When cable was young and phones were still things you spoke on inside a building, there was rarely a Sunday evening during football season where it was mandatory for any fan to flip over to ESPN at 7 PM Eastern or so for NFL Primetime. When ESPN acquired rights to Sunday night NFL games in 1987, ESPN launched a Sportscenter-like show devoted exclusively to the day’s earlier games, and chose its most popular Sportscenter anchor Chris Berman to host it.
Berman, nicknamed “Boomer” like the generation he appeals to most, expanded upon his baseball-heavy shtick of exaggerated sound effects and corny nicknames, egged on by his longtime co-host Tom Jackson, a former Denver Bronco, and the gruff Pete Axthelm, a Newsweek writer with a heavy emphasis on gambling; a less racist version of Jimmy the Greek. There were other co-hosts in that era, including Robin Roberts and Bill Pidto, but the show was unquestionably Berman’s. Indeed, Berman drew on the legacy of Howard Cosell, who pioneered the NFL highlight package during the earliest days of Monday Night Football, the first time a full slate of game films were made available to viewers within a day of their play. Using a library of dramatic music beds produced by FirstCom, Berman was the voiceover narrator one had to pay attention to. His exaggerated, gutteral channeling of Al Davis’ Brooklyn-laced pronouncation of his team, “DAAA RAIDAAAHHHHSSSSSS!!” has proven to be so iconic, even current Sportscenter anchor Scott Van Pelt punctuates his highlights with Berman’s raspy intonation.
PRIMETIME came to an unceremonious end in 2006, when NBC acquired the Sunday night package and warehoused the longform highlight show for 7 PM ET with the introduction of the far more sedate FOOTBALL NIGHT IN AMERICA, which currently maintains that slot for linear television. ESPN did some creative re-branding and continued to utilize Berman and other elements of PRIMETIME in shows airing just before or head-to-head with SNF, including a specialized SportsCenter and THE BLITZ. But it honestly never brought the energy, or the timeliness, of having Berman and company right there, just as the 4 PM window games wound down, ready to catch you up in detail on what you saw, what you may have missed and, of course, how your fantasy players did.
In 2019, with the launch of ESPN+, PRIMETIME and Berman returned to weekly duty. Berman’s star had fallen with the numerous changes in management and direction that ESPN had in the late 2010s, and in 2017 his wife was killed in a one-car crash where she was reportedly driving drunk near their Connecticut home. Understandably, he was out of sight and mind for a while and, even when he would show up on such shows as SUNDAY NFL COUNTDOWN or a occasional Hall of Fame induction, Berman appeared distracted, bloated and lethargic.
But these days, with the immediacy of streaming, and the help of a more appropriately deployed Booger McFarland now no longer saddled with the pressure of being a third wheel in an ill-designed MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL booth, PRIMETIME is back, and Boomer is in classic form. Yesterday’s highlights, which featured a host of truly exciting high-scoring games and some extremely odd plays, was a tour de force for Boomer’s narrative, which in its simpler format now has him voicing every single package.
The “WHOOOOOPS” that accompanied the trickery of the final play of the inexplicably poorly played Bears-Giants game. The “tiiiiick…tick…tick” that clocked down the final field goal attempt for Buffalo in their last-second vanquishing of Baltimore. Channeling the 90s rock ballad “Cisco Kid” (…was a friend of mine) to narrate a pick six by Jacksonville defensive back Andre Cisco. Giving Vikings tight end Adam Thielen TWO Boomerisms (“Dancing On The Theilen”, “Oh, What A Thielen”) on the same play that helped lead them to their game-winning field goal. And yes, an awful lots of “DAAA RAIDAAAHHHHHS” as they won their first game of the season.
By the time the hour-ish is at an end, Berman appears more disshelved than he used to, visibly sweating and often out of breath. But he’s in command, he’s current, and he’s back in fine fashion. There would not be an ESPN, or arguably any sports network or platform, without Berman’s efforts, and in recent years it was sad not to see him as omnipresent as he once. Aging Boomers often get overlooked despite their talents and legacy. Don’t I know that.
Thankfully, anyone with an internet connection can once again see how good he is; those without one, or simply preferring to watch old school in an old school way, can watch a replay on the linear ESPN on Monday afternoons in the lead-up to Monday Night Football. If you’re not old enough to remember how good he was, I urge you to discover this reboot to see and hear him in action. He’s still a master narrator, and as enthusiastic as ever. And a vivid reminder that Boomers can still hit it out of the park.