Jim Nantz has been living out a boyhood dream at CBS Sports for over two decades now. In 2007, the sportscaster's career came to a pinnacle with a 63-day stretch of calling Super Bowl XLI, the Final Four, and the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga. Golf was his first love—as a member of the University of Houston's men's team, he befriended and roomed with future greats Fred Couples and Blaine McCallister. Nantz's father, who played college football and had long supported his son's goal of one day announcing the Masters, would have come along on the journey had he not been long shut out of the world by the ravages of a stroke and Alzheimer's disease. Nantz spoke with U.S. News about his dad and his new book, Always by My Side, a reminiscence of his "hero and inspiration," set to the backdrop of the two-month trip he wished they could've shared. Edited excerpts:
Your father hasn't been the man you knew for 13 years now. Has writing this book helped you grieve the loss of the man he was?
I think it totally—I don't know what the right words are—it toughened me. I'm really in so many ways ready now for him to go. That's a hard thing to say. The 10-month process of cowriting this book truly was cathartic. I was going to tell the dirty little secrets about how painful it is for everybody that is a caregiver for a loved one stricken with this horrible disease.
What has the most difficult aspect of his demise been?
When it came time to move him out of the family house into a facility in 2000. That was the hardest decision I ever had to make. I'd had this dream that I was going to have my dad out there on the road with me, with a purpose. This magical three-event journey in 63 days—that would've been the greatest father-son road trip ever. But he has no recognition of anyone or anything in the world around him. It is such a hard thing for any of us now to see him. There are just so many little questions you don't have the answer to—Is he suffering? Are his feet cold? Does he need that pillow adjusted?—it breaks your heart. My father had an aunt who suffered strokes. The word Alzheimer's wasn't out there; we thought it was all stroke related or she was senile. I can still remember my father saying, "Don't ever, ever let me be like that."
Can readers expect some great sports tales in Always by My Side?
Sure, there are some behind-the-scenes stories of significant moments in American sports in the last two decades. But it's really not a sports book. I think the larger context here is how sports relates to fathers, father figures, and mentors. I can remember [as a teenager] we were out watching the United States Open Golf Championship. I had been moving from hole to hole to station myself underneath the announce towers in the hope that I could hear the treasured voices of my youth from above when it came time to comment. "Oh my Gosh, I'm hearing Frank Gifford, Henry Longhurst, Jim McKay, Chris Schenkel!" I remember [my father] allowing me to chase a dream, going with me.
What did you learn through your shared appreciation for sports?
He looked at sports more as a metaphor for life, not so much for the competition. He loved the stories that had a real heartbeat, that delivered something about humanity, whether it was an Olympic competition in some faraway country he got to learn about or an athlete who overcame some personal adversity. He just relished the chance to celebrate that story and explain it to me. He loved the romance of it.
Now, I'm always trying to find the heartbeat. The real high-water mark for me in any broadcast is when you can really deliver a portrait—of the player, the coach, the one that the moment belongs to. A couple of years ago when Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, was taking his team on a win streak that was the longest the NFL had seen since the 1933-34 Chicago Bears, I would ask him about what that meant to him. But he was just stonewalling. During the game that was going to match the all-time record of George Halas's Bears, I said, "Coach, let me approach this a different way. I'm sure there's no chance here, but you never met George Halas, have you?" He said, "As a matter of fact, I did. [My dad] took me into the locker room to meet Pappa Bear. I walked up to the coach and said, 'Mr. Halas, congratulations on your win today.' He reached into his pocket, pulled out a dollar bill and said 'I always give a dollar to the first person that tells me congratulations after a win.'" Belichick didn't even realize the significance of it, but here you had this symbolic chance meeting of the founding father of the National Football League with a man who—three generations later—is the dominant mastermind in the game today.
One of your father figures is your longtime golf partner and former President George Herbert Walker Bush. What has he taught you?
President Bush really became someone that was a big part of my life at about the time my father fell ill. I have run so many important life decisions by him. "What should I do about this—I'm being asked to do such and such with my career, what do you think?"
You could say I was drawn to how I could see my dad in President Bush's actions. We were at an event in New York, and Lionel Hampton the legendary musician was there in a wheelchair. The president went over to see him and got down on a knee at eye level. It was such an incredible gesture; no one else did that. I was at a game at the Final Four, met a great young guy from Kansas—wheelchairbound—and I did the same thing. Would I have thought of that on my own? No, I had a father figure who showed me how you treat people with dignity.
Anything else you've gained from writing about this loss?
When I was writing the book, I thought about how it would give me a chance to tell my daughter about the grandfather she never knew. She was just a year old in 1995 when he suffered the stroke, and his life took the turn that unfortunately there was no recourse for. When she visits him, it's "Hi Granddaddy, how are you today?" She puts her arms around him, kisses him on the cheek, and talks to him. I'm so proud of her because none of that love's ever really been transferred back. Oh, it would've been—his arms would've been around her, and he'd have showered her with kisses and praise and all the love in the world.