BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Merrill Reese insists he doesn’t know what he’s going to say Sunday night if the Eagles beat the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
He insists he hasn’t scribbled down a memorable do-you-believe-in-miracles closing line for the historic occasion.
“I’m going to be spontaneous,” said Reese, the Eagles’ longtime radio voice. “Early in your career, you think of these big moments, and what you’re going to say. But if this team wins Sunday, whatever I say will be whatever I feel at the moment. I will not write it. I will not write it.
“It will be from my heart.”
Every word Reese has spoken during his 41 years as the team’s radio play-by-play announcer has been from the heart. He is the consummate broadcast professional. He also bleeds Eagles green.
It’s why the team’s rabid fans love him so much. It’s why so many of them opt to turn down the sound on the TV every Sunday when the game is on and listen to Reese and his broadcast partner of 21 years, former Eagles wide receiver Mike Quick.
“Eagles fans are passionate about their team,” Quick said. “It hurts them when their team loses. And I think it comes through in Merrill’s voice and the way he describes things when things don’t go well for this team. And when things go the right way, like they are now, that comes out twofold. It’s a great relationship he has with the fans. He really taps into their emotions.
“He has a lot of history. He has tremendous recall of that history. He has a lot of things that make him the great — and I do say great — broadcaster that he is. But the most important thing is the passion that he brings to it every time. It’s a passion that seems like it’s the first time every time.”
Another ex-Eagle, Stan Walters, who was Reese’s broadcast partner for 14 years, from 1984 to 1997, echoed Quick’s sentiments.
“When you’re in radio, you’re playing to people’s hearing, not their eyesight,” Walters said. “So you have to be able to make the game exciting. He has a great way of doing that. He’s a very professional person. But at the same time, he’s a very passionate Eagles fan. He walks that fine line between the two. When the Eagles kicked that 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants [in Week 3], he feels that. That comes up from his toes, through his body and right out of his mouth.
“I appreciate him more now when I listen to him on Sirius radio down here [in Atlanta, where he lives] than I did when I worked with him. And I appreciated him a lot then.”
A Super Bowl surprise
Merrill Reese will be the first to acknowledge that he didn’t see this coming. He is as cockeyed an optimist as any Eagles fan, but a Super Bowl? Maybe next year. Maybe the year after that. But this year? No way.
“Going into the season, I thought they were about a 10-6 team,” Reese said. “I tend to be a little optimistic. I thought they could be a wild-card team or, in a tight race, win the division. But if you had said to me back then they were going to lose Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, Darren Sproles, Caleb Sturgis, Chris Maragos, and then add Carson Wentz to that list at the end, I mean, this team has been ravaged by injuries. Key injuries. And yet, here they are.”
And here he is, doing what he always dreamed of doing, doing the only thing he ever wanted to do. At 41 years and counting, he is the longest-tenured team play-by-play broadcaster in the NFL.
“I never thought how long I was going to do it,” Reese said. “It was my goal [to get the job], and when it happened, I just wanted to do it forever. That’s the way I still feel to this day. I don’t ever want to stop. I just want to do it forever until they have to remove me from that booth with a crane. I love it as much or more now than I did when I started. Every year, I just love it more and more. On a game day, I wake up just as nervous now as I did 41 years ago, doing it for the first time.”
Dreaming big dreams
Reese grew up in Overbrook Park. His father was a dentist. His mother was a teacher.
He knew early in his life that he wanted to be a sports broadcaster. He went to Temple and majored in communications. He became the sports director for the school’s radio station, WRTI, before his sophomore year. He did all of the school’s football, basketball, and baseball games.
Before his freshman year at Temple, his mother got him season tickets to the Eagles. They were $35 for seven games back then.
“I would sit in the end zone at Franklin Field, and I would look up between plays at the broadcast booth,” Reese said. “I’d focus my binoculars on Bill Campbell, because he was the guy I loved. That’s where I wanted to be. That was my greatest dream. In my high school yearbook, it actually says: ‘Merrill loves cars, dogs, and girls and desires to be a sportscaster like Gene Kelly [the Phillies’ play-by-play announcer at the time].’ ”
The pursuit of a dream, however, isn’t easy.
After he graduated from Temple, Reese served in the Navy as a public-affairs officer. It took him a year to find a radio job when he came out. He auditioned for a job at a station in Coatesville and was told by the station manager that he needed to start someplace smaller. Seriously.
Next, he interviewed at a station in Pottstown that was looking for somebody to do high school games.
“I went and talked to the station owner,” Reese said. “His name was Herb Scott. He looked at me and said, ‘I’d give you a chance, but you look like you’d have a nervous breakdown [on the air].’ I had no confidence at that point. I hadn’t done a game since college.”
Scott couldn’t find anybody else, though, and asked Reese to do the Pottsgrove vs. Spring-Ford game that week. “He said it was between me and dead air,” he said with a smile.
Reese didn’t have a nervous breakdown. In fact, he did so well that Scott hired him full time.
“The first six months, I worked seven days a week for $65 a week,” he said. “I did everything. I did the disc jockey’s show. I did the news. I did the sports. I did a talk show. I did everything.”
He stayed at the Pottstown station for a year and then went to WBCB in Levittown, of which he now is a part-owner. While at WBCB, he auditioned for a job at KYW.
“The news director there at the time was a guy named Reggie Laite,” Reese said. “I had to tape-record a newscast. I wrote it. I recorded it. I didn’t fluff one word. After I was done, I was thinking, boy, I really nailed this. I’m going to get this job.”
“He brought me into his office and said, ‘I’m going to do you a favor. This is the nicest thing anybody will ever do for you. I’m going to tell you that if you want to have a productive career, if you want to make a living some day, you’ve got to realize it’s got to be in another field.’
“He said, ‘You will never work in a major market because you don’t sound like what we want people to sound like. You sound different. Go into something else.’ ”
Reese was crushed. He had just been told that his career dream was a fool’s errand. He still was living at home. That night, his mother could tell something was bothering him.
“She said, ‘What’s wrong?’ ” Reese remembered. “I told her. She said, ‘You know what? He’s right.’ I looked at her and said, ‘What do you mean he’s right?’
“She said, ‘It’s my fault. Because I obviously raised a weakling. If you’re going to let one guy throw you so off-kilter that you can’t even look at your dinner, then he’s right.’
“The next day, I went back to ’BCB and got back on the horse.”
He had enough doubt about his future, though, to meet with the dean of Temple Law School. But he knew that wasn’t what he wanted.
“I decided, I’ve lived my whole life with this one dream. I’m not going to give it up.”
Getting his big break
After two years at WBCB, Reese got his big break. He was hired by WIP to be the summer replacement for sports director Charlie Swift, who also was the station’s play-by-play announcer for Eagles games.
Reese hosted the Eagles’ pregame and postgame shows for the next four years, then replaced Al Pollard as the Eagles’ color analyst in 1977, alongside Swift.
“It was different for a non-player to do color,” Reese said. “But I came prepared. I was always armed with a lot of information. I’d be at practice every day. I prepared.”
Nothing prepared him for what happened next, however. On Dec. 7, 1977, three days after a road loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Charlie Swift ended his life. He shot himself in the head.
Reese handled the play-by-play for the Eagles’ final two games that season, with Herb Adderley replacing him as the color analyst.
But there were no guarantees beyond that season.
“They were very complimentary, but it was ‘we’ll call you; don’t call us,’ ” Reese recalled. “I went through that winter. It was the strangest winter ever. I had dreams all the time. I don’t know many times I dreamt that they had called me and told me I had the job. And then I would wake up depressed that it wasn’t real. That I had just dreamt it.
“Then there were other times when I dreamt that they hired somebody else. Then I would wake up relieved that I was still in the running.”
As it turned out, Reese wasn’t the first choice for the job. Al Meltzer was. Meltzer, who had been the sportscaster at Channel 3, had left town a few years earlier and taken a job in Chicago. But he wanted to come back.
“What’s easier to sell to sponsors?” Reese said. “The name of Al Meltzer, who everyone knew, or me, who was basically a pre- and postgame guy.? I wasn’t going to translate into instant dollars.”
But Meltzer ended up getting the sports anchor job at Channel 10, which opened the door for Reese to get the Eagles’ play-by-play job.
Reese has had other job opportunities over the years. He’s had network offers and offers from other teams to be their play-by-play voice. But Philadelphia is his home. It’s where he and his wife, Cindy, raised their two children. It’s where his dream became a reality. Leaving never really was an option.
Still at the top of his game
Two summers ago, Reese got a call from Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie’s administrative assistant, Tina D’Orazio. Lurie wanted to talk to him. He thought Lurie possibly was calling to set up a golf date.
He thought wrong. Lurie wanted to inform him that the kid who used to watch Bill Campbell from the end-zone seats at Franklin Field, and the kid who once was told he never would amount to anything in the broadcast business, was going to be inducted into the Eagles’ Hall of Fame.
“I had never thought about the Hall of Fame,” Reese said. “To me, the greatest reward is that they keep letting me do this.
“It was an amazing, amazing thing. It meant so much to me.”
After 41 years, Reese is still at the top of his game. Retirement is the furthest thing from his mind.
“My second-favorite thing in the world is playing golf,” Reese said. “But believe it or not, if I had the choice between doing an Eagles preseason game and playing Augusta, I would do the Eagles preseason game. That’s how much I love it.
“[Hall of Fame coach] Sid Gilman said to me many, many years ago: ‘Golf is a great game when you have a job. But you don’t want the success of your day to depend on whether you shot an 85 or a 95.’ ”
Reese still prepares every bit as much for a game now as he did for the season opener against the Rams in 1978. He is down at the NovaCare Complex every day, spends two hours a night during the week on game prep, and goes into what Walters calls that “Merrill mode” before the game as he pores over his information and studies everything that’s going on down on the field before a game.
“He gets locked in,” Quick said. “He has his routine, and he doesn’t like to break routine. From the time he wakes up in the morning [on game day], the routine starts then. And it really works. The sweet thing for me is, I know I’m working with a living legend when I walk in there. I know that I’m in a really good place.”
So does the listener.
“To transmit excitement over a microphone is hard to do,” Walters said. “But he does that. He brings the excitement of the game and the passion of the crowd to the people listening.
“When I was living in England, I ran into a lady from Philly. She wasn’t a sports fan, but she had talked to her brother who was a fan. And he told her his favorite time was raking leaves in the fall in the backyard and listening to Merrill on the radio.”