Extended Interview: Verne Lundquist, author of "Play by Play"
● By Alesha Damerville
Long dark nights and frigid air send you diving for the blankets. It’s prime time for snuggling in with a good read. This extended interview is part of a series of conversations with four authors of brand-new – but wildly different – books. Indulge in their stories, then bundle up and venture out to hear their backstories during live talks in Steamboat Springs throughout the winter.
A Life in Sports: “Play by Play” by Verne Lundquist
Verne Lundquist is a legendary sportscaster who spent nearly 50 years calling SEC football, college basketball, Olympic ice skating, the Masters and more. Since 1986, he’s managed to call them all while commuting from Steamboat Springs – an indirect route that often took him from Hayden to the likes of Tuscaloosa, yet he’s happy to report (maybe somewhat miraculously) that he never missed a game.
Steamboat Magazine:Writing your first book must have felt really different from prepping for TV. How did you tackle the process – and did you like it?
Verne Lundquist:The process is absolutely new to me. It started about a year ago. I was initially going to write it myself, but then I had back surgery and it was quite serious. Ultimately, we went with a ghost writer, a Coloradan from Evergreen, Gary Brozek…we’d talk four to five times a week, transcribe, then fact check. I’m quite pleased. It’s anecdotal – stories about significant events at which I’ve been present over 50 years, including more than a couple references to Steamboat Springs and our involvement here.
SM:Are you retired or just picking your choice projects these days?
VL:I’m essentially retired. I say essentially with my tongue in my cheek. My deal with CBS is that I do two events a year. I do the Masters and the PGA Championship. I gave up football at the end of the 2016 season. My last game was the Army-Navy game in December. In 2017, I gave up the basketball tournament. Then they asked if I’d like to keep going with Augusta. This was my 34thyear doing the Masters. It’s something I’m very proud of…it’s the one I want to hang on to.
SM:How the heck did you end up in Steamboat, especially because you had to travel so much? It can’t have been easy. After all, we love the Hayden airport – but anyone who has to rely on it a lot for business can also come to loathe it.
VL:I first came here in 1971. It was pretty elementary. I stayed at the Ptarmigan Inn in March. I have a picture of Billy Kidd and me standing together on Headwall on my office wall.The first time I spent any time here in the summer was the summer of ’75. I thought if I can ever pull it off, I want to move here.
Making a long story short…Verne and his wife Nancy moved to Steamboat in 1984, right after he got the call from CBS that they were switching him from college football to the NFL, where he would be Terry Bradshaw’s first broadcast partner…
VL:The final key for me was to get a full-time offer from CBS. And so we made the commitment to Steamboat knowing that it was going to be a problem. Just after we made the decision, I was doing a golf tournament. I told our executive producer, “I’ve got an announcement to make to you. Nancy and I are going to move to Steamboat.” He looked at me, put a finger in my chest, and said “You’ll live in Steamboat until you miss your first effort.” I knew what the challenge was.
SM:Did you ever miss a game?
VL:I never missed one. Now, I’ve come close. Boy have I come close. They switched me from the NFL to the SEC in 2000, and that only exacerbated the problem. There are no non-stops from Steamboat to Tuscaloosa.
SM:You have called a whole lot of games – basketball, tennis, golf, ice skating. What’s your favorite sport to call?
VL:I don’t have one. My back to the board, I’d probably say college football. The great thing is the change of seasons. College or NFL, then I’d be in an arena doing a completely different sport with a completely different tempo. I’d get energized by that change. Then into the golf tour, which is a completely different animal.
SM:As a fan, what’s your favorite sport to just kick back and watch?
VL:Not as much as you would think. I’m a fan, because it has been my life. On an average weekend, I watch every CBS college football game. I watch the NFL – and the Broncos at roving houses. I don’t watch the NBA at all. I watch golf.
SM:Can we talk about ice skating? Because, honestly, that feels like it was a departure for a football guy? How did you land there – and calling three Olympics, no less?
VL:I knew nothing. In 1988 we were at a football seminar in Pebble Beach, at the insistence of John Madden. During that week we got a call from New York that we were paying for the rights to the ‘92 Olympics in Albertville, France. My dream was to be involved in Olympics – summer or winter, I didn’t care. I totally expected to be assigned to the alpine ski events. I lived at this major ski resort, and Billy Kidd was our analyst and he and I were old friends. Then the executive producer called, very jolly, and said, “You’re going to be assigned with Scott Hamilton to figure skating.” I swallowed hard and said “Oh my god.” My wife said, “You’re going to love this sport – it involves the things you adore…athleticism and music.”
SM:So what did you come to love about ice skating?
VL:Nancy was right. And that was the key. That, and the friendship that I formed with Scott Hamilton. He just kind of took me by the hand and said, “Here’s what you need to look for.” And I now know that there are only six jumps in the sport.
In January 1990, Scott and I went to Leningrad to do the European Championships. I’d been hanging around with Terry Bradshaw, Sugar Ray Leonard and John Madden, so I was very comfortable with the presence of celebrity. But I’d never seen anything like when I walked into the arena with Scott, six years removed from his gold medal. I’m still taken aback. The place went nuts when they saw him. These are people who would not recognize Terry Bradshaw from a bus driver. People were yelling and asking him to sign autographs. And that has not changed to this day with him. He’s one of the most beloved figures in figure skating – and he taught me what I know about it.
SM:You’ve had this really long career, and you’ve seen athletes grow to become mentors and mega figures in our culture. What has that meant to you as a sportscaster, looking behind the scenes, and as a fan?
VL:I’m really touched when the public persona and the private person are one and the same. I have enormous respect for Martina Navratilova. And of course, Scott Hamilton.
SM:What does it take to be a great sportscaster?
VL:We are storytellers. I think you need to be empathetic. You need to give the audience a reason to care, a reason to get involved that they root for or against…it’s got to be judicious, personalized. That’s one reason I’m kind of benign about rooting for teams…I know too much.
Meet the author!Verne Lundquist shares the stories of “Play by Play” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6 at the Bud Werner Memorial Library.