Many artists spend most of their careers attempting to distance themselves from their most famous work. An actor will desperately fight being typecast by his or her defining role. A band that makes it big with a major hit single will try to reinvent its sound. It’s a strange phenomenon, this seemingly universal fear of being so closely identified with one massive success.
Not for Al Michaels.
“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
It’s the Stairway to Heaven of sportscasting: the top of every “Best of” list with no threat in sight. Six words that so fittingly encapsulated the 1980 Winter Olympics ice hockey medal-round match between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that it cemented the game’s place as the greatest sports event of the 20th century.
Thanks to Michaels’s call, the huge upset by the young Americans over the hockey powerhouse USSR during the heart of the Cold War came to forever be known as The Miracle on Ice. Nothing in sports has matched it, and it’s hard to imagine anything that ever will, and Michaels embraces that.
“I consider it to be one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven [in my broadcasting career], and the next thing would be about number eight,” says Michaels. “That’s so big that it’s not only once in a lifetime, it’s maybe once ever. I think the way it happened, how it happened, and what it meant to this country, it was just unbelievably special. I can’t even envision a scenario that would top it. That’s number one. The minute it was over, it was number one, and it’s only gotten stronger.”
The Miracle on Ice will most certainly go down as Michaels’s greatest hit, but that day in Lake Placid, NY, was just a springboard for one of the most accomplished and decorated play-by-play men in television history.
Michaels has covered more major primetime sports events than any other sportscaster — including more than 400 primetime NFL games (and counting) in a 40+-year career — and is the only play-by-play commentator/host to cover all four major U.S. sports championships: the Super Bowl (six times), World Series (eight), NBA Finals (two), and the Stanley Cup Final (three).
In the pantheon of modern sportscasters, he’s regarded by many as, simply, the best in the business.
“There is no Hall of Fame of broadcasters without Al in it,” says Frank Gifford, a Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer in his own right and Michaels’s partner in the booth on ABC’s Monday Night Football for more than a decade (1986-97). “He’s one of the great professionals of anything.”
Michaels was born in Brooklyn, where, naturally, his love for sports was stoked while sitting in the stands at old Ebbets Field with his father watching the Dodgers and listening to the legendary Vin Scully, another Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer.
Following his graduation from Arizona State University, Michaels landed his first job in television, choosing female contestants to appear on The Dating Game for Chuck Barris Productions. Soon he made his dream leap into sports when he was hired to handle public relations for the Los Angeles Lakers. He was offered the opportunity to work as play-by-play man Chick Hearn’s first color commentator but made it on-air for only four games and was unceremoniously fired.
After missing out on an opportunity to work as a commentator on Los Angeles Kings games, the young Michaels was at an early crossroads. He got what he considers his big break in 1968 when he received a call from Jack Quinn, GM of the Hawaii Islanders, a Chicago White Sox farm club at the time. In a rather strange twist of fate, Quinn hired Michaels when the Islanders’ full-time announcer was called up with his Reserve Unit to serve in the Vietnam War. After getting the call about the job opening, Michaels was in Hawaii in less than 48 hours.
“I never doubted myself,” he recalls. “I knew, if I got a shot, I would be in good shape. I was young; it was more naivety and bravado than it was cockiness. But I knew I needed a major break somewhere, and Jack Quinn gave me that break in 1968.”
In 1971, Michaels returned to the mainland when he netted the lead job on Cincinnati Reds telecasts and began a decade in baseball that included stops in San Francisco with the Giants and postseason coverage with NBC.
Following his brush with pop-culture stardom at the Lake Placid Olympics, Michaels was on the mic for many storied moments in Major League Baseball in the 1980s, including the infamous Don Denkinger game in the 1985 World Series, Dave Henderson’s home run in the 1986 American League Championship Series (a game Michaels ranks among his career best), and the stirring 1989 World Series and its Game 3 earthquake at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park: “Well, folks, that’s the greatest open in the history of television, bar none!” he quipped.
Michaels’s longest-running assignment to date established him as the NFL authority he is today. Beginning in 1986, he spent 20 years as the lead play-by-play announcer on ABC’s Monday Night Football, working alongside legends like Gifford and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer John Madden.
Throughout his run on MNF, Michaels established himself as a revered pillar of professionalism and a sports voice of respected intelligence. He became synonymous with big-time events.
“[Al] respects the sport that he’s doing, whatever it is, but also recognizes that it’s not being played in St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” says legendary TV producer and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Don Ohlmeyer. “People are watching it to have fun, and Al has the ability to throw in a humorous line, a line that puts a smile on your face just as well as he’s able to throw in a piece of information that made you go, Wow, I didn’t know that.”
He was also notorious for being the most studied voice in the booth.
“I never saw him do anything that he wasn’t prepared to do,” says Gifford. “That’s the most important factor, I think, in broadcasting. He was always a consummate professional.”
In 2006, Michaels left ABC and joined NBC following the network’s acquisition of the NFL Sunday-night rights in what is — tongue-in-cheek — understood as one of sports TV’s rare “trades.” In actuality, Michaels was let out of his ABC contract in exchange for the cable rights to Friday coverage of the next four Ryder Cups (which would air on ESPN) and also earned ESPN increased use of Olympic highlights. However, the part of the “trade” most people fondly recall was the sale to parent company Disney of the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a cartoon character developed by Walt Disney himself (and lost in 1928) but owned by Universal Pictures.
At NBC, he reunited with Madden before Madden’s retirement and was joined by current broadcast partner Cris Collinsworth on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.
Rarely does anyone enter a Hall of Fame while still performing at the top of his game. Michaels has, perhaps, never been more successful, more revered, more polished, or more personally content than he is today as the play-by-play voice of the top-rated show on all of television.
“It couldn’t be better,” he says of SNF. “Cris is fantastic. Fred Gaudelli is the best producer I’ve ever worked with. Drew Esocoff is the best director I’ve ever worked with. The crew is sensational, top to bottom. Fred gets a lot of credit for this. He’s the guy that brought the right people together. They are just the best at what they do. We feel like it’s an honor to be a part of this thing. We love it, and I can’t think of another show that’s been more fun for me, more rewarding for me, and it goes back to the people I work with.”
Still at the top of his game, Michaels has been raking in the awards reserved for those who have already hit the golf links in retirement. In 2004, he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, earlier this year, was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame and given the Pete Rozelle Radio & Television Award from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Throughout his career, he has won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Sports Personality (Play-by-Play Host) five times and been named National Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association three times.
Despite all the career honors, Michaels has not yet begun thinking about retirement. When you’re the face and voice of the most watched show on television, why would you?
“It’s just great to go in [the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame] and not get the honor in a crypt,” he laughs. “Right now, I’m just having fun, I love the people I work with, I’m on the number-one show on television. So what else is there? It’s not as if I’m just plodding along.
“Maybe I would like to play more golf or do whatever you do when you stop doing this, but for right now? You don’t walk away from the number-one show on television.”