you know, people take a play-by-play broadcaster - take his work for granted. But there's a lot going on there. I mean, you have to describe the action as the fans see it. You can't stumble. You have to know the names of those two players - Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola - and also kind of let the emotion match that of the audience. You want to just take us inside the booth a bit and talk a bit about what goes into calling a game well?

MICHAELS: Well, Dave, I think you summed it up perfectly by saying, you know, you want the emotion to match what was being said. And I've always felt that the game itself is pretty much a melody, and I am there to provide the lyrics. And so you want the lyrics to match the melody because if you are, you know, composing a song or recording a song, it's cacophonous if they don't match. And I've always kept that in mind.

And I think one of the differences between, for instance, radio and television is that on radio, you can use a lot of verbs because you are painting the entire picture for the listening audience; they can't see anything obviously. But on television, they can see it. So very often you don't need verbs. You don't need the - very descriptive phrases that you would on radio because people can see what they see obviously and you are there to supplement it. So in that particular instance, you just have to be ready for anything.

And I've been around for a number of years and have done a ton of games and not that I was expecting that play necessarily - but you're ready. And when Brady threw it out to Edelman, it was a long enough pass, it gave me time to know exactly what they had intended to do. It was a backward pass, which meant that Edelman could throw it. I could see Amendola streaking down the left sideline, and that was that. So I think what you try to do is match the moment and be economical. And I find myself, as the years go by, speaking more and more in ellipses because I think that helps to match the picture.

DAVIES: Yeah, that's so interesting that you mention that because you don't say Amendola streaking down the sideline - you just say Amendola wide open. And people can see it.

MICHAELS: Yeah, and that's the - the ellipses that I use basically because you don't have to - you know, what on radio might require 50 words, on television might take 15. And so that's the vast - the difference between radio and TV. And of course, I was weaned on radio. I started my career doing radio. And I think almost all of the really good television broadcasters that I have heard through the years came up through radio because it's easier to pare back then it is to, you know, do three times as much. If you go from television to radio, I think that's a much more difficult transition than going the other way around.

DAVIES: I want to talk about one other thing. I'm going to play the clip we just heard, that same touchdown again. And we're going to let it run a little longer. Again, this is a touchdown in a AFC divisional playoff game between the Patriots and the Ravens.


MICHAELS: Edelman in motion. Edelman takes the swing pass. Edelman is going to throw. Deep downfield wide open - Amendola - touchdown. Fifty-one yards.

DAVIES: Now, what's interesting about that is I counted - after you said touchdown, a full 10 seconds you didn't say anything. There's a time when you just get out of the way, isn't there?

MICHAELS: Yes, and I've talked to a number of players who retire and they want to go into broadcasting. And that's one of the first things I tell them. If you're doing television, let the audience enjoy the moment. Or if you're rooting for the other team, not enjoy the moment, but don't hit them with a ton of facts or information they don't want to hear it at that point. Let the crowd play out. Watch, you know - we'll have probably three or four different shots - maybe the bench, certain players, maybe the other coach, whatever - it might be the fans. And let it play.

I mean, you don't need to say things that people are already seeing. And, you know, my partner Cris Collinsworth who's tremendous, he doesn't come in there either. A lot of times the analyst will, having played the game, see exactly what took place. And then you just want to jump in and say, you know, here's how that play worked. There's plenty of time to do that, and it's not right after the play. Let it play out - let it settle down for a second, and then you go into the analysis.

DAVIES: There's a drama, and you have to let people experience the drama.


DAVIES: The broadcast team is typically a partnership. There's the play-by-play guy. That's you. And then there's a color analyst - typically a former player or coach. And your partner on "Sunday Night Football," Cris Collinsworth, I actually do think you guys are the best on television because I am amazed at what Cris Collinsworth sees in a play without the benefit of a replay or looking at film, just an interior block. I mean, there are 22 guys moving on every football play. It's amazing what he sees.

MICHAELS: Let me tell you, it's amazing to me, too, Dave, because I've worked with a lot of people and over the last, well, 13 years I've been lucky enough to work with maybe the two best of all time - John Madden who really changed the role of the analyst when he started out and created a template and then spawned a whole bunch of imitators, and Cris Collinsworth who to me, is as good as it's ever gotten.

And Cris has the ability, you're right, to see things that nobody else sees. And one of the reasons he's able to do that is that he doesn't watch the ball. That's - he lets me do that. I will describe the play. The audience is watching that. He's watching other things. And I know one of the things he's talked about is watching the offensive line because the offensive line, when the play begins and - not only that, even before the play begins - the way they're set up sometimes, it's an unbalanced line - they will tell you what's going to happen. So right off the bat, he knows where to look. He looks at that. He looks at what the line is going to do and then kind of fans out from there. But he has a tremendous ability to see everything, to understand everything. And I've said this before, if Cris Collinsworth wanted to be an NFL coach, he'd be one of the five best in the league right off the bat.

DAVIES: You've worked with a lot of color analysts. Tell me what a bad color analyst is like. You can mention names if you want to.

MICHAELS: (Laughter) Well, fortunately, you know, I've been doing the prime time on the NFL for the last 29 years. So when you get to that point, you're not going to get somebody who really doesn't have a certain amount of goods. But you know what? You have to learn to communicate. And the greatest people - I mean, the most successful people in broadcasting - no matter whether it's sports or talk radio or comedy or whatever - they know how to connect to the audience. And fortunately, most of the guys I have worked with - and women - have understood that. They know how to connect. They know how to take very complicated things and make them understandable without insulting the intelligence of the people who do understand the complicated aspects of football.

And what really makes some of these people tremendous is they understand what everybody else on the crew is doing. We have 70 people every week at minimum who are involved, from tape operators, obviously the producer and the director, to associate directors, to sound people. There are a lot of people who go into making "Sunday Night Football" what it is and what it looks like and what it sounds like. And the great thing about - you take somebody like Cris as an example here. If he wants to go someplace on a replay, he can almost code it to the extent when he begins to talk, they're so smart in the truck - and the - Fred Gaudelli, our producer, and Drew Esocoff, the director, the tape folks and all of that - they can hear Cris say three or four words and know, hey, you know what? Cris wants to go here. And they can get him there within a few seconds...

DAVIES: Like if he's saying - if he's saying look at this great block right by the pulling guard, they will go to that piece of tape...

MICHAELS: ...Even before he - he doesn't even have to say that. He can begin to talk about something that may have happened in the matchup. He says, you know, one of the more interesting matchups here was so-and-so against so-and-so. Right off the bat, when he says the matchup, in the truck they're going, hey, we know where he wants to go. And they get him there very quickly. And that's something that very few people at home really understand or know about. But boy, when that happens and everybody is folded in together, I mean, that's the essence of this business. It's phenomenal.

DAVIES: Al Michaels's new book is called "You Can't Make This Up." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with veteran broadcaster Al Michaels. He will be calling his ninth Super Bowl this year. He has a new memoir called "You Can't Make This Up."

You grew up in Brooklyn, right? When...


DAVIES: When did the sports bug get you, from birth?

MICHAELS: Well, I guess it did. The first thing, Dave, I can remember in life is my father taking me to Ebbets Field. And the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn at that time. And how many kids could grow up in an environment where you could walk out of your apartment building and walk to a Major League Baseball game that included people like Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax coming up, Don Drysdale? This was my youth.


MICHAELS: And so when I walked in - I'll never forget walking into Ebbets Field with my father. I must have been I'm guessing 6. And, I mean, my mouth must have just dropped. The jaw must have hit the ground because it was beautiful. The grass was so green, the Dodger uniforms, in the words of Vin Scully through the years, wedding cake white, the signage on the outfield walls. I mean, Ebbets Field was just the most wonderful ballpark in the world. And the Dodgers were my team. And I could walk to the game. They played a lot of day games in those years. So I saw a lot of games. And when I was a kid, all I kept thinking about is, man, I want to be here every day. How do you get to be here every day? And then, you know, broadcasting - my father was in the business at that particular time. He was a very young man. I was born when my parents were 18 years old. And he was an agent - an up and coming agent in Manhattan - but loved sports. And so I sort of gravitated toward broadcasting. And what better way to combine broadcasting and sports than to become a play-by-play announcer? And that's what happened.

DAVIES: Yeah. When did you start practicing on your own?

MICHAELS: Well, I practiced when I was a kid. I was probably announcing Strat-O-Matic games and APBA Baseball and all the card games. And I -my father brought home this - the APBA game where you had dice and cards. And they - they tried to make it as realistically as - as realistic as possible.

DAVIES: Kind of a predecessor of fantasy games. Yeah, yeah.

MICHAELS: Correct. You could play it against somebody, or you could play it by yourself. And I probably was announcing some of those games in my mind. And then we moved to Long Island for a year and a half. Before we moved to California, we were out in North Bellmore. And we had a backyard. And my brother, who is four years younger than I am, you know, would pretend to be the athlete. And I'd take the garden hose and start announcing into the garden hose. So it goes all the way back to very early in life, Dave.

DAVIES: (Laughter). All right. Now, you've had a lifelong affection for horseracing. And your dad played the ponies, right? And...

MICHAELS: Right, and my mom did too.

DAVIES: And there were these little - they would come by school, taking you, allegedly, to the dentist. Tell us about that.

MICHAELS: That was my mother. My father was a very upstanding guy. And I think my mother kept this away from my father. But my mother was one of the great characters of all time. I described her in the book is a combination of Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller. She had a fantastic sense of humor. She was always the life of the party. My friends loved her. Our house was like the clubhouse. People couldn't wait to - for school to be over. And then they'd come over to the house, and my mother would regale them and entertain them. And my mother also loved gambling. And she loved horseracing.So when I was in high school, on occasion, my mother would come at about 12:30 to school and go to the assistant principal's office with a note that I had a dentist appointment. And then, she would take me out of school. But the dentist appointment was either at Hollywood Park or at Santa Anita because we had to get there in time for the daily double. So she went right into the mothers' hall of fame. And before it was all over and done with, by the time I was a senior, she then came to school one day and had a note for one of my friends as well as me because we both had appointments at the same time. And then, we hit the trifecta one day when she came with three notes. And I think that's when the principal began to look a little curiously at what was going on. But the three of us all hopped into my mother's car, and we were at Santa Anita an hour later.

DAVIES: That's great. You went to Arizona State for college and had your eye on being a broadcaster. And you - I know you were announcing a lot of school games. You note that you were also the sports editor at the school paper. Did writing, do you think, make you a better broadcaster?

MICHAELS: Absolutely. And I tell kids who want to get into the business, you have to - you have to take journalism courses. And you have to write because all I'm really doing on the air is writing with my mouth and my voice. And I think if you can write, you know, you learn how to process and collect information and dispense it and do it in a cogent way and in a lucid way. And I don't think there's any question in my mind that - the fact that I had that experience. And I took journalism courses from the 10th grade on, sports editor of the school paper. That was a tremendous benefit to me. And I tell kids who want to get into the business these days, you must take journalism courses. And take a bunch of English courses too. Learn how to speak the language and to use the language and to use it appropriately. Get a good liberal arts education. And to me, that's - that would be the formula for getting into this business these days.

DAVIES: After school, you were back in California, worked for a couple of TV shows. And then your big break was working for a minor league club in Hawaii. Is it the Hawaii Islanders? Do I have that right?

MICHAELS: It was, AAA Pacific Coast League, 1968 through 1970.

DAVIES: After your time in Hawaii, you became the regular broadcaster for the Cincinnati Reds and then the San Francisco Giants. And you increasingly got tapped for national work. And you did all kinds of stuff - I mean, ABC's "Wide World of Sports." You did football. You did basketball. You did - you did boxing. What sports are the hardest to do?

MICHAELS: Well, I think the hardest... Hockey is actually the hardest sport, I think, to announce.

DAVIES: I would think so.

MICHAELS: It is because there's so little scoring. I mean, hockey on radio I think is the most difficult because - in basketball, you know that one team has possession. And you can see a game that is being called on radio in your - in your mind's eye. In hockey, the puck is moving so quickly, and it's going from one zone to the other. And you might have four or five different players touching it over a 10-second span - you know, two or three guys from one team, two or three guys from the other team. That's difficult. So I would say hockey is the most difficult of the sports to do. Now, I've also done, you know, crazy stuff like motorcycles on ice, which we did in Inzell, West Germany, which featured a lot of Eastern Europeans at that time, Soviet riders. And I'd say the arena, or the rink where they had speed skating competitions normally, would hold, oh, about 15,000 people. And so you had 15,000 wild and woolly West Germans, and Austrians would come across the border. And tailgating for motorcycles on ice, which began at 8 o'clock at night, would start at about 2 o'clock in the parking lot. And it's the Schnapps capital of the world. So by the time the riders get going at 8 o'clock, I mean, everybody's pretty well lubricated. And what you have is a bunch of guys riding motorcycles on an ice track. And spikes are protruding. So it was wild...

DAVIES: So wait. Wait...

MICHAELS: It was the craziest thing I ever saw.

DAVIES: Spikes are protruding from what?

MICHAELS: From the tires. So you'd have...

DAVIES: That's how they grip the ice. OK.

MICHAELS: That's how you grip the ice. You have spikes coming out of the tires. And then the guys are going around a speed skating track. It was - as I recall, it's a quarter-mile and probably eight or nine guys in a race. It was crazy. And I remember thinking, this would be great in America. I even thought about hey, I've got to get a hold of somebody and see if we can promote this thing in the United States. But it's probably one of those things where, you know, you watch it one time and go, oh, my God, this is fabulous. The second time, it's not so fabulous. And the third time, you're done with it.

DAVIES: Al Michael's new memoir is "You Can't Make This Up: Miracles, Memories, And The Perfect Marriage Of Sports And Television." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: You tell a lot of stories about other broadcasters you work with - one of them, the legendary Howard Cosell. And because some of our audience is young enough not to remember Howard by now, I have a little clip of him. And I think this is just him doing a fairly standard kind of opening bit for a Monday night football game. But it gives us a sense of his style. Let's listen.


HOWARD COSELL: We look forward to this game, as cold as it is. My colleagues are not as suitably garbed as I am. They are younger. Quickly - because both coaches come from the college ranks - let's take a look at them. The Jets, with Lou Holtz in his 30s - wry, bespectacled, has an understated sense of humor, a little bit in the Will Rogers vain. But he's come to grips with reality with a rebuilding club because he's learned that all of life is not at North Carolina State - lead two straight years. You can beat Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions and surprise everyone. Here it's a different story.

DAVIES: And that's Howard Cosell.

MICHAELS: Good clip, yeah.

DAVIES: Using phrases like suitably garbed and wry bespectacled. There is a terrific story you tell about Howard Cosell in the book. And you've told this elsewhere, but it's so good I can't let you go through the interview without telling us. It's a time when you and he were, I think, in Kansas City. You went out to dinner, had some drinks, you're driving back in a limo and you come up to a traffic light.

MICHAELS: Yeah, I mean, a lot of this stuff happened in Kansas City. That, you know, the playoff thing in '84. You go back to '81. It was just before the baseball strike. And I'd gotten into town - we were doing a Sunday night - a Monday night game baseball with the Yankees and the Royals. We got in late Sunday afternoon. Howard called the room. What are you doing, Alfalfa? Nothing. Alfalfa was the nickname that he liked to use. So we go to dinner. And in those years those were the days of Roone Arledge and unlimited budgets and private planes and hotel suites and limousines to take you across the street. So the crew - whether it was football or baseball - would always be escorted around Kansas City in a very long, white limousine owned by a woman by the name of Peggy. And Peggy was the owner of the company and she was the driver.

So we go to the Savoy Grill and Howard has a lot of vodka. And now we're coming back through an area of Kansas City that you don't want to have a long, white limousine driving through and certainly stopping. So we had to - we came to a stop light. And we look off to our left and there are two kids about, oh, 17-18-19 years old having a very serious fight - a fistfight. And they're being egged on by five or six other kids. And Cosell opens up the door and I reach for him because I know he wants to get out of the car. And I can't grab him fast enough. And Peggy shrieks - the driver - Mr. Cosell, Mr. Cosell.

The next thing you know, he's out of the car and he's onto the sidewalk. And I'm thinking I've got an 11-year-old and a 7-year-old at home. I'm not going to be able to save him if they jump him. And he get - and all of a sudden all of these kids - the fight stops. And now their mouths are just agape. And Howard says all right, all right. Listen up. It's quite apparent to this trained observer that the young southpaw does not have a jab requisite for the continuation of this fray, and furthermore, his opponent is a man of inferior and diminishing skills. This confrontation is halted posthaste. So now - now you got the moment of truth. What's going to happen? Do they recognize him or do they jump him?

So, fortunately, one of the kids says Howard Cosell, Howard Cosell. It was so surreal. They start dancing around him like he's a maypole. Somehow a pen gets produced. He signs a couple of autographs and pats them on the head and gets back into the car. And Peggy looks back into - she's very respectful and she says, Mr. Cosell, excuse me. She said I have been driving for a long time - over 30 years. I thought I'd seen everything. I've never seen anything like that. Now, keep in mind too, Dave, Howard is wearing that canary yellow blazer that we would wear on the air. He took that on the road and he wore that to the restaurant. He's got that in the limo. He's got the toupee. He's got the cigar going. And he leans back, you know, in ultimate self-satisfaction, takes a long drag on the stogie, looks straight ahead toward Peggy and says, Peggaroo (ph), just remember one thing. I know who I am. And that was Howard Cosell.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Well, I want you to tell the story of you and he working on a - I think it was 1984 American League championship game, the Tigers and the Royals, and that night.


DAVIES: Tell us about that night.

MICHAELS: Well, that was - at that particular point, Howard had stepped away from Monday Night Football the year prior. He was getting tired and he was cranky. And here we were, you know, doing these great events. You know, postseason baseball was fantastic with Jim Palmer at that point. Our whole production crew was looking forward to postseason baseball. And Howard would show up and you knew he didn't want to be there. And so it was getting more and more difficult to work with him. And what happened on that particular night is that Howard would very often prepare for a telecast by going down to the hotel bar an hour-and-a-half before we would leave for the ballpark.

So Howard, in the early years, held his liquor very well, but on this particular night he was in the bar. He comes out. Now, we - we drive out to the game. He's cranky. He wants to go home. And the game turns out to be a very long game - 11 innings in almost four hours. And Detroit winds up winning the game. And Howard was calling for a bunt in extra innings and Jim Palmer and I were trying to get him off the hook because it was a situation where you would never bunt. And he thought that we were criticizing him or disparaging him, even though we were trying to protect him. And he...

DAVIES: Well, and wasn't he drinking during the game?

MICHAELS: Well, yes, he was. And he was drinking quite a bit during the game. And at the end of the game we'd get off the air, and Howard said to me - he said, you know, you need to learn to take a stand. And I said, Howard - I said, I'm going to take a stand right now, OK? I will never again work with anybody in the state that you're in, OK? How's that for a stand? And this was - and then, you know, he kind of turned and walked away. And to me I was so upset that night because I love postseason baseball. Palmer does, the crew does, and Howard had, in effect, sabotaged the telecast because of his condition. And, you know - and then Howard would last one more year and go, you know, fading off into the sunset. And it was kind of a sad ending to what was a spectacular career. At one point, Dave Howard was probably one of three or four most recognizable people in the country. And he just kind of, you know, he let it - I don't want to say he let it go down the drain, but it was a very inglorious ending to a terrific career.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with veteran broadcaster Al Michaels. He will be calling his ninth Super Bowl this year. He has a new memoir called "You Can't Make This Up."

Well, I guess we should talk about the call you are best known for. And this was 1980, the Olympics, the American amateur team against the Soviet, essentially, professional team. An incredible shocker, which the Americans won. And we've got it - the sound quality isn't all that great, but we'll hear the last few seconds and the call that everybody remembers.


MICHAELS: (Announcing) The puck is still loose. Eleven seconds - you've got 10 seconds. The countdown's going on right now. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? Yes.


DAVIES: And the Americans win the shocker. Your line, do you believe in miracles, where did it come from?

MICHAELS: My heart. Somebody once wrote, it probably was the 9-year-old in me coming out. I'll buy that. I think that's what it was. You know, I was just trying to call the game till the end. The chances of the U.S. winning the game in my mind were next to zero. I was working with Ken Dryden, one of the great goalies in the history of professional hockey and Ken had just retired. And Ken had played against the Soviets. Ken and I had gone to the Soviet Union to watch them play in a tournament. We'd seen them a number of times. If they won a game 4-0 or 4-1, it seemed like it was 20-0.They were toying with teams. They were fantastic. And we just were hoping that the U.S. could stay close for a period and a half. At least the score would sound close. And then to have that happen on that night when - and when you think about that game, the U.S. had to overcome three deficits. They trailed 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, tied the game and then Mike Eruzione scored with 10 minutes to go and they held on to win it. The Soviets outshot the U.S. 39-16, so most of the game was played in the U.S. end. And Jim Craig had an unbelievable night, the goalie keeping the team in the game. And so as that game is winding down and all of this is happening, even - at end it was like - I'm thinking, this is impossible, this can't be happening. But the crowd is going crazy.We're on a platform in the front of the balcony and the building feels like a 6.0 earthquake. The guys in the truck are screaming indecipherable gibberish into my ears. And all - I was like a horse with blinkers - call the game, call the game. And then with a few seconds to go when the puck came out of the center ice, it enabled me to say something apart from just doing the play-by-play. And the word that popped into my head was miraculous. And miraculous got morphed into a question - do you believe in miracles? Answered it with yes and probably didn't say anything for another 45 to 60 seconds, whatever it was. But Dave, all I was doing at the end of that game is calling the game till the end. And somebody said, oh, you must've thought about that line before. And I said, yeah, right? Can you imagine thinking about that line? And then how about if the Soviets would've scored with two seconds to play and I'm blurting that out? Now, how stupid would that have sounded?

DAVIES: Can you think of an event that was painful to watch? And painful to call?

MICHAELS: Well, I've announced two deaths on television. One was a referee in a Michigan State Illinois football game in the early '80s who just keeled over on the field in the middle of the second quarter. The game stopped for about 10 or 15 minutes while they got an ambulance out to the middle of the field, took him to the hospital, and he was dead on arrival at a hospital in Champaign, Illinois. And not long after that, I was doing the time trials for the Indianapolis 500 where a couple of weeks before the race each guy goes out in his car, he runs, you know, four laps and they time him and that determines what the starting order will be for the 500 race itself. And on this particular day, a driver by the name of Gordon Smiley was out and he was on his last warm-up lap prior to taking the green flag for his four laps and goes into the third turn, which is a left-hand turn obviously, and the car all of a sudden makes a 90 degree turn to the right, goes into the wall and disintegrates. Those were painful things to do, obviously.

DAVIES: You're going to be broadcasting your ninth Super Bowl. Do I have that right?

MICHAELS: Correct.

DAVIES: What are the interesting storylines in this one?

MICHAELS: Well, this one has a ton. You've got two great quarterbacks, each with Super Bowl rings - Brady with three and Russell Wilson with one, but disparate styles. You have two chess master coaches in Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll. And of course the irony is that Belichick succeeded Carroll when Carroll got fired after the 1999 season in New England. Two tremendous running backs who have very similar styles who are like bulldozers in LeGarrette Blount for New England and Marshawn Lynch for Seattle. You have the Patriots who've been the team of the 2,000s but haven't won a Super Bowl in 10 years, going to their sixth under Belichick. And now you've got Seattle trying to do what New England was the last team to do, win back-to-back Super Bowls. You've got Richard Sherman who's always quotable and is a tremendous player. You have Darrelle Revis who's as good a quarterback as there is in football on the other side. So no matter where you look, you're going to have a story.

And to me, it's funny how fans sometimes think and accuse announcers of rooting. The only thing we root for is high drama. Drama, excitement, controversy, a lot of great strategy that we can mull over. And the only thing at the end of the day I'm rooting for, Dave, is overtime. I'd love to be able to do the first-ever Super Bowl overtime game. There've been 48 and none of them have gone to a fifth period. And as long as it goes to overtime, it might as well go to triple overtime and be the longest game ever played. That's what I hope will happen on Super Bowl Sunday.

DAVIES: All right, we'll see. Now, we do have an early pre-game controversy. You know, the Patriots who were fined a few years ago for using video cameras to steal signs from opposing coaches are now embroiled in another investigation. You want to explain this?

MICHAELS: Well, right now they're being accused of having possession of footballs - which teams do before a game, they get a dozen. Each team gets a dozen and you can rub them up and put dirt on them - whatever you want to do so that your offense can - quarterback can have a ball that is suitable for him. But it has to weigh and be pressurized to a particular degree. And the contention has been, of course, that the balls were underinflated, which conceivably could give the quarterback an opportunity to get a better grip on the ball, to throw it with more accuracy, to enable the receivers to catch it.

This is an evolving and an ongoing story as we do this show, Dave. So I don't know where it's going to be by a week from Sunday. But you know, leave it to pro football and the Patriots to get involved in something like this. And of course everybody thinks back to the spy-gate scenario in 2007, when they were found guilty of taping other teams' defensive signals. The team was fined and Bill Belichick was fined.

I don't think how this one plays out. I do now know there's tremendous irony here in the sense that apparently this was discovered when an Indianapolis Colts player D'Qwell Jackson intercepted a Tom Brady pass in the first half of the Championship Game. So the irony would be if that ball was underinflated and gave Brady a better opportunity to grip it and the receiver to catch it, somehow it wound up as an interception - intercepted by Indianapolis. So that didn't work. So there's a certain amount of irony there. And we'll see how this plays out over the next 10 days.

DAVIES: A piece in The Boston Globe recently said that you, at age 70, are at the top of your game. And I have to say - I mean, you know, you're still incredibly smooth. You're doing this, you know, as good as anybody out there. You've seen announcers who age and start to lose a step. And I wonder, do you think about that? Do you wonder if you'll know when it's time to scale back?

MICHAELS: Well, I try not to do the math, number one. (Laughter). I have a very mathematical head. There are days when I feel like I'm 18 years old. I still have a little rascal in me. I love to laugh. I've got a fantastic wife and great friends. And everything's very enjoyable and I'm lucky, in a great family. I would say this, Dave - I would say, if I can't do it the way I've done it and the way I'm comfortable doing it and where I feel like, you know, my brain is on top of things and I can assess very quickly and do it the way I want to do it - as long as I can do it in that manner, fine. If I begin to sense that, you know what, I'm not getting there as quickly as I did, I'm making mistakes, I think I'll recognize that before most people. And if it happens, that will be the telltale sign, OK, enough already. I'm not looking forward to retirement. I'd rather avoid it if I could. But I am not going to be one of those people in any walk of life who's just going to hang on and do it despite everything else that's going on around them. I hope I'll know when it's time. And when it is that time, I - think back to John Madden...


MICHAELS: ...And John, I think 70 - maybe 73 or 74, we did a game. We did the Super Bowl in 2008, Arizona-Pittsburgh, which was a phenomenal game. I had no idea that John was going to retire. Three months later, it turned out to be that was the last game John did. And then John decided in April, you know, that he was going to retire. And when they said to John, well, why? He said, it's time, it's time.

And it was perfect, you know what? And I hope that'll be the case for me at some point. I don't know when, but that'll be the case - it's time.

DAVIES: Well, Al Michaels, good luck with the big game. Thanks for spending some time with us.

MICHAELS: Thank you, Dave. Enjoyed it very much.

DAVIES: Al Michaels's new memoir is "You Can't Make This Up: Miracles, Memories And The Perfect Marriage Of Sports And Television." He'll be calling his ninth Super Bowl a week from Sunday with his NBC partner Cris Collinsworth. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new album by Tom Varner's Nonet. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. In 2005, jazz composer and French horn player Tom Varner left New York for Seattle, where he put together a nine-piece band of local players. Their new album is out, and jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Varner can really write, and this band can really play.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Tom Varner's "Seattle Blues," channeling Charles Mingus for a second, from the album "Nine Surprises." Varner's Nonet, with its three brass, four reeds and two rhythm, is expansive but lighter than a big band; there's no piano, for one thing. It boasts some very good soloists, like trumpeter Thomas Marriott.


WHITEHEAD: Phil Sparks on bass and Byron Vannoy on drums. Tom Varner gives his soloists room to stretch, but keeps some for himself. He's been one of jazz's top French horn players since the '80s, when there were finally enough good ones to count. Varner has great control and a punchy, swinging beat. His sound's forceful enough to stand up to all those other horns.


WHITEHEAD: As composer, Tom Varner likes that bluesy, churchy call and response. He also likes music that unfolds in layers. Most of his album "Nine Surprises" is a long suite, whose main theme splits seven horns into three strata.


WHITEHEAD: Tom Varner's writing is a bit like shaker furniture - sturdy and well-crafted, with clean lines and details that rhyme from piece to piece. He once said he's looking to construct a big picture with lots of little pictures in it. In his "Nine Surprises" suite, that march keeps coming back transformed, as in a ghostly variation with clarinet in the lead.


WHITEHEAD: Steve Treseler on clarinet. Tom Varner wrote thematically rich music for his New York small groups, so his Seattle band's expanded palette is a logical next step. He writes some beautiful wrong-note harmonies in clashing colors, sometimes so dense, you may hear instruments that aren't there, like a phantom mandolin, briefly heard on "Spackle."


WHITEHEAD: A project like "Nine Surprises" calls for players resourceful and well-drilled enough to breeze through tricky writing and flesh it out on the fly, players who can sound as tight or smeary as they need to be. Tom Varner's charts make them sound good, and they return the favor. But then, half of being a really good bandleader is having the really good band.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Nine Surprises" by the Tom Varner Nonet.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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