"A totally inauspicious background."
This is how he began nearly four years ago. How we began. It felt like a promising start.
It's what first to came to mind this week upon the news of Sandy Grossman's passing, after a battle with cancer, at the age of 78.
That day, sitting inside that gated community in Boca Raton, on a comfy couch in an expansive study: books, photos, plaques, yes, television screens upon television screens.
Starting the ride of three quarters of a century of life.
I was the guest of a sports television pioneer, a man who had directed 10 Super Bowls, 18 NBA Finals, five Stanley Cup Finals, an Olympic opening ceremony and even his fair share of tractor pulls, cheer championships, daredevil jumps and Lingerie Bowls. A man who would earn the unconditional, enduring trust of John Madden, Pat Summerall and Bob Stenner as they collectively became the most popular broadcast team in NFL history.
A man who had won eight Emmys but had clearly won something more important—the appreciation of friends and family and, most strikingly, the absolute reverence of his son.
I knew the latter because I knew Dean Grossman a little. He had been the friend of a high school friend, and then we had been attendees at some of the same sports-related functions, in his role as sports agent and mine as sportswriter.
Dean knew that I'd been trying to get into the book game, and he believed that his father would be an intriguing subject. Dean needed to sell Sandy, who wasn't sure his exploits were worth the effort. He didn't need to sell me on Sandy; I knew who he was, and I knew some of what he had done. After all, you couldn't have watched one of those masterful Madden/Summerall broadcasts to its conclusion and not heard Sandy's name credited near the end.
Still, Dean knew Sandy's accomplishments alone might not be enough to attract the interest of publishers. So he also shared snippets of Sandy's stories about others, the ones Sandy had shared at the cigar bar or even occasionally at a holiday dinner. He gave me a list of some of those who would speak on Sandy's behalf, a cast of characters ranging from Summerall to Dennis Rodman to Nate Newton to Harry Carson to James Brown, all of whom he had impressed or befriended along the way.
"Everybody knows my Dad," he said. "Everybody loves my Dad."
And Dean gave me a mission, since he knew his father would be reluctant to praise himself or embarrass others.
"Maybe you can draw even more out of him," Dean had told me.
And 2010 seemed like the time to try. Sandy, while still working on various projects, was no longer employed by a major network, his contract unceremoniously un-renewed by Fox in 2009. I'd just gotten married. Aware of the extremely unstable state of the newspaper business, I was exploring every outside option available. At the very least, I could try to pump out this proposal, circulate it to some places, hope to get a bite.
From that first day, we would meet six, seven or maybe eight times at the house, usually for about an hour or so—with a cat and family of all ages coming in and out—and a couple of times at the cigar bar. I would record his anecdotes while scribbling some notes, trying to steer him into some sort of a structure, though I often found that fruitless.
It was better, I learned, to just let him spill in his folksy way and organize his offerings on my own time. He was quick with a laugh, often interrupting his own sentence, and just as quick to correct if he felt that I wasn't quite following. Sometimes he wandered, and sometimes he rambled, but he never lost me entirely, not enough that I lost interest in continuing.
There was too much, well, there.
We'd begin with his biography, from that "inauspicious start" as a "short kid with braces" who loved sports but realized he didn't have the genes of an athlete or the voice of a broadcaster.
That biography was inspiring and amusing, from his college days in Tuscaloosa ("my first impression of Alabama was that it stunk") to ushering for The Ed Sullivan Show ("once when a piano player named Roger Williams returned from a quick smoke, I wouldn’t let him enter") to his big directing break (the second period of an NHL game, after which public relations legend Bill Brendle paid this compliment: "he didn't f--k anything up") to his first football assignment, in Giants Stadium in 1970 ("I walked out of that one saying, after all the B.S., after all those years, I can actually do this").
We'd highlight his philosophy:
"The key to anything is, 'What does the viewer want to see?'" he told me. "It's not just what I want to show. What I want to show is part of it; I look at something and say, 'This is interesting.' But somebody out there is an aficionado of that sport, and I didn't want to offend them. I always made a point to treat every event I did like it was the Super Bowl because, for them, it is."
His Super Bowl work? Well, that would be its own chapter. We'd open with Super Bowl I, for which he was an associate producer, and which was such an undeveloped enterprise that the second-half kickoff was re-kicked because the other network (NBC) splitting the feed hadn't gotten back. We'd end with Super Bowl XXXVI between the Patriots and Rams and his wonderful work on the final drive, work that matched Tom Brady's own.
His time with Madden and Summerall would be another chapter. A long chapter. A fun chapter. From helping to put them together (by urging Summerall to go for the role) to probing for information from players and coaches, often during off, off hours. To watching film in odd places (like Hank Stram's hotel room, with the coach sitting in his boxing shorts). To entertaining viewers in never-before-seen ways, ways that fit his production team's unique talents.
"Before the game ever started, for about a half-hour, before we went through rehearsals or anything else, we would take the cameras and just start shooting around the stadium, looking for funny things," Grossman told me, smiling. "We would do this every week, for about a half-hour. People eating a hot dog, big fat guy with mustard dripping on his shirt, whatever. We would go on and on, and John would be talking the whole time. We would all be laughing, and the camera guys would be challenged to get funnier and funnier shots.
"That would lay the groundwork for some of John’s funniest moments, when he could talk about a guy and just have fun with it, and just run with it. We knew that no matter where the game was going, if all of a sudden things got a little dull, I could take certain kind of shots and trigger John."
Another chapter would chronicle his interactions with other announcers, from Lindsey Nelson to Brent Musburger to Tom Brookshier ("Brooksie") to Vin Scully to Bill Russell.
Another would attempt to list and detail Sandy's endless innovations: isolating linemen so Madden could explain their importance; introducing music to "bump" into the commercial breaks of NBA games; and putting cameras in so many places that they'd never been. Like the sky cam. That was used when Dan Fouts was still playing games, rather than calling them.
"I recall him looking up at it constantly, fascinated by what it could do," Sandy told me, wide-eyed. "It did its job well that week, but the next game, it crashed into a goalpost during an NBC game. The networks shelved it for many years until a safer, more reliable version was developed, one that the NFL could accept."
And yet, even after all of this—and so much more—I knew I needed something else to get some publisher somewhere to accept the proposal. I needed some dishing. I needed some dirt. But he simply wouldn't give me any. Sure, there were a few rollicking road stories, including one about "John Riggins and the 5 O'Clock Club," whereby the star running back—drinking with the Hogs and the Madden/Summerall/Stenner crew—missed a team meeting prior to a game.
Sandy, though, would always choose tame over trash. Sure, there was some bitterness about being phased out, as evidenced by this passage we produced together: "Daryl Johnston, who announced many of the games I directed, gave me the most profound advice that I ever received during my career. It came from his football experience. If you play the game long enough, eventually you’ll be a backup. Boy was he right. Boy did it hurt. Even my 30 years of success didn’t insulate me from the reality of the business."
Even that unsatisfying career end wouldn't undermine Sandy's integrity. For all he would share, there was so much he wouldn't. "Nah, I really don't want to go there," he'd say, stopping himself.
Weeks became months, then more than a year. Life got busier. The proposal still felt like an unfulfilled proposal. Dean had told Sandy that it would help to spice it up, but even he hadn't moved the needle much. So it was time to go with what we had. Maybe, Dean and I agreed, if some outside voices offered similar opinions, his dad would relent, dish a little more. Let's just get it out there.
So, one night at the cigar bar, Sandy and I briefly reviewed and lightly retouched what we had to that point, a proposal we called "It's Going Great So Far," after Sandy's signature catchphrase, one familiar to his industry.
The effort, unfortunately, went about as I expected.
We got a round of rejections, from people who liked the concept, and were intrigued by the subject, but wanted more. We briefly discussed reframing it, reworking it. There were some emails, a call, but some hope and steam had been lost.
We got together one final time, watching a full slate of NFL games together, which I chronicled in a piece for The Palm Beach Post: an enjoyable afternoon with the "master craftsman." I thought perhaps that would pique some inquiries, propel a new effort. But the new proposal never came to pass, as a couple of years did.
I dropped the ball and never really picked it back up. Stuff happened. LeBron James signed with the Heat. I switched jobs again, here to Bleacher Report. I turned to other book projects that were further along. It faded to the background.
Dean had wanted a commemoration of, and a keepsake for, his father. On that front, I'd failed, and I felt guilty about it. It was easier for me to just try to forget it.
I had no idea that Sandy was sick until I heard Jim Nantz send a special message to the Grossmans during Super Bowl XLVIII. I was down the street at my parents' house. I sent out a tweet. I posted on Facebook. But I never called. At that point, it didn't feel right.
A little over a week ago, when I was in Detroit covering the Heat, Dean called me. His father was very ill. Hospice. It wouldn't be long.
He wondered if I still had some of my notes.
"Just to have a memoir," Dean said.
I sent the proposal, the final one, the one that the publishing representatives saw.
Now you have, too, at least parts of it.
You can't put it on a bookshelf.
But maybe on this Sunday, as the Grossmans are memorializing a good man, a man who always saw the bright side, a man who meant so much to sports but much, more more to a son, you can put that man somewhere in your thoughts.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.