For 19 years, Chris Berman and Tom Jackson informed and entertained a generation of football fans on NFL Primetime, ESPN’s premier NFL highlights show that featured the perfect paring of Berman’s quick wit and amusing nicknames (Eric “Sleeping With” Bienemy was always a personal favorite) with Jackson’s solid, no-nonsense analysis.
Now, the two broadcasters will reunite on ESPN following the NFC Championship Game Sunday night between the Vikings and the Eagles to bring fans a special episode of the show that made them both household names for millions of football fans. ESPN analyst and former wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson will also be part of the broadcast, which will air around 10 p.m. EST.
“Primetime put a lot of smiles on a lot of people’s faces on Sunday evenings, and I hope we bring some of those back,” Berman said. “We’re not a couple of old fossils, but it’s also not our first rodeo. I just hope we don’t get thrown off the horse.”
For fans (like myself) who grew up watching football in the pre-internet days of the 1990s, NFL Primetime was must viewing, not just for the scores and highlights, but for the duo’s engaging commentary and their willingness to showcase quieter plays that told the complete story of the game.
For Jackson, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the Broncos who spent 29 years at ESPN as a broadcaster, the special episode of NFL Primetime will mark the first time he’s returned to his former network since a teary-eyed goodbye following the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement in August 2016.
Unlike Jackson, Berman didn’t retire fully from ESPN when he walked away from Sunday NFL Countdown after the 2016 season. Instead, he transitioned into more of an emeritus role at the network, focusing on weekly segments called Boomer’s Vault that aired on Monday Night Countdown throughout the season.
Ahead of the Eagles Week 7 match-up against the Redskins, Berman looked back at two spectacular games by Eagles quarterbacks on Monday Night Football separated by decades — Randall Cunningham’s Oct. 10, 1988 performance against the Giants, and Michael Vick’s six touchdown showcase against the Redskins on Nov. 15, 2010.
Berman’s return to the spotlight couldn’t be more timely for the 62-year-old broadcaster. Thirty-seven years ago, on Jan. 3, 1981, a cold Saturday afternoon at Veterans Stadium, Berman covered his first NFL game as a reporter for ESPN, which saw the Eagles defeating the Vikings 31-16 in the NFC Divisional round on their way to the team’s first Super Bowl appearance.
“I interviewed both [Eagles quarterback] Ron Jaworski and [defensive back] Herm Edwards, guys I became friends with and ended up working with years later,” Berman said.
Not being part of ESPN’s weekly coverage of the NFL for the first time in 40 years allowed Berman to spend Sundays casually watching football as a fan from the couch in his living room (or not, as he admitted, “when the games weren’t good.”). He signed up for DirectTV, no longer has to watch and analyze nine games simultaneously and gets to bed at a reasonable hour. He also managed to attend his first regular season football game since becoming an ESPN broadcaster, taking in the Seahawks-Jaguars game at EverBank Field on Dec. 10.
But there’s certainly a part of Berman that misses the routine of speaking to coaches and the high-wire act of putting together a well-crafted highlights show on the fly.
“Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t sit there and cry because I wasn’t doing it anymore. Last January we signed off so it’s all good,” Berman told Philly.com in an interview from his home in Hawaii. “But boy, when you’ve done something for just about your whole adult life, and then you don’t do it, it’s an eye opener. Not scary or sad necessarily, just different.”
Berman was at his Hawaii home last week when a errant message warned the entire state of an imminent missile strike, sending islanders scrambling in terror. Berman didn’t panic — not because he wasn’t scared, but because he was in the shower when the message was sent.
“I got out of the shower and saw a message from my daughter in Brooklyn saying it was not a missile, and I’m going, ‘What?’ ” Berman said. “I wish I had a better story. Maybe my story is the best because I never had 15 minutes of legitimate heart palpitations.”
Berman and Jackson continue to have a close friendship with the two speaking by phone or texting one another throughout the NFL season. In fact, during last week’s NFC Divisional playoff game between the Falcons and the Eagles, Berman called Jackson at the end of the third quarter and the two remained on the phone straight through the fourth quarter and past the end of the game.
“It was like watching the game together in the studio like the old days,” Berman said. “We weren’t planning it. It was awesome and a nice precursor to what we’re going to do on Sunday.”
Berman has a soft-spot for this Eagles team. He’s been impressed all season by the play of both the defensive and offensive lines, and he has particular affection for head coach Doug Pederson, who he’s gotten to know through his close friendship with Chiefs head coach Andy Reid.
“I think to make [the Eagles] a home underdog is foolish. Stadiums don’t block or tackle, but it’s going to be a tough environment for [the Vikings] to come in on.” Berman said. “I think the game is going to be a tough, low scoring… what we used to remember as an old school NFC East game.”