Barry Jackson

ESPN’s Berman “at peace” with moving on from NFL studio, and other major assignments

In this Sept. 15, 2016, file photo, Chris Berman introduces former Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith during his jersey retirement ceremony at halftime of an NFL football game, in Orchard Park, N.Y. Berman isn't disappearing from in front of the cameras or from behind the microphones. He's simply stepping to the side a bit. The longtime ESPN fixture is giving up his regular on-air NFL and baseball spots for a new role at the network.
In this Sept. 15, 2016, file photo, Chris Berman introduces former Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith during his jersey retirement ceremony at halftime of an NFL football game, in Orchard Park, N.Y. Berman isn't disappearing from in front of the cameras or from behind the microphones. He's simply stepping to the side a bit. The longtime ESPN fixture is giving up his regular on-air NFL and baseball spots for a new role at the network. AP

No one currently employed in network broadcasting has narrated NFL highlights for as many consecutive years, or as demonstratively, as Chris Berman, an enduring and dynamic presence on ESPN’s studio shows for 38 years.

But Berman’s long run as an NFL host will end at the conclusion of these playoffs, the network announced Thursday.

Berman, whose contract was set to expire in May, will step aside from his most prominent ESPN duties: hosting the Sunday and Monday editions of NFL Countdown, anchoring the Monday Night Football halftime show, anchoring the first round of the NFL draft, and handling play-by-play for the Home Run Derby.

A six-time winner of the National Sportscaster of the Year award, Berman agreed to a new multiyear contract with a significantly reduced workload, a deal that includes interviews and segments of historical commentary on ESPN’s Monday night NFL pre-game show, hosting NFL Prime Time after the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, and calling a first-round baseball playoff series on radio. He also will have a role at the ESPYs.

ESPN did not explain why it wanted to make a change, and Berman – in a phone conversation on Thursday – characterized it as a joint decision.

“We agreed mutually; we said this is a good time [for a reduced workload],” Berman, 61, said. “Neither one of us was interested in doing it one more year. How ever we are going to do this for a few years, let’s do it now. I’m OK with it.”

Berman said ESPN, last year, framed this as “supposing if [you leave the NFL studio], what do you think? It wasn’t, ‘You’re not going to [do this].’ It was, ‘Supposing the weekly grind wasn’t there, you alright with that?’ I [initially] said that’s a question I can’t even compute at the moment. I am lucky enough to live part time in Maui. I don’t want to just lie there the next 20 years of my life like a beached whale.”

But the idea of a reduced role became more appealing, Berman said. This is his 31st season hosting NFL Countdown.

“I’m OK. Part of me is sad. When you first hear it, you wonder. But as it played out, I am really at peace with it. We started talking quietly that at the end of this coming season, maybe it’s time for me to do [this]. They never came and said you’re too old….

“Am I going to miss it? Yes. Because I still enjoy doing it and I still think I’m pretty good at it.”

Berman told me in May 2014 that he hoped to work ESPN’s most prominent NFL studio shows until he was 65. He won’t get to that point but said this is an ideal time in his life to pursue other activities.

“I’m not going to get to 65 in the job you and America see me do,” he said. “I will be 62 next May. It’s like Yogi Berra. I’m leaving but I’m staying. I’m still going to do quite a bit of football.

“Let’s say we live healthy to 80. From 20 to 60, I’m in this business. This May will be 38 years at ESPN and 40 in the business. 60 to 80 is the fourth quarter, and I want to be able to do some things. I will have plenty to do sports wise and get to meet different folks, get to relearn the piano. I am a pretty good musician. I have 10 years of books I want to read.

“My career is not incomplete because I didn’t do it to 65. I don’t feel like you are leaving the chapter out. I am at peace with it. I’m thrilled that I’m still here, that I am still going to be part of the fabric on air and representing the company.”

Is he melancholy?

“Very much,” he said. “Last Saturday night, New Year’s eve, the last hour before I went to bed was thinking this is your last Sunday NFL game day Countdown show, which went from 60 to 75 minutes to 90 to two hours. But then I did the job for 16 hours [last Sunday] and didn’t have one thought of it.”

Berman joined ESPN one month after its launch in 1979 and quickly became of the network’s most recognizable personalities.

“Today is a day – I don’t want to say celebration,” he said. “It’s day of happiness. Not happiness that I’m leaving, but happiness that I landed here at 24 and am here at 61. I kind of set out to do it and you do it in a place that didn’t exist before you had those dreams. I will be a like a proud and amazed father.”

Trey Wingo and Suzy Kolber would be natural candidates to replace Berman on ESPN’s primary studio programming. Wingo already has a significant role on the network’s draft coverage.

ESPN President John Skipper said of Berman: “Chris is one of a kind. His innovation, passion, preparation and on-air acumen have helped define ESPN. He wrote the book on delivering highlights which still serves as the standard to this day. ESPN's mission is to serve fans. No one has done that with greater resonance than Chris and his dramatic connection to fans played a significant role in establishing a successful ESPN. We look forward to Chris's continuing contributions while understanding that his place on our Mount Rushmore is assured.”

For some of my four Dolphins stories today, please click here.

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