Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame Q&A: Merrill Reese
The Eagles will induct linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese into the team’s Hall of Fame on Monday Night Football during halftime against the Packers, so we caught up with Reese to discuss his life and career.
We talked to the Philadelphia native about his childhood in show business, Penn football, his favorite memories calling Eagles games and much more. Reese, who is in his 40th season as the “Voice of the Eagles,” is the longest-tenured play-by-play announcer in the NFL. He is also already a member of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
What kind of role did sports play in your life as a kid?
I always loved sports from the time I was a baby. From the time I could walk, I always had a ball in my hand. I always wanted to play everything. When I was a little kid, my parents used to take me to Penn football games on Saturday afternoon, and those were the days when Penn sold 60,000 seats. They used to sell out Franklin Field and they played the greatest powers in the nation. I had a mother who had a flair for show business, and she took us around for all kinds of lessons. By the time I was 8 or 9, I did a lot of live television commercials.
Any memorable commercials?
There used to be a television show on Channel 3 called “Six Gun Cinema,” and they used to show Western movies. There was a guy named “Chuck Wagon Pete” — who was a Western character — and his real name was Pete Boyle. And his son, Peter Boyle, was on “Everybody Loves Raymond” and became a famous actor.
When you were a kid, did you originally want to go into show business?
When I would do a commercial, I was connected with an advertising agency who had me do a milk commercial, a peanut butter commercial, a cereal commercial or something else. I would do it, but I couldn’t wait until I got home so I could change into my own clothes and go play ball. It wasn’t something I really aspired to do in the entertainment business. As a kid, I had the same dreams every little kid has: to throw the winning touchdown in a championship game, hit the game-winning homerun or to hit the foul shots at the end of the game. My dreams were sports dreams. By the time I was in high school, my so-called television career was in the rearview mirror and at that point, I realized I would not be a professional athlete. My next focus was to one day be a play-by-play broadcaster. I used to listen to a lot of broadcasts on the radio. Bill Campbell, who was in Philadelphia at the time, was one of my heroes.
How did your broadcasting career begin?
I majored in Communications at Temple University, and got my degree there. I was a Naval Public Affairs Officer, and then I came out and started my career in Pottstown, Pennsylvania at WPAZ. I was there for one year, and then I went to WBCB in Levittown, a station at which I’m a Managing Partner. Then, I came in the city to WWDB to primarily do news. It was a music station at the time, but I would do news between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. I really wanted to do sports, and they said, “We’re not a sports station,” so I said I’d do it for free in the morning. I would come in, do sports at 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.
What makes a good broadcast?
Stay with the fundamentals — I call it the STDD. At all times, I want to be certain the listener is aware of the score, the time, the down and the distance. You can do the most exciting broadcast in the world, but if somebody just tuned in and they don’t know what quarter it is, what the score is and what yard line the ball is on, it’s a bad broadcast. And also the ability to paint a picture. Don’t describe things a mile a minute, but at a pace that translates into a visual image to someone who is listening on the radio. As a matter of fact, I got a letter. I haven’t said anything to anybody, but could I read some of it to you?
I want to thank you so much for your hard work and great job with broadcasts of Eagles games. “Amazing,” “awesome” and “exciting” are just a few words to describe what you add to each broadcast. I am totally blind, and enjoy very much the passion and feeling you show during the broadcast. It allows me to follow the game so well and to picture everything that goes on in my mind. I could see before, and when I lost my vision, the last thing I saw was an Eagles game and I remember hearing your voice calling the game. I just want to give you a very special thanks for everything you have done over the years. It is truly very much appreciated.”
He sent me that note, which was typed, and he also sent me a Braille copy of it. Something like that means so much to me that I could actually bring a sightless person a game that he pictured in his mind.
Wow. That’s one thing I was curious about: What’s it like being the narrator of a lot of memories that so many people cherish?
It’s a great honor. It’s something that means a lot to me that people really care about what I do and I am able to heighten people’s enjoyment of football. I never try to make a dull game exciting. I try to maintain interest in that game with various topics to bring up, but I never heighten the excitement of a game that’s devoid of it. Instead, I feel like it’s my job to transmit the excitement that is going on at the stadium. That’s what I do. If someone were to say, “Boy, you make football exciting,” I’d say, “Well, I hope not.” I don’t want to make football exciting; I want to transit the excitement.
How do you take care of your voice?
The day before a broadcast, I stay out of noisy places. I won’t go to a noisy restaurant where I have to speak above the crowd, or if I happen to be in a noisy place, I’ll remain pretty quiet. I don’t smoke. I’m careful. I don’t scream. Even the day before a broadcast, I don’t talk on the phone very much because you tend to project differently and that can put spin on your voice.
People obviously know what you do, but what goes on behind the scenes for you to do your job well?
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.
The other thing is I have a spotter next to me, who has a board with both teams, which is three-deep — starters, backups and third-string. It has a pin in the little box with the player who is presently in the game. If the handoff goes to Wendell Smallwood, he points to Wendell Smallwood. I rarely need it, but it’s a check to make sure I have the right person.
But where he really comes into play is we have about 30 hand signals between us. After a play, he’ll make a fist with his right hand and bang that fist gently into his left palm and then point to Jason Peters, so I can say, ‘Great block on that play by Jason Peters. If Connor Barwin makes the play and then Nolan Carroll comes in, I may say, ‘Connor Barwin makes the tackle,’ and then he’ll throw up two fingers and point to Nolan Carroll and I’d say, ‘And Nolan Carroll finished it up.’ Or let’s say Russell Wilson fired down the field and the pass was incomplete, he’ll show me a quick passing motion and point to Vinny Curry to tell me Vinny Curry was the pass-rusher who brought the heat. I’m following the ball and he’s telling me what happens away from the ball. That’s Billy Werndl at home, and on the road it’s Anthony Bonagura, who works in the Eagles’ PR department.
I also have a statistician. At home, it’s Terry Small, and on the road we pick up a statistician. Last week, our statistician flew in from California, and that’s my son Nolan, who lives in California. When we go west, Nolan flies in and joins his Dad in the broadcast booth and keeps our statistics. He’s a film editor.
Talking about different stadiums, outside of Lincoln Financial Field, what’s the best setup for a broadcaster?
MetLife Stadium. The Giants’ stadium is perfect. The location of the booth is absolutely perfect on the 50-yard-line. It’s high enough to see a play develop, and not so high that you’re looking at ants. They also have these gigantic scoreboards that are right behind the team’s benches, so the time, score, down and distance are already in your line of vision when you’re looking down at the field. You don’t have to look up or sideways. MetLife, to me, is the best there is.
What’s the most memorable call you’ve ever made?
I think there are two that are considered the most memorable: The first Miracle at the Meadowlands when Herman Edwards scooped up Joe Pisarcik’s fumble. That was November 19, 1978. The other would be the Wilbert Montgomery run in the January 11, 1981 NFC Championship game against Dallas at the end of the first quarter to give the Eagles the lead. But my favorite moment was really December 19, 2010 and that was the DeSean Jackson punt return to beat the Giants with the clock running out.
Why does that one stand out above the others?
It was the game itself. The Eagles were so far behind; they were all but dead and they came back dramatically in the second half. Michael Vick put on one of the greatest quarterback performances for 30 minutes that I’ve ever seen. The way they came from way back — they were down 31-10 — and Giants stadium got less and less raucous each time the Eagles scored a touchdown. When Vick hit Jeremy Maclin and they kicked the extra point to tie the game, the place was dead silent. And when Matt Dodge punted it to DeSean Jackson — no one thought they’d punt to him to begin with — they thought he’d punt it out of bounds. When DeSean Jackson took the punt, muffed it, ran up the middle, got a great block from Jason Avant and then stopped at the 1-yard-line to dance around and get into the end zone with no seconds left on the clock, it was the most dramatic game I’ve ever been to.
What’s your favorite call you’ve heard on a broadcast from someone else?
I think it was probably Bill Campbell describing the tackle of Jim Taylor by Chuck Bednarik as the Eagles won the world championship in 1960 at Franklin Field.
What’s your favorite non-Eagles broadcast you’ve ever done?
I did a lot of college basketball, I did some tennis and I’ve done a lot of other stuff. During the players’ strike of 1982, we picked up the Penn football games. There was a game when Penn was playing Harvard at Franklin Field and they were all but done and they had one last-gasp effort. They drove the ball down the field and set up the game-winning field goal from about 40 yards, and they missed it. It appeared they lost the game and then suddenly, I looked down and there was a flag. It turned out there was a roughing the kicker penalty on Harvard, they moved up 15 yards and Penn got to kick it again. They made it, they won and the stands at Franklin Field poured out. It was one of the greatest comebacks in Penn history.
How would you describe the feeling you get during a broadcast?
Unlike any other feeling. I’m very nervous the day of a game, but once the broadcast begins, it all goes away and I feel like I’m floating for the next three hours. I’m detached from the rest of the world, and I’m focused on what’s going. The best phrase to use is: Once I am on the air, I am totally absorbed in describing the game and everything required to do it properly.