Brent Musburger has been around athletes for more than a half-century, but only once has he asked one to autograph a picture.
You know it: Jan. 10, 1969, Joe Namath poolside at the Galt Ocean Mile Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, shirtless and smiling, captured by Walter Iooss Jr. two days before he changed the football world in Super Bowl III.
Look closely, and there is Musburger seated to Broadway Joe’s right on an adjacent lounge chair, fingers interlocked, white Chuck Taylors on his feet, smiling like everyone else as Namath held court.
Musburger was 29.
“I love that photo,” he said Wednesday before being honored in Manhattan with the Vin Scully Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports Broadcasting at a fundraising dinner for Fordham’s WFUV Radio.
“The picture was taken on Friday. Think about that: The Friday before the Super Bowl, we’re all sitting there poolside. Try to get even in the hotel where they’re staying now.”
It is fitting that Musburger secured a seat in one of the most iconic images in sports history, given a long and varied career that has found him at countless major events.
It began even before he was a journalist; as a college student, he sold tickets to the first Daytona 500 in 1959. In 1968, as a columnist for the Chicago American, he wrote a scathing piece criticizing John Carlos and Tommie Smith for their black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
He loved his print journalism life, but when Chicago’s CBS radio outlet, WBBM, offered to nearly double his salary to about $35,000, he felt he had no choice, having recently purchased a house and with his first child on the way.
“I went to the American to the managing editor and said, ‘I’m going to do this,’ ” Musburger recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, you’re crazy, nobody gives away a newspaper column. Brent, c’mon.’ I kept sitting there waiting and thinking if he gives me 36 [thousand], I’ll stay. But he never did. So I said well, I have to do this, and that’s how it all began.”
Good move. The afternoon broadsheet was converted into Chicago Today, a tabloid, the following year and folded in 1974.
In 1975, several years after becoming sports anchor for WBBM’s sister TV station with the same call letters, he began hosting the pioneering CBS studio show “The NFL Today” and became the network’s lead play-by-play man, including for the NCAA Tournament, until he was fired in 1990. He landed at ESPN, where he was the lead college football announcer until 2014, when he was re-assigned to the SEC Network.
All of which makes a very long story way too short.
“Because I didn’t play and because my last name was Musburger and not changed to Smith or Jones or whatever broadcasting name, I’ve always said, ‘The way you’re going to do this is to be as versatile as you can; whatever job they want, do it,’ ” Musburger said.
Back to Super Bowl III:
Musburger, who was covering for WBBM, also was present earlier in the week at the Miami Touchdown Club when Namath guaranteed the Jets would win.
“The one thing I remember about that night is that it was more matter of fact than braggadocio,” he said. “It didn’t send shock waves to where I ran to a telephone and said, ‘Put me on the air!’ It wasn’t like that. It was just matter of fact.”
During the game itself, Musburger was not in the press box but rather on the photo ramp — standing next to Howard Cosell.
“I was his audience of one,” said Musburger, who then described what it was like, doing a spirited Cosell imitation.
“I got, ‘They’re chokin’, I’m tellin’ you, I’m tellin’ you, young man, they’re chokin’, these Baltimore Colts against Joe Willie Namath,’ ” Musburger said, laughing. “It was unbelievable. It was just for me. I got the full broadcast, standing side by side.”
That all was a long time ago. But somehow at 77, Musburger has connected with young fans, along the lines of fellow senior citizen announcers who still are at it, such as Dick Vitale and Verne Lundquist.
He attributed that to not taking himself too seriously.
“I love the kids, love being around them, and I’m not afraid to talk about someone drinking a beer or having a $2 bet or whatever,” he said. “I just don’t take myself that seriously about it. They keep me young. They’re more important to me than I am to them, believe me, because I’m around them.
“In the old days, during ‘NFL Today,’ you’d have people that want you to sign napkins and things like that. Now it’s cellphone [pictures]. I actually kind of like it a little better. I enjoy it. It’s more personal. I get to talk to people a little bit.”
Some of those young fans were greatly displeased when ESPN replaced him with Chris Fowler at a time when Fowler was eager to move to play-by-play work, and when his contract was up.
How long did it take Musburger to adjust to his new, less visible role, which no longer includes calling the college football championship?
“I adjusted to it the next day,” he said. “I never felt that I was entitled, you know? I understand that companies at a certain time have to get younger, that they come up against contracts. I got that. No, it never bothered me.”
Musburger praised analyst Jesse Palmer and the rest of the SEC Network crew. He said working for a region-specific network has eased the travel burden from his fall and winter home in Florida.
“I’ve been married 53 years, but my wife [Arlene] says it’s more like about 26 because I’ve traveled so much,” he said.
Musburger made it clear that even though WFUV was honoring his lifetime achievements, he has no intention of calling it a career anytime soon.
How long will he continue? “Forever,” he said. “Carry me out. It’s too much fun, and I love it. Just roll the balls out and let’s play.”