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A Story Like No Other - Jim Nantz
03/04/2010 - By Tobi Drucker Tesoriero
Photo: Linda Rowe (lindarowephotography.com)
CBS Sports casting icon Jim Nantz calls it like he sees it
Whether participating as players or rooting as fans, sports are both passion and pastime in America. We embrace the triumphs of our sports heroes and marvel at their athletic prowess. We avidly follow our teams and cheer their efforts. We watch and listen and spend countless hours involved in the world of sports.
At the center of the athletic experience is the sportscaster, who brings the excitement of the game to life. He shares his bird’s eye view of the play and shares his expertise of the sport as he guides us through the spectacle. Yet only a few in the field have transcended the yeoman role of the job and reached an iconic place in the American psyche themselves.
Jim Nantz is one of these iconic sports commentators. His starting position? The town of Colts Neck and Marlboro High. Once upon a time the man who called this year’s Super Bowl from Florida was very likely sitting eyes glued to a television in Monmouth County just like you were. Yet no matter what heights Jim has scaled in his career, growing up in New Jersey has kept him grounded, he tells us.
For a quarter of a century Jim has led us through the excitement of competition from tennis to the Olympics. And, of course, his three favorites golf, college basketball, and football. In fact, Jim is one of only two sportscasters ever to call the Masters, the Final Four and the Super Bowl. And if that was not enough of an accomplishment in and of itself, Jim is the only one who did it in only a 63 day period!
He has been honored by his peers by being named National Sportscaster of the Year four separate times. Jim is also the youngest recipient of the Curt Gowdy Media Award, which he won in 2002. He’s an Emmy winner and his production company was also nominated for an Emmy.
Jim has not stopped there. His first book, Always By My Side: The Healing Gift of a Father’s Love, made him a New York Times best selling author. His sports reporting has taken him all over the world. He has dined with legends, royalty - such as the Queen of England - and United States’ presidents. Along the way Jim’s play-by-play coverage has become part of the American sporting experience.
Yet he remains humble and true to his Monmouth County roots. So much so that even while prepping for this year’s Super Bowl, Jim Nantz made time to sit and chat with Living in Media/LivingInMedia.com about coming of age in Colts Neck and Marlboro.
He recalled for us the paper route that helped satiate his hunger for sports information. He gave us a replay of his own days on the field while attending Marlboro High School. And he told us that no matter where in the world he may find himself, the values he learned in his younger days here in Monmouth inform his thoughts and actions.
Our conversation follows.
LIM: We know you have a rich and long career in sports. Please share the three most memorable moments of events you have covered.
JN: Number one would be Fred Couples winning the 1992 Masters. We used to live together in a college dorm at the University of Houston. We used to rehearse the green jacket ceremony in our dorm room. Then it actually happened on the CBS Television Network and 186 countries around the world watched the feed. We have a recent addition – the Saints winning the Super Bowl a few weeks ago. Our television rating topped the M*A*S*H series finale in 1983 and became the most watched television event in history. It was a thrilling game and it joins Freddy’s 1992 Masters win and Jack Nicklaus’ historic green jacket win of 1986 as my favorites of all time.
LIM: Do you have any preference in covering sports? Do you have a favorite one?
JN: Not really let’s just say golf was the sport that really steered me towards this insatiable desire to one day be one of the network commentators. So it is deep in my heart, but they all are.
LIM: Can you try to share with us how you prepare before a game? What is the process? Details?
JN: Broadcasting is more of a reactionary thing. I observe what is happening and I tell the people at home what I see and what I think about it. I am a storyteller. My preparation is really a lifetime of building up knowledge, research and stories. I have a good memory and catalog things in my head. There is no backspace key in broadcasting. You say something and that sentence is out there. It’s not coming back. Once they leave your lips they are there as a matter of record. So, in this business you have to be sharp, quick and careful.
LIM: When you are covering different sports, I assume there are differences, like the rhythm, pace of play. Can you share that process?
JN: Great question. A lot is dictated by what you sense is going on around you. I get asked sometimes by people that don’t understand golf, “Why do you whisper?” The golfers are right in front of me. I am not creating any kind of synthetic drama that is not there. If Tiger Woods was putting a few feet from me would I talk like this right now? (Editor’s note: Jim significantly raises and uses a booming voice to illustrate.) You handle the decorum and etiquette of the game by dropping your voice down. You play to the style of the game. You notice all things on the periphery. Your senses are definitely heightened. Yet at a football game the crowd is at a fever pitch. I realize I have to push my voice to get above that level of static energy. “THIRD DOWN AND EIGHT FOR THE COLTS!” I can’t whisper, “Third down and eight for the Colts.” This is a football game and there is a crowd of 75,000 people screaming their lungs out so naturally you will reflect it. In short, football – high energy, you have to reflect the energy that is going on around you. Basketball, up and down the floor with very few breaks in the action so your call has to have a faster pace to it. Then there is golf which has to be a storyteller’s dream, if you really love to tell a story. That is the ultimate canvas for us to ply our trade. It is the ultimate to me. It is a fireside chat. The greatest demand on your ability is to use the English language.
LIM: Since you are referring to being a storyteller that obviously leads me to ask about your book, Always by My Side. Do you consider it just an extension of what you do and were you just telling a different story? Or is it a new avenue for you? What was the impetus for the book?
JN: It was right around this time three years ago in 2007. I was about to go into a stretch that lands in CBS’s lap every three years. We alternate the Super Bowl with FOX and NBC. It was pointed out that I had three marquee events - the Super Bowl, Final Four and Masters coming up - all in a 63 day stretch. But then one writer out in Los Angeles put it in the context that no one had ever done this before over a span of a year, and now I would get to do them all in only 63 days. I never seriously thought about writing a book. At least not until someone said to me you ought to somehow tie it to your father. It was really late in my father’s battle against Alzheimer’s and I realized I could write a story with that as a major theme; finding my father through the goodness of others during that nine week stretch. So I was able to write a book about my father and have some universal themes that are important to people. We had a concept that had not been explored - the integration of the biggest sporting events in America and a father and son love story. I will say this: I finished the trifecta on April 8, 2007 and on the 10th of April, that Tuesday, two days after the Masters, my representative agency, IMG (International Management Group) had taken the list of prospective publishers down to four. I was startled to see the interest. I could tell by the line of questioning they were really interested. It was a life changing day for me. I suddenly felt that I was about to embark on something that was going to be bigger than anything I had ever done in broadcasting. Years later, I feel that way.
LIM: What was your writing process?
JN: I had a co-author on the book, Eli Spielman. We worked together since the first day I showed up at CBS Sports. He is like a brother to me. We laid out all kinds of different outlines. Once we started writing and shifted things around, we began revising, revising, revising. We went through fifty revisions minimum on every chapter. We were six weeks late turning in the manuscript. If they hadn’t finally said, “That’s it” we would probably be sitting here right now writing revisions. We labored and worried about every single segue and now have a greater appreciation for the written word; how you tell a story in written form.We didn’t want this to be a collection of anecdotes; we wanted this to read like a story, like a novel. I hear about the book everywhere I go. People come up to me at golf events, football games; they bring the book and ask me to sign it. They approach me as if they are almost apologetic, “I am sorry to ask but would you mind signing Always by My Side.” They don’t realize the beautiful gift they are giving me. I get to have a moment that brings my father right back to me.
LIM: Would you consider writing another book?
JN: I don’t see how I can do it. Emotionally I am not there at this time. Maybe somewhere down the road I will be able to do it.
LIM: Back to the sports side. Can you share what prompted you to want to expand and have your own production company, Jim Nantz Productions?
JN: To burn off more creative energy. I have just barely scratched the surface on that right now. We are going into our fifth year of producing a show that airs before the final round of the Masters Tournament. One of our Masters specials was nominated for an Emmy for technical achievement. We took a sports event that originally aired in black and white and colorized it. We re-aired the 1960 Masters won by Arnold Palmer. This color restoration had never been done in the history of sports television. It took ten thousand man hours to colorize it frame by frame.We had people working round the clock in San Diego and India. I know it was ten thousand man hours ‘cause I got the invoices (laughs).
LIM: Which leads to my next question, do you do the actual producing? Are you involved in the business end of the company?
JN: Definitely the business end, because the expenses come out of my pocket. For me it is not about turning a profit but it is trying to produce the best show possible. I have a brilliant producer, Chris Svendsen, I defer to him to put the show together.We are producing a Tom Watson special for this April. We were in Kansas City in December to interview him. It will be a nice tribute to Tom’s career.
LIM: In doing research for the interview I found hints of you becoming involved in politics. Do we see any political career in the future for you?"
JN: I follow politics closely. I don’t think at this point in my life I am seriously contemplating doing anything other than what I am presently doing. I have the greatest job in the world. I will say this: I am blessed to have some up close experiences with people who have had leadership roles at the highest level. It has been rewarding to hang out with President George H.W. Bush, President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush.
LIM: How did you first meet President Bush Senior? In college in Texas?
JN: I first met President Bush Senior – everyone calls him “41” since he was the 41st President of the United States – just after he left office in 1993. 41 has been a real guiding light in my life. He wrote the foreword to my book. I am very close to him and the whole family. I am honored to have that relationship and their love, care and support. They really are like family to me. I have been invited to some of the grandest events you can ever imagine. One of my favorite memories was being asked to serve as the intermediary between President Bush 41 and President Clinton on the occasion of their first social visit together.
LIM: Please share.
JN: In 2005, they worked together on the Bush - Clinton Tsunami Relief Fund. They raised a billion and a half dollars together traveling all over the world and struck up a friendship. Pretty fascinating considering that at one time they were political rivals and one had defeated the other for the highest office in the country. They wanted to get together with no agenda, no politics being discussed. They wanted to get together as friends. 41 had the idea that they should have someone there to keep the conversation going and make sure it did not deviate into areas they did not want to talk about. I was asked to be their intermediary. You might recall when they first got together it was a big national story. It was late June 2005, and it was such a spectacular two days and two nights. We played one round of golf. We went on President Bush’s boat two days. We had dinner out once, we had breakfast and lunch on the compound on Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport. It was so spectacular to be able to see these two interacting in the spirit of friendship. I know there are enormous philosophical differences between these two men, but it is not polarizing (like every night when you turn on cable television). We wound up all getting together again in ’06. I never told this story, not even in the book, but it was supposed to happen again in ’07. I was back in the intermediary role for the third straight year and President Clinton was going to come back to Maine. He was to fly up on September 11. On the 11th a nasty storm covered the East Coast. The airstrip north of Kennebunkport was closed. They didn’t know when the fog would lift. President Clinton was sitting on a private plane in Westchester that, too, was shrouded in fog. He kept calling saying they were delayed, going to be another hour, then another hour. President Bush was so nervous about President Clinton flying up there in bad weather that he was like a concerned parent for a child taking unnecessary risks. President Bush kept fretting about it. He paced around the house telling Mrs. Bush, “Barbara I just don’t have a good feeling about this.” Finally he said, “I am calling this whole thing off.” He called President Clinton and said, “I am going to make a decision. I am not going to allow you to come up. I don’t want you getting on that plane. I don’t feel right about it. We will do it another time.” The genuine concern I was an eyewitness to, was a pretty fascinating snapshot.
LIM: Good illustration of quality of character?
JN: I think it speaks volumes about the man. You know, I have learned to understand and appreciate people that have real power rather than perceived power. Those that have real power flaunt it less than people who have perceived power.
LIM: So what do you think draws you to politics?
JN: People helping others. I really believe that politics is still a noble profession. I know we are led to believe with all the hysteria that is on the internet and on cable that most politicians are compromised and their intentions are evil. I have more faith and respect those who dedicate their lives to public service. I wish I could do more.
LIM: So could that be your next chapter?
JN: I am getting older, (laughs). I am 50 and have never run for anything. How could I be qualified? I look at a guy like Scott Brown and it is amazing, but there is a change in the way the American public will accept a candidate these days. We saw that with President Obama’s election and his limited experience and a guy like Scott Brown comes along. There is a different criterion now in what your experience level has to be to get elected. There is a lot more forgiven about people’s pasts, too. There is a shift in the way America views its candidates and how they approach who to elect to public office. I am truly thrilled with my current job and when it comes to politics, I just don’t feel qualified.
LIM: And finally, looking back, please reminisce and share any thoughts about your Colts Neck boyhood or days at Marlboro High School. Do you keep in touch with anyone from those days? Have you been back to the area lately? Observations?
JN: I go through there all the time, if I am ever anywhere close to the Jersey Shore. If I am driving between New York and Philadelphia, I will veer off and get a pizza at Federici’s and I always take the old drive through memory lane around Colts Neck. That is automatic. I am a big nostalgia guy so I am always driving around. A couple of years ago, I went up to the door of my old house. The guy was a huge sports fan and could not have been nicer. His name was Al. As a matter of fact, in that house - we lived there from 1970 through 1977 - my dad built the basement. It was unfinished when he bought it. He would come home from work and put up the wood paneling and install the flooring. He also built a bar and had a pool table brought in. When Al opened the door he said, “Oh my God, I had heard you once lived here. Would you want to take a tour?” I said “SURE!” We went down to the basement and it was a very touching scene for me. As soon as I came down the stairs there it was - the pool table. Al has contacted me since, saying I should have the pool table. One day, I will take him up on his offer and find a way to move it. It represents a large part of my youth. I can still see it so clearly, waiting for dad to come home from work to get one game in before mom called us upstairs for dinner.
LIM: When you visit what are your impressions of the area now?
JN: I am struck by the massive houses. They are huge. Colts Neck was always so rural. My dad was so proud to have found it. We had family friends that steered us to Colts Neck. My dad worked with a man named John Pyron. Mr. Pyron’s son Cliff has been a lifelong best friend. We are close to this day even though he lives with his family in Savannah, Georgia. When Cliff gets back to visit, we drive around and look at all the old stomping grounds. We are struck by the size of the homes and their yards. For a newspaper delivery boy like me when I was 12 or 13 years old it made it hard to deliver papers. I delivered the Asbury Park Press and a paper that was then called the Daily Register. I had 11 homes on my route and it took an hour to deliver my little allotment. I became a newspaper boy so I could have access to information. That is how I would get the sports pages. We didn’t have the internet or ESPN.
LIM: So the passion for sports started when you were very young? Did you do anything sports related during your youth?
JN: I played sports at Marlboro High School, basketball and golf. I was going to play football my senior year but I got injured and blew out my knee. In those days they did not have the kind of surgery you have now, the arthroscopic surgery. I had a big Plaster of Paris cast on my leg the first three months of the school year. I couldn’t drive. It was pretty uncool walking around on crutches.
LIM: Anything that we didn’t ask or discuss that you would like to share?
JN: I would like to say this: I feel fortunate that my father made his way to New Jersey. My family is originally from North Carolina. My father went to college and made something of himself and then after college climbed the corporate ladder and we got to move around the whole country, which served me well later in life. We moved from Charlotte to New Orleans to the San Francisco area then to Colts Neck. When I got to Colts Neck I was in the fifth grade and lived there through high school graduation. It was just the most idyllic place for a kid to grow up. There was something very wholesome about it and yet you had at your fingertips access to New York and Philadelphia. You had all the cultural experiences a teenager could possibly take in. I had parents with curious minds who were determined to expose me and my sister, Nancy to Broadway, the museums, etc... We did a lot of traveling; they were regular family things. We led a quiet peaceful family life in Colts Neck. Our friendships were real. Now, my mother Doris and my sister and her family live in Houston while I live in Connecticut. We all look back with gratitude on our family years in Colts Neck and the chance we had to live a slice of Americana.
Federici’s in Freehold
Bruce Springsteen, I have always loved the boss!
The Deer Hunter or Raging Bull
I don’t like sarcasm.
Three people you would like to dine with:
I would like to go back in time and enjoy a simple dinner with my mother, dad and sister, where we all just sit around the table and say grace and share our day.
Photo GalleryClick here for Slideshow. You can also click on any of the photos to start slideshow.
From Left to Right: Blaine McCallister, Former President George H.W. Bush, Fred Couples, Jack Nicklaus, Jim Nantz.
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