Dear Gronk (Do you mind if I call you that? Everyone else does),
I saw your debut with the football gabbers of Fox Sports. You had trouble pronouncing the word “philosophical.”
Don’t sweat it. It’s a toughie, that word. Five syllables. They didn’t hire you because five-syllable words roll off your tongue.
They hired you because everybody says you’re a lovable charmer who just happens to have gone to five Pro-Bowls in a nine-year career with the New England Patriots.
You caught the ball for touchdowns 79 times in those years, while spending six of those nine years in the league’s top 10 pass receivers. You gained 7,861 yards in 115 games.
None of it matters a tinker’s dam compared to your real accomplishment, which was not spending a nickel of your $50 million Patriots salary. It’s well-known you only spent money you made from endorsements.
You banked and invested the rest. I can’t help wondering if they knew you were going to be that good with money when you were at Williamsville North High School.
But, hey, it’s a whole new ballgame now.
Fox is obviously looking for a new Terry Bradshaw, just in case. You know, the whoop-de-doo, partyboy, yuck-it-up ex-player with a raffish Northeastern grin to equal Bradshaw’s Louisiana plowboy guffaws.
It’s not an easy act being the ostensibly dumb guy who constantly says smart things about the game, the players and, yes, your media colleagues.
But then, it’s not easy being an NFL tight end, either, which is why you retired after nine years. You’ve got to have the skills of an offensive lineman and you’ve got to catch the ball, too, while defenses are hoping to turn you into a sock puppet. You get hit. A lot.
I once asked the late News Sports Editor Larry Felser who were generally the smartest guys on a football team.
He told me for sure it wasn’t the quarterback. “That’s a misnomer,” he said. His guess, by and large, would always be the offensive linemen. They know the plays and they’ve got the titanic discipline to make the high-flying by others possible while few people notice.
Being a tight end is, in part, being an offensive lineman and in part, a high-flying, durable pass receiver. You’re a section player in the orchestra. A soloist, too.
That seems to be what they want for you at Fox these days.
There’s never enough smart “dumb guys” in the sports announcing racket.
The gig was, more or less, invented by Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean, the legendary St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who was the last in the National League to win 30 games. He was, as well, the announcer who turned his second-grade education into a wildly colorful way to level off baseball’s money and stardom.
He and Pee Wee Reese were the Numero Uno baseball announcing team when I grew up. It was fun, amid all that buttoned-up corporate propriety on TV, to hear an announcer say a player “slud” into third base, rather than “slid.” His assault on proper grammar and syntax was meant to convey baseball was the perfect presentation of democratic possibility.
When Dean and Reese were together, they went together like ham and eggs. Dean was the brilliant, talkative ignoramus. Reese was the socially acceptable star shortstop. Both had been great ballplayers. They were paired brilliantly.
It wasn’t as good originally when Dean was paired off in St. Louis with a now-obscure announcer named Buddy Blattner, about whom the world at large remembers nothing. Blattner was as talkative as Dizzy. Not a good plan, that.
So, if you don’t mind some advice here, Gronk, you might want, while no one is looking too intently, to be on the lookout for your own Pee Wee Reese. (Let’s not even talk about what could happen when Tom Brady retires. A Brady-Gronk announcing booth is beyond all imagining.)
Bradshaw, you remember, has his Howie Long, the proper strategist and straight-laced suburbanite and foil for Bradshaw’s whoop-it-up farmboy act.
Former Dallas Cowboys QB Don Meredith had his perfect foil in “Humble Howard” Cosell, the badly toupeed lawyer with the big vocabulary and major journalistic and broadcasting ambitions. That’s why it was so delightful when partyboy Meredith would start warbling Willie Nelson’s “Turn Out the Lights/The Party’s Over” to a bemused Cosell when one-sided games had become completely out-of-reach for the losing side.
Meredith and Cosell were at opposite ends of the human species. Frank Gifford was the colorless corporate robot in the middle. Their Monday Night Football act was the greatest in the history of sports announcing booths.
You’re not John Madden, Gronk. You know that. He could be funny and folksy as can be, but he could also come on as a great Super Bowl-winning coach and team-builder.
You’re a more modest guy who knows what it’s like in the locker room and the trenches. But you’re also the partyboy who knows about the celebrations and praises that come with scoring a whole lot of TDs.
Feel free to reject any of these, but I have a little advice, anyway:
1) Find a Reese or a Cosell or a Long to set up your brilliant dumb guy act. It’s foolproof. Audiences love buddy-boy jocks. (As I said, there may not be enough money in the world to pay you and Brady together if it just so happened that you clicked at the mic.)
2) Don’t be too reverential about your history with the Patriots. Hearing you talk too much about Bill Belichick’s genius won’t even make Patriots fans happy, not to mention everyone else. Tell us more about who was afraid of him. Or about who might have thought they were in danger of freezing to death whenever they got within three feet of him.
3) Tell us what life is like for the grunts of the NFL, in particular the linemen and pass receivers who can always count on getting more aches and pains and bruises than some others. Alex Karras used to be great at that. The fact you retired relatively early because you were sick of all the pains of the job makes you perfect to talk about an era where people are rethinking the sport’s damages.
4) Figure out some jolliness about your own peculiarities with money. We’re delighted to know you’re so frugal that you’re now, in your retirement, loaded. But it would be a lot more fun if you told us you never really learned how to enjoy spending money.
Make it into a likable fault, a little like being cheap a la Jack Benny, but more like a simple guy who never entirely grew up.
5) Don’t pretend to be too sophisticated. The audience won’t want to hear you spouting lots of five-syllable words — not without some humor. The audience will like you more if you’re a bit of a happy innocent among the smart aleck sophisticates.
You and I both know, as Buffalonians, that when some self-loving “big city” folks pull that one on us poor backwoods Buffalo types it’s almost an infallible indication of provincialism trying to conceal itself.
A little bit of it, though, would go a long way toward setting up a successful TV announcing act. Remember how successful jock broadcasters like Joe Garagiola and Bob Uecker were born, not on the sports fields, but in after-dinner speeches. They were the funny jocks who came after the pork chops.
By all means, keep on acting like the guy who feels the real fan fun at football games is had by Bills Mafia while demonstrating the finer points of tailgating.
The booth’s Voice of the Tailgaters and Postgame Partiers? It’s an announcing role that’s open now that there are no Merediths and Maddens around to compete.
Let’s, by all means, have a Gronk in the booth as long and as accomplished as the one who played on the field.
But don’t rush it. Relax. You’ll get there, I’ll bet.
Jeff Simon– A semi-retired critic and columnist for The Buffalo News. Before that, he spent a couple decades as The News’ arts and books editor.