PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Merrill Reese is a present thinker. Yet, as he leaned back in his office chair recently, he knows he’ll always be intertwined with the past. He can’t escape the fact that Eagles’ fans weigh time by his iconic calls. They can remember where they were and what they were doing when on a dark early-December Sunday in 2010, they heard his resonating symphonic pitch, “The Eagles have just pulled off the most remarkable win I have ever seen,” moments after DeSean Jackson’s memorable punt return that beat the New York Giants. Or the many times he’s ignited the mic with “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it,” like when Herm Edwards scooped up a Joe Pisarcik fumble in November 1978.
His broadcasts have always come tinged with an underlying boyish wonderment. The passion that he evokes for his job and the Eagles is sincere. Walk through Eagles’ tailgate country and all you’ll hear is his booming operatic voice, the deep bass tones of a gifted tenor, our own Luciano Pavarotti encased in an NFL broadcast booth. Generations of Eagles’ fans have grown up listening to Merrill. You can almost image him eloquently crooning a game, and then concluding with “It’s goooooooooood!”
This season, Merrill is celebrating his 40th year as the Eagles’ broadcaster, the longest-serving current play-by-play announcer in the NFL. It speaks volumes of Merrill’s humility that the newly minted inductee to the Eagles’ Hall of Fame doesn’t think a celebration of his 40 years merits any kind of special attention. To Reese, he just happens to have a job that he loves. So to him, it doesn’t matter if it’s four years or 40 years, each time he steps into the broadcast booth comes with the same trepidation as when he called his first Eagles’ game on Sunday, December 11, 1977, against the Giants (a 17-14 Eagles win).
What gets lost in Merrill’s run is that the man is as hardscrabble as the team he covers and the city that’s embraced him. He’s had to scrap for everything he’s ever received. Under the polished voice and easy demeanor is a dirt-under-the-fingernails edge forged from more than a few knockdowns.
No one ever handed Reese anything. He was told once to get out of the broadcasting business, that he would never make it in a major market. Many doors were slammed in his face. He was even told once by a small station in Coatesville that he had to start smaller before building the foundation of a career that’s spanned six decades, reaching back into the late-1960s.
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Merrill is a treasure, synonymous with Philadelphia’s majestic broadcasting pantheon that features Bill Campbell, By Saam, Harry Kalas and Whitey Ashburn, and Gene Hart.
What keeps him going, and what will forever inspire him is simple: “I’m scared to death every Sunday morning of an Eagles game,” he says. “I think that comes from how important it is to me. You’ll never see me eat before a game in the dining room. I can’t. I won’t eat until after the game. I want to do this forever. You always have to keep in mind that someone that may be listening to you for the first time. They’re judging you solely on this broadcast.”
His talent and longevity commands so much respect that Eagles’ coach Doug Pederson asked Merrill to address the team the first night they reported to training camp. It was the first time Merrill was ever asked to do that—marking another special moment in a trove of them for a kid that grew up on the gritty streets of West Philadelphia who didn’t like his name and dreamed about being a sports broadcaster.
He used to get teased that “Merrill” was a girl’s name. “I kept asking my mother why she named me Merrill. It’s a girl’s name,” Merrill recalled. “I used to make up names and tell people I was Harvey. My mom told me Merrill is a good name and one day the name Merrill Reese will be famous. I still get emotional when I think about that.”
Now when you say Merrill to any Eagles’ fan, they instantly know who you’re talking about. He’s earned one-name status in this town, like Harry and Whitey. He’s also become the last of something special, the old-school breed of broadcaster that doesn’t rely on pyrotechnics to do his job well.
“No one does anything for 40 years, which makes Merrill amazing,” says Mike Quick, who’s been teamed with Merrill for the last 19 years. “The first thing you have to know about Merrill is that he’s very, very conscientious about his work. He likes perfection. That’s what he strives for every game. He spends a lot of time during the week preparing, memorizing numbers and names. All of the details that you have to go through to be the best at it—and he’s the best at it. I mean he does it every week—there’s never any let up with him.
“I suppose it’s why Merrill has lasted 40 years. He has a routine he goes through every week, down to the bath that he takes before games so he can relax and do his mental exercises. I think the biggest thing with Merrill is that every year for 40 years, he loves this stuff. I don’t think anyone is down more after the season, not even players, than Merrill. When the season is over, he’s one person who’s never ready for the season to end. And he’s also the most excited each year for the season to begin. That love for the game is contagious. It’s taken him to the level that he’s been able to maintain. Watching what he does and how he goes about his work, it made me realize how much work and detail that I had to put in so I wasn’t holding him back.”
Reese is the oldest of two, three years older than his sister, Dr. Carole Bogdanoff, a PhD who is a clinical psychologist in Bryn Mawr. Their father was a dentist, Dr. Nathan Reese, who died when Merrill was 16, and their mother was Helen, a tiny, energetic woman who got Merrill involved with drama lessons at a young age, which led him to doing live commercials for TV and radio. He once played an extra in the movie “The Greatest Show on Earth,” where he used to have catches with the great actor Jimmy Stewart during filming breaks.
In grade school, he grew up with the late, great Phil Jasner, and graduated from Overbrook High School, and then Temple University, coming out with a degree in communications and broadcasting. Reese then served in the U.S. Navy, reaching the rank of lieutenant senior grade. But something happened upon being honorably discharged in the 1960s: “I couldn’t find a job.”
“I wanted to be a sportscaster and knocked on every door; I wanted so badly to work for a station that I tried everywhere,” Merrill recalled. “I tried all of the Philadelphia stations. Nothing. There was an owner of a Coatesville station who told me I couldn’t start there—I had to start somewhere small. Then, one of my friends told me they were looking for someone to do a high school football game at WPAZ in Pottstown. I auditioned for the owner, Herb Scott, and I was out of the service for almost a year and in my mid-20s.
“Herb told me he would give me a chance, but I looked like I was about to have a nervous breakdown. I had no confidence at that point. I had been pounding on doors for almost a year. So finally, it’s Friday afternoon, and the phone rings. Herb calls to tell me he can’t find anyone to do this game and it was either me or dead air. I did a game between Pottsgrove and Spring-Ford on a Saturday afternoon.”
The following Monday morning, Scott called Merrill to tell him he was hired fulltime.
From there, Reese took a job doing newscasts at WBCB in Levittown, a station where he’s now a managing partner for over 20 years, making a whole $102.50 a week. Reese convinced WBCB management to do morning sportscasts, for free, when in the early-1970s came his big break on a tip from former Temple SID Al Shrier. Eagles’ broadcaster and WIP sports director Charlie Swift was taking a month off for summer vacation and the station needed someone to take Swift’s place. After an audition, Merrill got the job.
But before that door opened, Reese underwent an epiphany. He auditioned for then-KYW news director Reggie Laitte and felt good about the tryout. The assurance was quickly doused.
“I remember him telling me, ‘I’m going to be honest with you, and you seem like a nice guy, so I’m going to help you out. You will never work in a major market; you’re not what we’re looking for. You have a different type of sound that’s not what we want, so I’m doing you a favor if you want to be financially successful and suggest you go into another field or another part of broadcasting,’” Merrill recalled. “I was crushed. The world just fell in on me. I went home and crawled into bed. I can laugh about it now, but I remember telling my mom that I’m never leaving my room again.
“My mom told me he was right. Then she said it was her fault. It was obvious that she raised a weakling. I’ll never forget that. ‘If you’re going to let one person throw you off stride like that, and completely destroy your confidence, you’re never going to get anywhere,’ she said. Then she told me if I wanted to come down and have dinner, come down. If I wanted to stay up in my room for the rest of your life, stay there for the rest of my life. I came downstairs and had dinner. The day after I was out again working on the next step.”
Before Merrill left the building his first day at WIP, they hired him to do the pre- and post-game Eagles shows and the Ed Khayat show in 1971-72.
Then life changed for him on a Wednesday morning, December 7, 1977, a day that will Merrill will remember forever. Reese was working at WWDB doing morning sports, with his position at WIP being part time. Each morning at 3:45, a disc jockey would call Reese to wake him up. The phone rang and Reese looked at the clock. It was 2 a.m., which is never a good call. Merrill reached over and groggily picked up the phone. It was Tim Early. It took Merrill some time to compute it. Early was one of Charlie Swift’s buddies.
“Charlie’s dead. Charlie killed himself,” Early told Merrill.
“I was like, ‘What!’ It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Merrill recalled. “I did my WWDB morning show paying homage to Charlie, opening with, ‘I never had a sledgehammer hit me in the heart, but I know what it feels like. I found out suddenly this morning when I learned of the death of Charlie Swift.’ I got off the air that morning and the phone rings. It was Dean Tyler from WIP and his first words to me were, ‘Merrill, you’re doing play-by-play, who’s doing color?’
“I don’t live in the past, but I will tell you this, I think about those moments. He makes me realize there isn’t a time when I go to that broadcast booth, home or on the road, and walk up there and don’t pinch myself and say, ‘I can’t believe that I’m broadcasting Eagles’ games.’ I have never, ever, ever taken it for granted. It is something that I love to do more than anything else in the world. I treasure it. Every day it means more to me. I still haven’t gotten over that this kid that wanted to be a broadcaster is calling his favorite team in the world. I’m truly fortunate. When I’m standing during the national anthem, I think to myself, ‘I’m really here.’”
Through time, if you’ve noticed, Merrill has also become increasingly opinionated about the Eagles. He’s actually become that little voice in all of our heads, saying what we’d like to say out loud.
“I’m not a homer and I hate to be defined as a homer; a homer paints a rosy picture when there isn’t,” Merrill said. “I’m honest. I pride myself on being honest. I have so much respect for the football fans of this area that I have to tell the truth. After a while, you build a certain type of credibility and you know more and can say more. Whatever I say never comes from malice. If the Eagles play badly, they play badly. It’s my responsibility to say what I feel, and Mike feels the same way. It comes from doing it for a long period of time. I will be honest in describing a player and team’s performance. I’m in a great place right now. I work for a great team, in a great sports-passionate city. The only thing missing is broadcasting an Eagles’ Super Bowl victory.”