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24 April 2018

The play-by-play's the thing

With apologies to the Beatles:

It was 50 years ago today
Professor Mercer taught the band to play-by-play

Mercer and me300

Two days have passed, and I still can't get over the fact that legendary sportscaster Bill Mercer sent an invite to join him for lunch to me and about 20 others from his 35-plus-year University of North Texas (UNT) broadcasting and sportscasting teaching span.

Mercer is famous in the sports world for wrapping his feet with plastic wrap in an attempt to stay warm enough to call the famous “Ice Bowl” NFL championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers in 1967, not to mention the Cowboys first two Super Bowl appearances.  He was in the booth when the Texas Rangers set up shop in Arlington and those slightly long of tooth will recall Mercer at the mic when "Studio Wrestling," taken seriously by many back in the 1960s or so, was taped before a small audience in the KRLD-TV (now KDFW) studios.

His credits are too numerous to mention.  Suffice it to say that the Texas Pro Baseball Hall of Fame, Texas Radio Hall of Fame and Dallas Press Club “Living Legend of North Texas Journalism” member who shared the broadcast booth with Don Drysdale when the Texas Rangers first hit the field was/is larger than life.

Mercer did something else, though.  He gave back.  This gathering was not intended to honor him.  This was a thank you from Mercer to his students both recent and, in my case, from half a century ago.  When he stepped through the door to teach aspiring sportscasters and broadcasters in 1968, he was just Bill.  He may have flown half the night to get back to the University of North Texas (or North Texas State University, as it was known then), his concern focused tight on college students eager to learn from the master.

Mercer and wrestler275
Bill Mercer and "Friend" sometime in the 1980s.

The calendar flipped back a half-century in the blink of an eye for me and '68 classmates John Ball and Bill Conway as we made our way into a Richardson Tex-Mex restaurant Sunday afternoon.  Bill, now 92 with the same twinkle in his eye we all remember so well, greeted us all by name.

Mercer's legacy is not only for being a newsman who covered the Kennedy assassination and a world-famous play-by-play sportscaster, who also was in the booth for UNT sports.  It is for nurturing future generations of broadcasters as well.  The list of successful Mercer Mafia members is too long to chronicle in full here.

Some of the best known there Sunday, however, were Craig Way, the sports voice of the University of Texas Longhorns, and Tommy Bonk, the former L.A. Times writer who coined the phrase "Phi Slama Jama" about the University of Houston men's basketball team for the Houston Post in the 1980s. George Dunham and Craig Miller, known to Dallas-Fort Worth radio fans as two-thirds of "The Musers" (with Gordon Keith) on The Ticket (1310-AM), were also in attendance.

Conway, Ball and your scribe were founding members of the Mercer brigade.  We were there and on-the-air when KNTU-FM, the campus radio station, signed on.  We were there covering the Apollo 11 moonwalk when Neil Armstrong proclaimed, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."  We were there when  Muhammad Ali dropped by the Radio/TV department and mumbled something like, "There's no more real."  We were there when Mercer stepped out of his office to see Bill Conway and another student fist-fighting over radio studio time.

Mercer never had to say much to inspire his students.  The generous gift of his valuable time was not taken lightly.  That "fire in the belly" for generations of play-by-play guys and women (including Bill's granddaughter Emma, who's working in the business today) and journalists still burns brightly.

So when Bill told John Ball and me to head over to the gym to do the PA announcing  for the  North Texas State preseason inter-squad basketball Green vs. White game, we listened intently for instructions so we could please the master.

"Look, I don't want you guys to say much.  When someone scores, just announce the name of the player and the team," Bill said.

That sounded like a good plan.  But when John and I arrived and glanced at the rosters we noticed that the Green Team had a player named White.  And, wouldn't you know it, there was a guy named Green on the White Team.

So we took turns summoning our finest broadcast voices to say things like:  "Green, White" and "White, uh, Green."

We all shared memories like that Sunday afternoon.  Some great stories and thank yous to Bill filled the room.  We laughed a lot and cried a little.  Then we ate cake.

Bill Mercer brought the cake.

Mercer cake300



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