If you’re any kind of sports fan, you’ll have to admit you’re at least a teensy bit jealous of La Jolla resident Dick Enberg. And why not? You sit in your living room, watching the game, barking comments into space that will be heard by 4 people. Even if you’ve got 30 people watching, no more than 4 will hear you. It doesn’t mean your insights or opinions aren’t worth it. It just means that you’re no Dick Enberg.
Enberg commands an audience of millions. When the Chargers are marching down the field, he’s the one who’ll fill you in on the story behind the picture. He’s the one who’ll tell you why the linebacker is dedicating this victory to his mother, or how the quarterback has overcome being cut from his high school team, or why this Chargers team evokes stirring memories of those air-bound days of Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow, John Hadl, and Lance Alworth.
From his perch in the broadcast booth, Enberg’s got the best seat in the house, an intimate view from inside the stadium, surrounded by a nice assortment of TV monitors. Then he does the same thing you do: talk about the game. He’s been brought to that CBS broadcast booth by a limousine. When he’s hungry, someone will fetch his meal. He gets paid lots of money for this too. It’s a job he’s had for decades, broadcasting everything from the Super Bowl to NCAA basketball to the World Series, Wimbledon, and more. For a quarter century, Enberg worked for NBC. Since 2000, he’s been with CBS. Says Pat Haden, the former USC and Los Angeles Rams quarterback who worked with Enberg for many years, “He loves those magical moments that sports bring to people. Watching people defy the gods is so remarkable, and Dick communicates that with great enthusiasm.”
When sports-loving children say they want to be in television, it’s Dick Enberg’s job they want. When they grow up and learn about the other jobs that make up the world of television and sports, it’s Dick Enberg’s job they want. When disgruntled adults think they should have pursued another career, it’s Dick Enberg’s job they want. No one ever dreams of becoming an assistant director or a graphics operator or any of the dozens of positions behind the scenes that ensure a seamless delivery of Enberg’s words. They dream of Dick Enberg.
Why do they want that job? In many ways, announcers like Enberg are the bards of our time, weaving tales that we can follow and appreciate. It’s a rare posting. As a culture, we have arrived at a point where so many story lines are complicated at best, nasty at worst. Global politics? The economy? Health care? Laden with nuance, ambiguity, statistics, and confusing protagonists. But sports offers refuge. Best of all, sports remains the only plot line where surprise is a good thing. “They’re our messengers,” HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg says of people like Enberg. “They’re the ones that send the tingle up your spine during a dramatic game. It strikes an emotional chord with you, the viewer. And it’s a good emotion.”
Now might come the point in the story where the reader is informed that behind the glamour there’s another side, that Enberg’s days and nights have stacked themselves one on top of the other, his life a ceaseless cacophony of cantankerous producers, lackluster hot dogs, and dreary airplane rides. Surely, at the age of 68, after 40-plus years schlepping to stadiums and arenas during weekends, Enberg is weary, a crusty barnacle who’s forgotten more about sports than most people remember and is tired of enthusing about a bunch of emotionally challenged man-children barely able to add the digits in their zillion-dollar contracts.
Indeed, these are times that try sports-lovers’ souls. We’re a long half-century away from the days when Chief Justice Earl Warren remarked that while the rest of the newspaper told of what man couldn’t do, the sports pages were where you went to read about man’s accomplishments. Sports has become so integrated into our society that in many ways, it’s lost its mark of distinction. Financial fiascoes, sexual scandals, corruption and commercialism — the plot lines that aren’t so easy to follow — commingle with batting averages and free-throw percentages. Surely you’d guess the cumulative weight of all of this would harden Dick Enberg’s heart.
The guess would be wrong.
Dick Enberg is still a lover. He’s every bit as awestruck by the struggles and triumphs of athletes as he was when he was a boy on his family farm 40 miles north of Detroit. Back then, he’d play an entire baseball game by himself on a made-up field, announcing every at-bat in hopes of emulating the feats of his hero, San Diegan Ted Williams. Frequently hitchhiking to Detroit to watch the Tigers play, on those days when Williams’s Red Sox came to town, Enberg would arrive hours early to watch Teddy Ballgame take batting practice. “It was like watching Michelangelo,” says Enberg. Back home, he’d taught himself to bat left-handed in hopes of mimicking his hero’s swing. Says Enberg, “Here I am, an old man, and to this day, I still have this fantasy that it’s the bottom of the ninth, down three with the bases loaded, and I hit a home run.”
As Enberg speaks, he’s sitting at a table at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. Like the sports that dominated his childhood — baseball, basketball, football — tennis is another athletic endeavor he’d like to be better at. The truth, Enberg freely admits, is that he never got very good at any sport he played. In high school, at 5´ 11˝, 145 pounds, he was a center in basketball, a quarterback in football, a pitcher in baseball. Attaining these positions wasn’t too hard since there were 33 boys and girls in his high school graduating class. As a freshman at Central Michigan University — hardly an athletic powerhouse in any era — Enberg rapidly saw that any dreams of an athletic career were frivolous. “Golly, I didn’t even earn a college letter,” says Enberg. Regarding his tennis travails, Enberg’s wife Barbara notes that he’s been known to be a sore loser, constantly aggravated at his perennial shortcomings.