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White Heat

The fire still burns for Terry Bradshaw, former Super Bowl MVP quarterback.
| By Ken Shouler | From Maduro Issue, Winter 93/94

It is Sunday morning on CBS' NFL Today and more than 6 million people are watching. NFL analyst Terry Bradshaw is airing it out in the West 57th Street studio. "It's put-up-or-shut-up time for John Elway, Jerry Glanville and Randall Cunningham," he announces, warming to his take-that, animated self. The script is no longer in his hands as it was in the 1970s in a huddle at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. But he is still the guy others listen to.

Bradshaw's summation about Elway is a disguised challenge: "I have a hard time with a player who's had three bad years in a row," he explains later in his hotel suite. "And then he gets rewarded with a huge contract."

From Atlanta coach Glanville, Bradshaw simply wants results. In a game of word association, the name Glanville might suggest two stale elements of style: a fetish for strolling the sidelines in black threads and his once having left two tickets for Elvis at the main gate. This action was universally regarded as amusing by sportscasters and most every Joe Bag O'Donuts who tunes in or calls a radio station. Meanwhile--minor detail--the Falcons have 21 wins and 31 losses during Glanville's four-year term. Bradshaw isn't letting anyone forget that record.

But Bradshaw's lengthy analysis of Cunningham brims with pith and insight--not only into Cunningham, but into himself as well. "Cunningham has always been a guy who is more interested in his numbers than in the team. I listen to him; I watch him and I come away with the impression that this guy is more impressed with himself than I am. Consequently, he won't speak to me either."

Bradshaw pauses and goes on to connect apparently fractured ideas, being a little more expansive off-air than he usually is on-air, and that's saying something. "Then he wears these hats saying, 'Let Me Be Me.' I have a hard time with these guys in leadership roles that won't lead," Bradshaw explains.

As luck of the scheduling draw would have it, and at the insistence of Cunningham's intrepid agent, Bradshaw gets to deliver his Cunningham lines in person ... before those 6 million people. "He doesn't much care for your partner," Cunningham's agent warned show host, Greg Gumbel (Today Show host Bryant's brother), who took the call. "But he does like you." Promos teased viewers, trumpeting Cunningham's arrival. People who knew the game from the inside out wouldn't be leaving the screen for pregame nachos. A tension convention was approaching.

To make this a more comfortable confrontation, the CBS crew arranged three plush chairs away from the desk. Gumbel sat between the two quarterbacks, who seconds before were tossing a football around. Bradshaw and Cunningham were turned toward one another, with Gumbel full face to the camera as if waiting to referee a mayoral pissing session. Cunningham sat back-to-chair, upright and uptight, impassive. Bradshaw hunched forward, the sitting equivalent of a down lineman.

Bradshaw first compliments Cunningham's early season heroics. But then the leadership question, the question that had to come, the question that has tugged at Cunningham more than linebackers do. As Bradshaw speaks, Cunningham's eyes grow narrow. "Some of my teammates thought your statement last year about me being a good athlete was racist," flies Cunningham's baffling rejoinder. Say what? Gumbel intercepts, asking Cunningham if he thinks the remark is racist. No, Bradshaw had "a job to do," Cunningham offers. To be sure, there is a tired and perhaps unwitting tendency to characterize black athletes as abundantly talented, while white athletes are all intelligent and scrappy. Bradshaw replies that there are great athletes, black and white.

Bradshaw regroups and returns to his focus--the leadership issue--since Cunningham's tepid quid pro quo was about as successful as an arm tackle of Jim Brown. Or as Bradshaw might say, "that dog won't hunt." The twang in the voice doesn't indicate racism in the heart, and more than a few football fans would describe Cunningham as a great athlete, but not a great quarterback. Consider: though Cunningham is already in his ninth year, he also is 30 and has won just one of five of his playoff games with the Eagles. Now, he says that he has always been a leader. Maintaining this in the face of the evidence and Bradshaw's pointed barbs, however, just doesn't work.

The segment ends with Bradshaw triumphantly drumming the chair to the rhythm of studio music. Cunningham gazes off, blankly, as if he'd just thrown a playoff interception he couldn't fathom, as if an early frost had descended on West 57th Street. All things considered, it is a propitious moment for a commercial break.

At 45, Bradshaw still gears up for the big one on Sunday--his NFL Today segments, game highlights and half-time shows throughout the afternoon. He once called his analysis "baby talk," because of the keep-it-simple advice that comes from above. But now and then there are the glowing signs, those Sundays where fans who missed his playing days can still catch a glimmer of the white heat within. That brief, slam-dunk-in-your-face, no-holds-barred confrontation with Cunningham offered up the quintessential definition of the man Bradshaw has become away from the playing field--just as tough and straightforward as in his playing days. While Bradshaw no longer lines up against NFL defenses, he still moves his six-foot-three-inch, 225-pound frame quickly enough to run six miles in 62 minutes. And his description of how to keep an NFL-scarred physique in shape also explains his drive in life. "I can't compete anymore; it's kind of like competing with myself."

It is only fitting that the shape of his life has brought him to this point. The football analyst's week--like the player's--begins on Tuesday. The demands of reading notes, reviewing tape and rehearsing in the studio adds structure--and about $700,000 a year--to the simple Roanoke, Texas, life on a cattle ranch with wife Charla and their two children. The week-long preparation of an NFL quarterback finishes--often ingloriously--with about 12 minutes of running time on Sunday, an absurdly brief epilogue to six days of concealed aches and pains. Bradshaw now gleans material from USA Today and a voluminous 200 pages of statistics and facts meticulously gathered by the CBS staff. "And then I use about 1 percent of it," he cracks. If he talks too long, Gumbel is there to "bring him back." So all his preparation results in fiery analysis and zealous demonstrations fit between commercial breaks.

One moment he'll say that television causes him to lose focus and how weekends away cause him to miss time with his wife and children. "If I had to it all over again, I wouldn't want any part of this. You lose sight..." The next moment he talks of lucrative acting offers that "people keep bringing me" and of the friendship between him and his partner Gumbel. Could he really give up this gig, this town, this adulation? Give up the cab drivers and the cops and the sidewalk wanderers shouting, "Hey, Terry"? Sure, there's a chance.

But for now, he still strives for excellence, just as he did from 1971 through 1984, a time during which he steered a once hapless Pittsburgh team to four Super Bowl wins. "That was serious," he says, "this isn't." "That" refers to the huddles and the preparation and the 1,001 cranium-crunching skirmishes that comprised his football days. "This" is television. It's Bradshaw's nature to invest television time with play because he is playful and so he sees television that way. When he complains, he is venting disillusionment with the cutthroat, get-ratings-at-any-cost philosophy of the networks. There is not a single "I" in team, but the team concept gets lost sometimes in the world of television. "I think this business is very cruel, very cold. I've got Rick Gentile (executive producer) now, before that I had Ted Shaker, before then Terry O'Neill," he says, explaining how quickly management can change.

What's more, critics of NFL Today snipe at the Gumbel-Bradshaw duo for having too much fun. One can reduce sports shows to rating numbers just as surely as one can reduce a quarterback's efforts to statistics. But to Bradshaw sports is the toy shop of life. Silly boy, he still expects the artificial-turf-ground-acquisition pastime to be a diversion, not a numbers-crunching duel in which television anchors, producers and everyone else in sight eventually fails to make the final cut. One gets the unmistakable impression that Bradshaw thinks the more demanding things in life occurred years ago. Now he would just like to be with his family, plow the farm and fish. And fill Sundays with his inimitable style of teaching football to the masses while enjoying himself in the process.

Bradshaw's childhood on a farm in rural Louisiana filled him with respect for hard work. He also played hard. His father Bill recalls that Terry, "always had to have a ball in his hand. I had a swing set that I hung a tire and a five-gallon bucket on. He would throw it 10 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet--most of the time by himself." The tire and bucket lasted, but the chains broke with fatigue. He wore out leather footballs by throwing them into an open field, onto a roof, even into trees.

As a junior in high school, he won a distance-throwing competition, tossing the ball 72 yards. "I could always throw. I was clumsy, awkward, skinny, not a great athlete. But every weekend I was throwing that football. I could throw it deep; I could throw it hard. But I wasn't accurate. I hated short passes; I was bored with them."

But when his college days began, the most controversial thing he'd done up till then was fail the American College Test (A.C.T.) at the University of Louisiana. On purpose. He simply wanted to play at the smaller, less competitive Louisiana Tech, despite the wishes of those around him. Remarks about Bradshaw being "three bricks shy of a load" and "too stupid to call his own plays" trace back to that time. He laughs because he has heard it so many times. "I have always been five years behind everyone else when it comes to maturity. I hate telling people no; it's still a problem."

A.C.T. or no A.C.T., it's hard to argue with the act that followed. He was selected No. 1 in the 1970 college draft. ("I didn't think I'd be a first-rounder, so obviously I didn't know much about my talents.")

After several years as a backup, Bradshaw emerged as the Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 1 guy. Four Super Bowls later, Bradshaw was mentioned in the same breath as Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr and Sammy Baugh. He won two Super Bowl MVPs and still holds Super Bowl records for average gain, career (11.10 yards) and average gain, game (14.71 in Super Bowl XIV versus Los Angeles). He was also unanimous choice for MVP in Super Bowls XIII and XIV. And only a guy named Joe Montana has equalled Bradshaw's distinction of being the winning Super Bowl quarterback four times.

Despite the staggering success, he is a minimalist in recalling his feats. "There's only been four great days in my professional football career," he recounts, referring to the victories in the 1975, '76, '79 and '80 Super Bowls. That sounds like the ultimate reduction of a career to its simplest components. But the high of being a football player may never be equalled again.

"I was called to be a professional football player. That was my life. When it comes to professional football--I don't know of an emotion that's ever captured it.

"Everything now is a by-product of what we did then. I can't appreciate this nearly as much as my success as a football player. This is individualistic, that was team. To get 10 players in the huddle and the expressions and the talk and the language and the bond that's there and to take these players in front of a crowd and to go to the heights we were expected to--believe me there isn't an athlete in the world who doesn't say to himself, 'I can't believe these good things happened to me.'

"It's just all that work from a child all the way up, and you see it develop and unfold. It's just unparalleled. I've raised world-class quarter horses and caught huge fish and seen my children grow up. But that long process, to stand on the field and to know we've got this thing in control and win those Super Bowls. As long as it takes to get that feeling, it takes 24 hours or less to leave. Then you start creating it again."

When a tendon in his right elbow no longer obeyed his will, Bradshaw retired. "There was nothing more to conquer, other than to conquer the same thing I'd conquered. And to do it again. I also knew it was over and I could accept it and go on. I could walk down the street with the greats of the game and never feel I had to take a backseat to anyone, no matter what they say. That's a wonderful feeling. I don't have to be called the greatest; I don't need that. I got four rings. I was quarterback; I called my own plays."

His career was complete, his legacy intact. But he also doesn't grow ecstatic with the memories or by rehashing the past. "I can't have that anymore," he says of the glory days. "I have this habit of burying things and relationships." While the public glory lingers in arguments and unending anecdotes about Swann and Stallworth and Harris and Green, for Bradshaw yesterday is yesterday and today begins a fresh reckoning and self-appraisal.

And things to get enthusiastic about. Every weekend trip to New York from Roanoke involves Bradshaw in a series of rituals. A Friday meeting with Gumbel and the edit-and-production guys might land him in La Scala for dinner and "a beer or three or four," says Gumbel. Bradshaw enjoys the place; he likes how the maître d' greets him with a hug.

Before arriving at the studio to record promos on Saturday, he heads for Ermenegildo Zegna, a men's shop where "my man" Tony Garriett tries to dress him for a Sunday in front of the world. Since he travels light--a gym bag and a suit bag--he needs accessories each week. The ritual of sifting through fine cotton and silk results in a selection of two shirts, two ties, a pocket square and a pair of suspenders. For $750. This seems a hefty price for traveling light, but if he did carry them along, he would miss this simple Saturday ritual--the sampling of the shop's finery, the banter, the fussing over him and the pleasure of kidding with the salespeople. Bradshaw values the things that remain week after week.

Off to the studio. There he works on reading 48 words for a 15-second promo spot. First time: 13 seconds. "Slow it down a little," comes a command from the edit room. He reads again. "Tomorrow on NFL Today: Can Steve Young get the 49ers back on track? Will Barry be able to run against the Saints? Plus the latest on Mark Rypien, Joe Montana and Emmitt Smith. That's all tomorrow at 12:30 Eastern on NFL Today. All ya need to know." Long on exuberance, long on Louisiana twang, but a tad too long on the pauses--he crosses the line at 15.2 seconds. Try again. On the sixth attempt, he nails it at 14.8 seconds. Good enough.

He then returns to the hotel to work--make calls, watch college football and hit the notes. He fires up a Griffin's cigar.

"I don't like 'em real strong. That's why I like the Griffin's. They smoke so-o-o-o mild, so even. I could almost chew' em. Don't inhale 'em, though. There are two sizes. I like more water in the humidor, no cellophane wrapper because those suckers crumble.

"I just like the taste of cigars. My grandfather was a chewer, then my dad with his cigars. I smoke and chew, and I'm trying to quit chewing."

Bradshaw has no profound reasons or concerns with style that lead him to smoke cigars. "I started smoking around Mr. Rooney" (the Steelers' late owner). It's always "Mister" Rooney in Bradshaw's lingo.

"I just started because he did it. He once offered me a cigar; I can't remember what kind. I just liked it. After awhile I knew where he kept his stash in his office and the secretary would let me in to get a handful out of his humidor," says Bradshaw in wonderment. "My daddy always smoked cigars, but dad's King Edward brand wasn't as good as Mr. Rooney's."

When I'm home I don't smoke that many. But when I go to New York, I bring about six. But they're expensive (about $6 a piece). So it's hard to go out with a handful of those suckers.

"I get about five boxes--about 125 a month--from Connecticut. For every one I smoke, I give away two. I like to smoke while watching tapes and watching the games."

The Sunday show will run smoothly. That's because the leisurely feel of the show has been arrived at with painstaking preparation. From 8:15 A.M. till show time there are production meetings, rehearsals, makeup. "We rehearse until airtime and there are constant changes," Gumbel notes.

New information is added, cuts have to be made. In the first half hour of the show, Gumbel will hear from producer Eric Mann about 15 times: time runs long, segments have to be shortened. Mann, says Gumbel, rises at 7 A.M. on Sunday, after going to sleep about 3 A.M. the night before. Audio assistant Rich Brender says more than 200 people work on the show. "Researchers, gofers, producers--plus all the people who just worry," he says with a laugh.

A show might open with Bradshaw at the blackboard one moment, then switch to Dan Fouts in Atlanta, to Jim Nance in Buffalo, to Randy Cross in New Orleans, to Tim Ryan in Chicago and back to Lesley Visser in the New York studio. A lot of handoffs in about two minutes. Each is picture perfect.

But at times improvisation becomes the rule. "Terry can talk about eight, nine, 10, even 12 games at a time. He is able to do that and read coverages on the field and tell the situation," Gumbel says appreciatively. Occasionally Bradshaw will see something that demands a physical explanation, like the time he grabbed a ball and demonstrated exactly how quarterback Jim Everett of the L.A. Rams was fearful and thus, threw off his back foot instead of stepping up. "Terry has always liked Everett," Gumbel explains. "He thinks he has all the cool, but is losing his heart."

Earlier in the season, Bradshaw reviewed a CBS tape showing Everett throwing an interception and then running away from making a tackle. Everett would not return a phone call on the subject, and Bradshaw was going to look at the tape himself to see if Everett was a "woosey." Would Bradshaw have run away from making a tackle? "He-l-l-l-l-l no." End of discussion. Bradshaw makes clear his preference for "a man's man" like Bill Parcells. In quarterbacks, he likes the understated valor of Phil Simms.

"When it comes to halftime updates and highlights, it's "fly by the seat of your pants," Gumbel says. CBS switches to regional games across the country, trying to take fans live to the most exciting contests.

Visser, who was a sportswriter for the Boston Globe for 12 years, covered Bradshaw during his playing days. "He still has all the qualities you would expect of a championship quarterback. Greg and Terry are a studio version of Madden-Summerall. Greg is urbane and dry like Summerall, while Terry is not afraid to be physical and opinionated like Madden."

For all his candor, there's a side to Bradshaw that he has hidden from public view. It is his Baptist faith. "I found in the past when I would talk about my relationship with Jesus, someone would see me with a beer and say, 'Hey, I thought you were a Christian.' So just shut up and don't say anything. Then they won't know, and I won't hurt anybody. I keep to myself. People are just waiting for you."

The signs of his spirituality are present though. The word enthusiasm corrals Bradshaw the way he corrals cattle in Roanoke. To understand his manic fire and convulsive excitement, his immersion in the moment and his irrepressible spirit, one must understand his enthusiasm. Interesting word, enthusiasm. It derives from a Greek prefix and root meaning "having God within." People refer to his exuberance, his wackiness, his genuineness. "He's more fun than anyone I've ever worked with," says Rich Brender. Yes, fun, too.

In this business where people often don't like one another, but purport to get along on the air, Bradshaw says the studio crew is like family to him. Studio guys say the same. And Gumbel calls him his best friend.

Ken Shouler is a sportswriter and author based in White Plains, New York.

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