Jim Nantz and the Super Bowl: Tales from a broadcasting legend

Everything, everywhere, all at once.

That’s pretty much the job description of CBS announcer Jim Nantz, who will call Super Bowl LVIII from Las Vegas with color analyst Tony Romo at his side.

Even after retiring from his March Madness duties, Nantz still has a frenetic schedule in which NFL games roll right into the PGA Tour.

“People say, ‘Are you enjoying being semi-retired?’” said Nantz, 64. “I’m down to like 40 weeks of travel. … It’s not like I’m on a beach somewhere.”

He was decidedly not on the beach the day before the AFC championship game in Baltimore, even though millions of viewers surely thought he was. Instead, he was in a cramped trailer beneath M&T Bank Stadium remotely calling the Farmers Insurance Open in La Jolla.

The tournament was adjusted so the final round was Saturday, ensuring it wouldn’t compete with the NFL’s conference championship games. And CBS didn’t try to hide the fact that Nantz wasn’t on site, several times referencing the fact he was in Baltimore.

Still, in the week since then, Nantz has been asked dozens of times how he possibly could have gotten from San Diego to Baltimore so quickly to call that Kansas City Chiefs win.

“It’s so much easier to talk when you’re in the arena,” conceded Nantz, who is in his third year of calling the Torrey Pines tournament from a remote locale. “But we get through it. … I’m seeing all these wonderful shots of the Pacific and the coastline and I’m in a trailer in the bowels of a stadium. So it’s a little bit of make-believe that you’re there watching the hang gliders take off and the surf’s up.”

All part of the job for a broadcasting icon who later this year will be getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

When he’s not working, Nantz divides his time between homes in Nashville and Pebble Beach, Calif., while spending as much time as he can with his young son, Jameson, and daughter Finley. He also has an older daughter, Caroline.

Attached to the wall of his office in that Spanish-style house in Pebble Beach is a gray metal box that looks as if it might hide circuit breakers. Inside, however, is a telephone receiver and key pad that used to be in the tunnel at Giants Stadium.

While covering a kickoff classic between Boston College and Brigham Young, Nantz used that phone in 1985 to return a fateful call from CBS.

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Broadcaster Jim Nantz shares a special part of his memorabilia collection that goes back to the day he was hired by CBS.

“I’m down on the field before the game, I’m a broadcaster back in Utah, and I get a message that I need to call Ted Shaker of CBS,” Nantz said. “I’m looking for a phone. There’s no cellphones. So when you’re walking up the ramp there was this phone box on the left side of the wall. I asked if I could punch in a credit-card number.”

The conversation went:

“Jim, where are you? Sounds like there’s a band playing.”

“I’m on the field at Giants Stadium.”

“Well, I hope you can hear me. Welcome to CBS.”

It’s one of the countless recollections of a man motivated by his memories.

“He’s just such a talented guy,” said close friend Tom Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl winning quarterback. “Incredible memory, obviously. Incredible storyteller. He always knows the right thing to say in the right moment.”

Al D’Avanzo was working in the yard of his home in Colts Neck, N.J., when he noticed a car driving slowly past. The street, Highfield Lane, is a cul-de-sac, so it really got D’Avanzo’s attention when the driver looped around for a second and third pass, finally parking in front of his house.

Four people got out, and one was instantly recognizable.

Hello, friend.

“It was Jim Nantz,” D’Avanzo recalled of the encounter. “I was very surprised. You can’t get your head around it. Why are you here? I was a pretty good football player, but not that good.”

What D’Avanzo didn’t know is his one-story house was the boyhood home of a broadcasting legend. The place had changed hands many times since then.

D’Avanzo, retired from his job with the Federal Reserve, is a fan and greeted him warmly once he came to grips with the situation. He offered Nantz a tour of the home, including the basement. That brought back a flood of memories.

New England quarterback Tom Brady celebrates next to Jim Nantz after leading the Patriots to victory.

New England quarterback Tom Brady celebrates next to Jim Nantz after leading the Patriots to victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game on Jan. 22, 2017.

(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

“My dad would come home from work and go right into the construction business,” Nantz said. “He put all the wood paneling on the walls. Built a bar down there. He worked hard. I would help carry his tools.”

The centerpiece of the basement was an old pool table that D’Avanzo was planning to discard if he could find some way to move it. Turns out, Nantz’s dad bought that for the family, and young Jim spent hours down there teaching himself how to play.

D’Avanzo offered to give it back, and his famous visitor happily accepted. A few days later, movers arrived to collect it. Nantz had the table re-felted but kept the original trim in the pockets for the sake of nostalgia. There’s a special room in his Pebble Beach home where the table will reside.

A guy’s gotta eat, and Nantz works up an appetite when he’s calling games. So he snacks on the job during breaks in the action, and he doesn’t always do it by the book.

“I’m going against every rule in live television,” he said. “I’m a popcorn fanatic. Crispy stadium popcorn. I’m snacking on foods that can actually get caught in your throat and put you in the blue tent for a couple of calls.”

He ranks popcorn as his second-favorite food to stone crab, which would be even tougher to eat while on air. He has a reservation for a stone-crab dinner in Las Vegas the night before the Super Bowl.

Nantz eats a hot dog at halftime, too, but only devours those during the NFL season. He doesn’t have time to fiddle around with those little packets of ketchup so he travels with his own bottle. He bends at the waist when he’s eating as not to drip ketchup on his clothing.

By his count, he eats 22 hot dogs per year — matching the number of games he calls — but it’s actually fewer than that because he always tosses the last bite.

“Makes me feel like I didn’t eat the whole thing,” he said.

The first game in New Orleans Saints history was also Nantz’s first NFL game. It was Sept. 17, 1967, at Tulane Stadium and Nantz was 8 years old. He and his dad didn’t have tickets, but they walked around the stadium until they found a scalper offering reasonable prices.

The Saints were playing the Rams, and father and son got standing-room tickets. For the boy, the sights and smells were unforgettable.

“I’m reminded of that every time I go through a stadium entrance, when the tailgaters are out early and it’s in the air,” he said. “It’s a mixture of cigar smoke and hot dogs on the grill. I’m transported to my past.”

He and his father were able to find the nub end of the bench seating at the top of the stadium, directly across from the entrance to the antiquated wooden press box.

“We were right by the door,” Nantz said. “It would swing open and I would look in. Little did I know that someday I would be on the other side of that door.”

The first play of that inaugural Saints game was a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by New Orleans rookie John Gilliam.

Precisely 50 years later, and by happenstance, Nantz called a Saints game in New Orleans. Imagine.

Nantz thrives on preparation and inspiration, so it stands to reason that he would reach out to one of his broadcasting heroes before calling his first Super Bowl.

Jim Nantz studies a script as he covered the PGA's Farmers Insurance Open remotely.

Jim Nantz studies a script as he covered the PGA’s Farmers Insurance Open remotely because he also needed to attend the AFC championship the next day.

(Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

It was late January 2007 and he was calling a victory by Tiger Woods in the Buick Open at Torrey Pines. A week later, Nantz would be in Miami for the Super Bowl between Indianapolis and Chicago.

Before making that cross-country trip, Nantz drove from San Diego to Palm Springs, where he had dinner with Jack Whitaker, the longtime CBS play-by-play announcer who called the first Super Bowl. Fellow announcers Ken Venturi and Tom Brookshier were there, too, along with their wives.

“I asked Jack, ‘What’s the one thing I should be aware of?’,” Nantz said. “He said, ‘Jim, you never know which play is going to be the most important play of the game. Just be ready from the opening kickoff.’”

Wise words. The first play of Colts-Bears was a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Chicago’s Devin Hester. It remains the only time in Super Bowl history someone ran back the game’s opening kickoff.

For Nantz, it harkened to that franchise-opening kick return by the Saints when he was a kid in the stands.

When Nantz is calling the Super Bowl on Sunday, he’ll have two items in the left breast pocket of his sports coat. One is the gold sobriety coin of his late friend, Pat Summerall, a gift from the widow of the player-turned-announcer. The other is a Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame playing card of Whitaker.

Just as he was inspired by the announcers who came before him, Nantz has inspired untold legions of future announcers and current fans.

Sometimes, their lives intersect — and reconnect — with his.

“He’s my all-time favorite announcer, for sure,” said longtime NFL quarterback Philip Rivers. “I just remember as a kid, me and my dad were at an NCAA regional and I was 13 or 14. Me and my dad were walking outside the arena, and there was a man walking in front of us with a suit on, and he dropped something. He dropped his call sheet.

“I remember him bending down to pick it up right there in front of us and walking off. I remember my dad saying, ‘That’s Jim Nantz.’ And then years later, I’m sitting in production meetings with him as a player. It was awesome.”

Jim Nantz holds the mic in front of Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis while he holds a trophy.

Jim Nantz holds the mic in front of Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis after the Ravens’ Super Bowl XLVII win over the San Francisco 49ers in February 2013.

(Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

After the Super Bowl, as players celebrate in the blizzard of confetti, a massive stage is wheeled onto the field for the trophy presentation. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will be up there, along with the winning owner, coach, quarterback and other players.

Nantz will emcee the festivities with one golden rule in mind: Do not under any circumstances surrender the microphone.

“He who holds the mic has the network in his hands,” Nantz said. “There’s one CBS Television Network, and when you lose the mic …

“So you are told never to let go of that mic. My greatest athletic achievement might be the fact that I had to arm wrestle [Hall of Fame linebacker] Ray Lewis in New Orleans during the Lombardi Trophy presentation. All with a smile on my face and shaking. He’s pulling and I’m pulling back.

“I had CBS right there, and no one was taking the network away from me. I had to work so hard and arm wrestle — at least to a tie, anyway — the great Ray Lewis.

“They say in an emergency, you can pick up cars and things like that. This was that occasion.

“I have fought for this network more than people know.”

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