Neither An Ice Storm, Nor Leon Lett Could Rob Enberg Of His Mastery Of The Big Moment
They will tell stories long into the night, remembering those happy golden days of yesteryear with a laugh and a unique sense of appreciation. Friends and colleagues will toast him times over for the positive influence he provided, both personally and professionally. Certainly, though, they will say their goodbyes.
The unfeeling grip of death sent shockwaves throughout the American sports universe on Thursday with the passing of legendary sports broadcaster Dick Enberg. Enberg died in his La Jolla home just outside of San Diego from what early reports indicate to be a heart attack.
No matter your preferred pastime, if you turned on your television set for long enough on any weekend during the past fifty years, then you were fortunate enough to hear the endearing tones of Enberg throughout your living room. Graced with a versatile voice and a warm personality, Enberg was adaptable to any stage, no matter how bright the lights or large the audience. From covering John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins and NCAA tournament finals, to Wimbledon and the Super Bowl, to NBC, CBS, and ESPN, Enberg did it all over a nearly 60-year career that ended as the play-by-play television voice for the San Diego Padres in 2016.
Those close to him will have their own special memories to offer up as mementos. For viewers like you and me, recollections of Enberg are of a more confined nature, consisting solely of those moments when Enberg used the spectacle of sports to reach into our homes and hearts and touch us with an unforgettable call.
With the expansion of cable and satellite television in recent decades, the exclusivity of sports broadcasting has become something of a foreign concept to millennial viewers. It seems everyone, these days, is a broadcaster. With seemingly every event now being televised, the quality of production and delivery has waned over the years. Television voices and personalities are, consequently, often treated as background noise.
Enberg was one of the few remaining links to a simpler time when the men behind the microphone were akin to royalty, their voices relaying to us the news and insight we had longed for all week.
Personally, it’s always been a source of admiration to listen to Enberg’s narration of the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day tussle with the Miami Dolphins in 1993. How it is that a West Coast star like Enberg could convey the excitement, wonder, and utter impossibility of such a scene is a credit to his mastery as a broadcaster.
Perhaps it was the twinkle in his eye, the welcoming smile he so often greeted us with. But Enberg could connect with an audience like few others. When Enberg looked into the camera, there was the sense that he was genuinely glad to be welcoming you and all of America into the arena. It was no different on that late-November afternoon when he welcomed the nation and an NBC audience to a Texas Stadium unlike any they had ever seen or imagined, all while delivering the information pertinent to the moment.
“On this Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, the path to the Super Bowl for these two outstanding teams is an icy one. Chill-factor around zero, temperature on the field 26-degrees, sleet in this weather storm that has struck central Texas,” were Enberg’s opening remarks on that most unusual of days.
A game with two warm-weather teams then ensued, taking on an ethereal quality as players seemed to move in slow-motion while struggling to keep their footing on the slick artificial surface which was only growing worse as the sleet continued to fall. “Meanwhile, in Miami,” Enberg reminded viewers during the first quarter, “folks are watching [this game with temperatures in the] mid-70s, we understand.”
Enberg and his booth partner Bob Trumpy braved a long, cold afternoon of bumbles, fumbles, and missteps from both squads with good humor, ever aware of the challenging conditions. Miami running back Keith Byars fell down without provocation after making a 19-yard pass reception in middle of the field. Dallas receiver Michael Irvin watched numerous passes from Troy Aikman bounce off his hands. Through it all Enberg maintained a lighthearted brevity, casting a cloak of fun and good cheer about this high-stakes inter-conference matchup between a pair of football powerhouses.
Though hesitant to criticize, Enberg was quick to praise the efforts on the rare occasions when the offense managed to execute properly. After Byars, a big fan of Roberto Clemente of baseball fame as a youngster, celebrated in the end-zone by doing snow angels, Enberg described his scoring jaunt past Kevin Smith and the entire Dallas defense as a “home-run run of 71 yards.”
And when Cowboys wide receiver Kevin Williams broke through a sea of defenders on a second-quarter punt return, Enberg thrilled the hearts of football traditionalists everywhere, punctuating Williams’ long runback with utter simplicity, declaring “He’s going to go all the way! Kevin Williams, touchdown!”
But Enberg’s shining moment came at the end of the fourth quarter when Leon Lett stamped his name into the history books as an all-time Thanksgiving Day turkey. After Dallas defensive lineman Jimmie Jones blocked a Miami field goal in the closing seconds, all of Texas Stadium erupted in celebration of what appeared to be a 14-13 Dallas victory.
“The Cowboys will win!” declared Enberg, unaware that Lett, a chunky Cowboy lineman who had fumbled away a sure touchdown in Super Bowl XXVII with a premature celebration only months earlier, had altered the outcome by touching the dead ball in the field of play and allowing Miami to recover at the 1-yard line with three seconds remaining.
“It’s Leon Lett! Nooooo! Not Leon Lett!,” argued Trumpy in disbelief at seeing the replay.
And with every football fan in America frozen in their seats, Enberg voiced the feelings of an entire nation at such an impossible scene by falling back upon one of his trademark phrases with unusual emphasis.
Said Enberg: “Oh, oh, oh, oh my!” Which, nearly a quarter-century later, still seems the most suitable response to Lett’s unfathomable blunder.
The Cowboys lost that day, just as the sports world lost on Thursday. Dick Enberg is dead at 82.