Cris Collinsworth for eight seasons was the star wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, with sure hands and quick feet. He was an outspoken and unflappable radio talk show host, thoughtful and funny, stern when he had to be. He knows how to make the right choices, argue with the best of them and talk football all day long.
All of this will come into play today as he takes the place of the legendary John Madden and sits next to Al Michaels for the season launch of NBC's "Sunday Night Football," one of the most-watched sports shows in the world. The game is the Hall of Fame game from Canton, Ohio -- Buffalo versus Tennessee. Viewers may well see it more as Collinsworth versus Madden.
Collinsworth doesn't mind. He saw Madden the same way.
"I'm a huge John Madden fan," Collinsworth said this summer at an interview conducted while he was sitting on the couch in a room with a river view that fights for attention with a strategically placed University of Kentucky flag hanging next door. That way, Collinsworth, a Florida graduate, can't miss it.
"My neighbors, they love to get me," he said with a laugh.
Collinsworth's sprawling home is hidden away in a leafy suburb with a backyard that spills down to the Ohio River. The property is understated, comfortable, spectacular -- much like the 6-foot-5 Collinsworth is as an NFL analyst.
This is an era-changing occasion. And Collinsworth knows it's hard for people to accept something new when what was there was so generally enjoyed.
Madden has been to Collinsworth's house. He has seen the flag, and the river. And that visit showed Collinsworth what made Madden so very good.
"The thing about John, over and above his great television style and the way he made football accessible to just about everybody, is that he is a very real guy," Collinsworth said. "He wasn't slick as a broadcaster. He's not slick as a person.
"He came to our house once and my kids were so pumped. They kept saying all day, 'John Madden's coming'; they were squirming around. John comes in, says hi to everybody, sits down and we put a game on. My boys got big-eyed and were quizzing him on everything.
"Two hours later, John hasn't moved; he spent the entire night with my boys, he brought his dinner over to the couch. When John left, my son Austin looked at me and said, 'Dad, I knew John Madden would say something to us, but I never thought he'd listen to us.' I mean, wow. I learned a lot that night."
Lisa Guerrero, who spent one season as a sideline reporter on "Monday Night Football" when Madden was the analyst, said Collinsworth has the personality and knowledge to make the job his own.
"I don't even think it will be a hiccup for Cris," she said. "He knows football from one end to the other, he stays up on stuff, he's a relaxed on-camera presence, he knows Al. Plus, he's accomplished in his own right. He has his own style."
Collinsworth said his style, being blunt and honest and confident of his opinions, came from working on sports-talk radio in Cincinnati after retiring from the Bengals in 1988.
"In the history of broadcasting, there might not have been anyone more uncomfortable than me when I first went on WLW," Collinsworth said, referring to the 50,000-watt station.
"I had three hours to fill and no idea," Collinsworth said. "The only thing I had to go on was Bob Trumpy . . . an ex-player working for WLW, and he defended the athletes and coaches.
"I figured I needed to give the listeners something different. But when I did that, man, the callers destroyed me. My neighbors destroyed me. If you said something about the local basketball coach, it was personal with someone down the street. If you said something about the Cincinnati Bengals, it would be, 'You're a former Bengal, how could you do this?' Once you've survived talk radio, you can survive anything."
His resume is long. He was a reporter for "Inside the NFL" (when it was on HBO), worked for NBC beginning in 1990 on NFL and college football, for the "NFL on Fox" studio show, was part of Fox's lead NFL team, covered the Olympics and Wimbledon, and was color commentator for the NFL Network's Thursday night games.
Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at the University of Syracuse S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, said viewers will like Collinsworth.
"He seems to have the ability to say critical things without being personal," Thompson said. "Part of Madden's charm was indescribable showbiz, like Captain Kangaroo or Johnny Carson or Walter Cronkite, he had an inherent likability along with the street cred of a coach, so you never got the sense he was just shooting off his mouth.
"There are pitfalls to following any legendary character, and inevitable comparisons will be made, but it's not as if Collinsworth is some newcomer where people are saying, 'Who's this clown?' He has a presence of his own."
Says "Sunday Night Football" producer Frank Gaudelli: "It's not like we're going from a veteran star to a rookie.We're going from a veteran star to another veteran star."
Michaels, who also earned early notice as a broadcaster in Cincinnati when he called Reds baseball games, said his ears noticed Collinsworth more than a decade ago.
"He was doing college football," Michaels said, "and I thought, there's a guy I'd like to work with someday because he's got it. He has the goods.
"As great as Cris has been in the studio in his career, people forget he was also on the No. 1 team at Fox. This is about as seamless a transition as you can have. For me, this is just a case of one fabulous period of time is over and now we're going to start another. So, CC, away we go, kid."
The kid is 50. His wife, Holly, a former University of Kentucky cheerleader, is a lawyer, and they have four children: Katie, 19, a soccer player at Yale; Austin, 17, a high school senior and highly recruited wide receiver who has visited UCLA; Ashley, 15, a sprinter; and Jack, 13, who is gravitating toward basketball.
Tom Hammond, a longtime NBC sports broadcaster Collinsworth considers a mentor, knows why Collinsworth will be fine as Madden's replacement.
"We first met when Cris came to Lexington for a banquet honoring him as the Southeastern Conference athlete of the year. It was the year when Kyle Macy was an all-American basketball player at Kentucky. When Cris got up, he said, completely deadpan, 'I just came here so I could meet Kyle Macy.' It cracked up the room. He's just naturally opinionated, funny, totally down home, but a thoroughly researched, factually accurate reporter. He'll do just fine."