All is different with a microphone in his hand. Fun as the job may seem, working a broadcast booth is no easy task. Enberg commands a broadcast booth like an orchestra conductor. During a football game, Enberg must keep track of 22 players at a time, telling viewers who made the tackle, which obscure lineman was called for the penalty, who’s going out of the game, who’s coming in. He’s also constantly teeing up questions so that his ex-jock analyst sounds smart. Concurrently, there’s a producer talking in Enberg’s ear about the need to read promotional copy for upcoming shows that have nothing to do with the game. It also helps to have a strong bladder and spend three hours taking 30 seconds at a time to eat. A goodly proportion of the vocational pleasure TV crews get derives from tales of announcers who refract these pressures by blowing their stack, most frequently at lower-ranked interns and production assistants. Producers who’ve worked with Enberg swear he’s never lost his cool.
On this La Jolla morning, Enberg is enjoying his off-season. Two nights previously, he was in New York for the Emmys. He didn’t win one this year, but he figures his tally of 13 is plenty. He’s just finished an eight-month stretch working on college basketball and pro football, interspersed with golf and tennis events. Greeting a guest, he apologizes for the fact that the new 10,000-square-foot house he and Barbara are building isn’t quite ready for entertaining. Perhaps a little later, though, a quick trip and tour of the house and some of his sports memorabilia might be in order after all.
With all profile subjects, there is always an elephant in the room, a grand question lurking under the surface of author and object. Does the actor have any intellectual substance? How come the athlete never won the Big One? Is the successful entrepreneur a tyrant? The scientist a fake? The artist a one-shot wonder? With Dick Enberg, the question is: How the hell did you get that job so many people want? Here he is, smiling, wearing a warm-up suit on a sunny day in one of the most elegant clubs in the world. He tells sports stories — both of his life and those of famous athletes and broadcasters — with candor, humor, friendliness, and the most genuine mix possible of self-deprecation and respect. How does a nice, simple guy like this get the gig so many sports fans dream of? “When you consider all people who climb over each other to get ahead in TV, and all the rudeness of executives and producers, it’s an incredible testimony to Dick’s character that he’s done it his way,” says Ross Schneiderman, a producer who’s worked with him for 20 years, first at NBC and for the past three years at CBS.
The answer is that Enberg did it with love, diligence, and kind words for just about anyone he’s ever met. Let the other announcers — the shock-jock broadcasters like Jim Rome, whom Enberg deplores — let them rip the losers for choking. Dick Enberg prefers getting choked up.
Bringing out his emotional side was a notable triumph. His father, Arnie Enberg, was Finnish. Like most Scandinavians, Arnie was reticent, frugal with compliments. Dick was the oldest of three, all of whom stayed with Arnie on their Michigan farm when Arnie and Dick’s mother, Belle, divorced when Dick was 14. Arnie’s remoteness vexed young Dick. “I was doing all I could to be a good student, a good athlete,” says Enberg, “and he hardly ever said anything.” One night after a high school basketball game, Dick came home pleased with himself for scoring a career-high 23 points. Arnie tersely noted that the man Dick was guarding scored 25. An upset Dick began crying, at which point Arnie shoved him through a doorway and declared, “The day you think you’re so good and can’t improve, then you can only go one way.”
But no matter how cold Arnie could be, Enberg’s capacity for empathy makes him see the world through his father’s eyes. “He was a hard-working farmer, a man who never made more than $8000 a year,” says Enberg. How could Dick dare expect Arnie to understand his love of games?
Only a chance encounter with an official from Central Michigan University, backed with a whopping $100 scholarship, gave Dick the chance to attend college. Arnie would have been just as happy to see Dick stay on the farm. Working his way through college, Enberg’s love of sports continued. A PE major, his goal was to become a coach. Earning a dollar an hour as a janitor at the campus radio station WCEN, Enberg was offered a job at the same rate as the weekend DJ. His qualifications: high marks in a speech class that had helped him hone his debating skills. Others such as Richard Nixon would use debate as a launching pad for conquest. Not Enberg. As he recalls, “The hot topic that year was free trade. But it wasn’t the topic that mattered. I was good on the team, but I wasn’t the star debater. But the lessons learned were so invaluable and still are. No matter how hard someone argues and how much they think they’re right, there’s another side of the issue. And you’ve got to take time to appreciate that.”
So inept with mechanical objects that he once locked himself in a bathroom, Enberg somehow learned how to spin records and hook up his amplifier in the bleachers of basketball arenas, football stadiums, and baseball parks. Calling a high school football game, he noticed the only yard lines marked were the 50, the two 20s, and the end zones. Another time a game was called off when a player broke his leg and his team had no replacements. As Enberg recalls, “As long as you pronounced the names correctly and got the final score correctly, then you did a good job.”