When Eli Gold, the voice of Alabama football, broadcasts the de facto national championship game Saturday, his call will reverberate all over the South on the Crimson Tide network and all over the country on satellite radio. He owes it all to his start in the little press box at Long Island Arena, announcing on a radio station that didn't quite have the same range.
"If the wind was just right," he said during a layover on his way back to Birmingham from Los Angeles the other day, "you could hear it in the station's parking lot."
Gold is nonetheless grateful for the chance to call Long Island Ducks hockey games on WRCN in Riverhead, a job that didn't pay - literally didn't pay - but launched a classic you-can-get-there-from-here story.
The Brooklyn native will announce the Alabama-Florida showdown Saturday. He has done Alabama football games for 20 years, having settled in Birmingham as a hockey and minor league baseball announcer. He also is the voice of NASCAR, works NFL games for a radio syndicate and has been a regular broadcaster for the NHL's St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators. It is all because he endured bus rides through the snow, plane trips on the Ducks' DC-3 ("We had to stop three times for fuel on the way to Florida," Gold said) and Long Island Rail Road jaunts from Brooklyn to Northport (he didn't have a car back then).
You could say that Gold cut his teeth on Ducks broadcasts, except that has a literal, vivid meaning for him. He recalls a game in Cherry Hill when Ducks legend John Brophy, then playing for the old Jersey Devils, was the target of spitting from fans. The fans had a clear shot because there was no glass around the rink, only chicken wire. Brophy eventually chased the puck into the corner and butt-ended one fan, costing the guy his choppers.
Gold includes that and many other stories in his new book, "From Peanuts to the Pressbox," relating his start as a gofer at New York radio stations and vendor at Madison Square Garden.
The turning point in his career occurred in 1971 when someone at the Garden told him the Ducks of the Eastern Hockey League were looking for an analyst. Gold applied, got the job and lasted two days before the lead announcer left. Gold was immediately promoted to play-by-play and has been behind microphones since.
Al Baron, the Ducks owner, agreed to pay Gold's train and cab fare to games as well as his expenses on the road. As for a salary, Baron told Gold, "I'll take care of you at the end of the year." Sure enough, after the final game, Gold received his due: A $50 gift certificate to Sears.
"The fact of the matter is, my pay was being on the air," Gold said on his way back from shooting a NASCAR TV show this week. "I was able to do the games without having the pressure of being on a station like WMCA or WHN."
It allowed him to develop a style that has brought him a great life. He learned to improvise, such as wearing three layers of clothing in the chilly Long Island Arena and finding a way back to Brooklyn late at night, after the last westbound train had left Northport. "I always had to find someone to drive me to the station in Huntington," he said, adding that often it was a Ducks Fan Club member from Laurel named Claudette. He and Claudette have been married for many years and have a daughter nearing 20.
Gold made another lifelong friend during his Ducks term, 1971 to 1973, a Commack kid who was doing the Syracuse Blazers games in the EHL. Yes, Gold and young Bob Costas used to go out for lunch together at White Castle and "announce" their walks along the street: "Costas goes left, Gold goes right . . . ' "
"Even back then, you could tell he was a great broadcaster," Gold said. "He had the 'It' factor."
Alabama's play-by-play man has done just fine for himself, too. He cherishes having known the great Mel Allen, who grew up in Alabama before he flourished in New York. Gold is naturally pumped about the SEC Championship game between the top two ranked unbeaten college football teams in the country, featuring Heisman Trophy candidates Tim Tebow (Florida) and Mark Ingram (Alabama).
"That's all you could ask for," said the man who has had more than he had hoped for when he started covering hockey games behind chicken wire.