REVERSING HIS FIELD : John Brodie Seemingly Had It Made in the Broadcast Booth, But Life Is Just a Game to Him and He Isn’t Finished Playing
If he were still playing football, the play that John Brodie would call for himself would have to be a reverse. He would bend over his center and look at the defense, but he wouldn’t be happy with what he saw. Brodie would call an audible to change the play and run off in the other direction.
Today, Brodie is running another reverse, but this time the game’s a little different, and that’s very important to him. It isn’t football, the game he left in 1973 after 17 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Neither is it broadcasting pro football as an analyst for network television, which has been his game for the last 11 years.
Brodie turned 50 last month and celebrated by becoming a professional athlete once again. He turned his microphone back to NBC so that he could pick up a 9-iron and play golf on the PGA senior tour.
If something sounds a little strange about this deal, it should. Ex-jocks become announcer s. Ex-announcers don’t become jocks . Brodie’s got the thing backward.
The whole idea defies conventional logic. It is an off-tackle play on fourth and 40, kicking on second down, throwing deep into zone coverage to your equipment man. You have to wonder what has gotten into Brodie.
Why would he turn his back on a new contract with NBC that might bring him $500,000 a year? Did he get blind-sided one too many times? Did Marv Albert’s play-by-play leave footprints on Brodie’s analysis?
Why in the world are you doing this, John?
“Why not?” Brodie said. “This is where the game is. I guess I’ve never been involved in much for security reasons. I had kind of run full circle with the football and the broadcasting. I just ended the cycle. My family is taken care of. This is what I wanted to do. I won’t starve.”
Brodie’s contract with NBC, for which he broadcast the PGA tour as well as pro football, was due to expire at the end of the year. When he met with network officials to discuss a new contract, Brodie said he asked what plans they would have for him, because he wanted to play golf on the senior tour and he didn’t especially want to be an analyst for the rest of his life.
The network has a somewhat different version of what happened. Brodie priced himself out of a new contract, sources say. In any event, the parting was judged amicable by both sides.
“They didn’t see how I could do both football and play golf,” Brodie said. “With the football, I said, ‘What are you talking about, another year or two?’ I mean, how many years was I going to be an analyst? Fifteen or 16? I was there for 11 and that was pretty long. It got down to the fact that I wanted to play golf more than I wanted to be in the broadcast booth.”
Brodie made enough money in 11 years at NBC that he doesn’t have to depend on his golf game to survive. That’s good for Brodie because his putter is a little fickle right now. He made his debut on the senior tour recently at the $450,000 Shootout at Jeremy Ranch near Salt Lake City, where he was David Graham’s partner in a best-ball event.
For a couple of rounds, Brodie’s was the worst ball. His driving was OK, but his putter betrayed him.
“He’ll need a little bit more than just his driver,” Graham said. “He can drive the ball well and he’s not a bad iron player, but he doesn’t putt very well.”
The Brodie-Graham team, however, closed fast in the last round of the tournament. They finished with the low score of the day and tied for fourth, which was worth $10,000 to each half of the team. That’s not bad for four days’ work and it sure is a heck of a lot more than Brodie won the first time he tried his hand at pitching and putting on the PGA tour in 1959 and 1960.
He played in 25 PGA events and made the cut 11 times. In his best year, 1960, he survived the cut nine times and took home a total of $384.16.
Arnold Palmer, who said Brodie is strong enough to be successful on the senior tour, remembers the Brodie of 25 years ago on the regular tour.
“He was good, but not good enough,” Palmer said. “Maybe he was just a step or two away from where he actually could do it.”
Brodie twice played in the U.S. Open but he didn’t make the cut either time.
So the question is whether Brodie can cut it this time. It may be the question for many, but not for Brodie, who believes that his first career as a professional athlete will help him now that he is in his second.
“You still use your mind and your body,” he said. “You just do different things with them. You’re solving different problems. All athletics deals with problems. That’s what makes the game. If there weren’t problems, there wouldn’t be much fun around here. What happened to me is that I just wanted to quit broadcasting and play golf. That’s where the game was.”
There’s that word again. The game . Those who know Brodie and claim to understand him are not at all shocked that Brodie needs another game to play.
“I think he did about as much as he could in broadcasting,” said Gene Washington, a 49er teammate of Brodie and now a sports announcer for KABC-TV. “He proved to himself and everyone else he could do that. He made a great living at it, but he’s looking for the next game. He’s always been like that. And you know, it keeps him alive. It keeps his juices flowing.
“I could never imagine John retiring to the front porch. It’s just not in his makeup. He’s a competitor. He loves to be in situations where he can take the educated gamble. He likes the pressure situations. He likes for situations to mean something.”
There has always been some sort of game in John Brodie’s life. When he was growing up in the Oakland area, Brodie taught himself golf. The summer Brodie was 13, he went to a boys’ camp in Idaho where the activities were swimming and golf.
“I wasn’t much for swimming,” Brodie said.
So he played 54 holes a day and golf became his second sport. Brodie had already become a pretty good tennis player. He won the 14-and-under tennis championship for Northern California.
After graduation from Oakland Tech High School, Brodie went to Stanford to play baseball and basketball, but wound up playing golf and football.
Brodie earned two varsity letters at Stanford in golf, but he was much more successful in football. In his senior year, he led the NCAA in total offense and passing. The 49ers drafted Brodie in 1957 even though they already had a pretty good quarterback--Y. A. Tittle.
“He could throw the ball extremely well, better than anyone I had seen come up,” Tittle said. “I had withstood the charges of a lot of young quarterbacks. There was George Blanda, who the Colts cut when I was with them in 1950. Later, there was Frankie Albert and Earl Morrall.”
But Tittle did not withstand John Brodie’s charge. The 49ers traded Tittle to the New York Giants and named Brodie their quarterback. Brodie worked in San Francisco for 17 seasons, spending his entire pro career with the 49ers.
With good teams and bad ones, Brodie was consistent. He was chosen to the Pro Bowl in 1966 and 1970, the year in which he also was selected as the NFL’s player of the year. Brodie passed for more than 31,000 yards and threw 214 touchdown passes. Twice, in 1965 and 1968, Brodie passed for more than 3,000 yards.
John Madden has said that Brodie threw the screen pass better than anyone else he had ever seen. Others, such as Tittle, thought that Brodie could set up a defense that expected one play, then call another and cross up the defense better than anyone else.
“John was a very bright person,” said Tittle, who came back to the 49ers as a coach from 1965-1969. “But you know football was not always a game of total science. My personal feeling is that it was not as complicated as everybody said it was. I think I helped simplify things for John, to some degree, things like always having a way of getting rid of the football.
“He became the best at doing that. You’ve got to pre-plan where to get rid of it. You’ve got to plan disaster. John learned to do that and he rarely got sacked. You never got to John, I don’t care how much pressure you put on him. He was just not easily rattled.”
One of the things that rattled Brodie, however, was the press. It wasn’t so much that he had nothing to say, it’s that he didn’t care for the questions he was asked. So Brodie developed a reputation as a bad interview. That was not especially good training for someone who was later to be the one holding the microphone.
Here is how an interview went between one young network questioner, Brent Musburger, and one older quarterback, John Brodie:
Musburger: “John, this has to be the most exciting moment in your career.”
Brodie: “Well, it sure as hell is the most exciting thing that’s happened this week.”
Brodie said he didn’t mean to be sarcastic, but he disliked leading questions.
“People would lay traps,” he said. “I was all right if somebody would ask me a question that wasn’t obvious. Like ‘How did you feel when you ran the ball in?’ I wasn’t checking my feelings at the time. That feeling routine is something that somebody coined one time and it’s a comfortable question.
“Anytime anybody took the time to ask me a question that I felt was something commensurate with what was going on, I’d give him all the time he needed.”
As a broadcaster, Brodie said he resisted asking the same kind of questions he hadn’t liked when he played.
“I think athletes ask much better questions interviewing than those who did not play,” Brodie said. “You have more empathy for it. I don’t think questions for controversy’s sake are so great. I thought questions having to do with what we were watching were important. But it never bothered me if people didn’t agree with me.”
The 49ers had their moments, too, and one of their most memorable ones during Brodie’s tenure was the time he disagreed with his coach. That was in 1971, when the 49ers were trying to win their second consecutive Western Division title. They led the Redskins by a point with three minutes to play and had third and two near midfield.
Dick Nolan, the 49er coach who never saw eye to eye with Brodie, called for a running play into the left side of the line. Brodie didn’t like the play, so he spoke to Washington in the huddle.
“Gene, can you beat your guy?” Brodie asked.
“Yeah,” Washington said.
“Well, you’d better or it’s our jobs.”
Brodie changed the call to a play-action pass for Washington and let it go.
“I threw kind of a funky looking ball and Gene absolutely was five feet off the ground when he caught it,” Brodie said. “I said, ‘Phew!’ That was almost the end of my career. You don’t call that kind of play and take that responsibility and be wrong.”
Washington said the play was pure Brodie.
“If it hadn’t worked, everybody would have said, ‘That stupid Brodie,’ ” Washington said. “But that’s the way John has been throughout his entire career. John is not one to lack in confidence. There’s nothing in the world that John Brodie can’t do. I think that’s the way he looks at life.
“So you can’t tell John Brodie: ‘You can’t give up this soft job and go out and compete. What if you don’t win?’ I don’t think the thought has entered his mind that he won’t win.
“That doesn’t mean he won’t change his mind in a year or five years and do something else. He will still have gained from the experience, and that’s what John likes. He will find another game.”
The game Brodie has found now has some pretty stiff rules. Brodie does not have a PGA senior tour card, so he can only get into senior tournaments by qualifying every week, or through a sponsor’s exemption, and he is allowed only three sponsor’s exemptions a year.
In December, Brodie will be one of about 300 senior golfers entering qualifying school at Fort Pierce, Fla., where they will fight it out for four tour cards.
“I’m not really scared of failing,” Brodie said, although he is well aware he’s fighting some pretty long odds. “I know it’s a closed shop. But that doesn’t bother me a bit. I don’t feel like I’m jeopardizing my reputation if I don’t make it. Some people might say, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve failed!’ Hell, I’ve failed a lot of things and I’m going to fail some more. I bounce back. I’m resilient. I kind of like the challenge.”
To some of the other players on the senior tour, Brodie’s presence is also a direct challenge, especially in their wallets if he plays well. Here’s a guy who turns down a guaranteed half-million bucks the easy way to try to take some of their prize money. You’d think they might be angry, right?
“I was raised in the streets of Nashville, Tenn.,” said Kyle Burton, who was 61st on the senior tour money list last year with $10,592. “What I learned there is if a guy can do something, then he can do it. It’s the American way. The criterion is whether a guy can play. Nothing else.”
Dick Mayer won $11,430 last year, but he doesn’t resent Brodie’s decision.
“The only people who would say they don’t want John here are just talking sour grapes,” Mayer said. “John is here to work like hell and to play golf. He’s not a 90 shooter. This tour needs some more personalities out here.”
Mayer has known Brodie since 1968, when he traded Brodie a driver for two footballs.
“He’s a great personality in two different fields,” Mayer said.
The field in which Brodie was working in his senior golf debut was 6,300-feet high in the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City on a course gouged out of a canyon and confiscated from the rattlesnakes.
The Jeremy Ranch was once a 100,000-acre sheep spread but now it’s a golf resort with homes, town houses and condominiums around a course designed by Arnold Palmer and his architect, Ed Searcy.
“This is a good place for John to break in,” Palmer said. “He’s got a real chance to learn some things here.”
What Brodie learned is that he’s going to keep on playing golf. It is, after all, the game. Brodie said that golf is a game where the ball goes and you have to find it. “And, it doesn’t always go where you aim,” he said.
Brodie admits that he has a lot of work to do to become a better senior golfer. He knows he can’t be embarrassed by bad shots, as he sometimes is now, and he’s got to improve his putting.
“I think I understand right now where I am,” he said. “I’ve just got to go out there and see what I can do. The golf course is just sitting out there. I think I’ll do fine. I didn’t come out not here to do any good, but if I don’t, I’ll go find another game.
“I loved playing football. You can’t play 17 years and not love it. I had to quit.
“I’ve had the greatest life anybody could have. I got absolutely no kick about anything. I played football at a good level and I was an effective broadcaster, if all that stuff means anything.
“I just need another game. I’m not much of a sentimentalist. When the game’s over, the game’s over. People are still saying about me, he’s an ex-football player. Well, I last did that 12 years ago. I’ve never felt that I had played football or been a broadcaster to have an identity. I don’t have to be in the limelight, but I enjoy a game. And I’ve played them all.”
Brodie pushed a beer can across the table and a woman sitting behind him tapped him on the shoulder. She handed him a small cellophane envelope with a four-leaf clover inside.
“Maybe you can use this,” the woman said.
Brodie smiled when he accepted the envelope and inspected the good-luck charm.
“Well, thank you very much,” he said. “I’ll put this right on the head of my putter.”
The next day, Brodie and Graham shot a 9-under par 63 and moved onto the leader board, in a tie for fourth.
Afterward, Brodie was asked whether he had used the clover leaf on his putter.
“Naw, I think it’s in the pocket of my other pair of slacks,” he said. “But say I did. It’s a better story.”
No, let’s not say that, John. Save that four-leaf clover for your next game. This story doesn’t need it.