Tony Roberts, longtime voice of Notre Dame football, dies at 94 – Lifotravel

Tony Roberts, a versatile sportscaster who brought his fluid baritone to the Washington airwaves in the 1970s, doing play-by-play for the old Senators baseball team and the Bullets of the NBA before going on to national renown as the booming, ebullient voice of Notre Dame football, died Aug. 25 at his home in Gainesville, Va. He was 94.

His son Lance said the cause was not immediately known but that Mr. Roberts started receiving hospice care the day before he died.

Mr. Roberts was among the most acclaimed sportscasters of his generation, inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2016 after years spent covering marquee events including the Olympic Games, College World Series and British Open golf championship for the Mutual Broadcasting System, later known as Westwood One. He launched his career in small cities across the Midwest before doing play-by-play for pro basketball, baseball, the NFL and above all Notre Dame football, becoming a fan favorite with his signature call of “Touchdown, Irish!”

“He sounds like a radio sportscaster is supposed to sound — with a resonant voice that seemingly hums along in sync with your car engine, with a soothing voice securely in control of the action, with a staccato voice that can make dramatic leaps quickly and surely,” Washington Post sportswriter Norman Chad declared in 1988.

Mr. Roberts had long said baseball was “the greatest game ever invented,” as he once told a Notre Dame interviewer. But he added that after more than two decades broadcasting Fighting Irish games — some 300 in all, from 1980 until he was replaced in the booth in 2006 — “I’ve come to see that Irish football is now about equal with baseball.”

His years at Notre Dame coincided with a return to glory for the storied football program just outside South Bend, Ind. He was in the booth during wide receiver Tim Brown’s Heisman Trophy-winning season in 1987; called Notre Dame’s upset victory over top-ranked Miami in 1988, en route to the school’s 11th national title; and delivered one of the most memorable broadcasts of his career in a 1993 showdown against No. 1 Florida State. The “Game of the Century” ended after Shawn Wooden, a defensive back for the No. 2-ranked Irish, broke up a pass from eventual Heisman winner Charlie Ward.

Mr. Roberts channeled the energy of Notre Dame Stadium’s sold-out crowd, 59,000 strong, while narrating the final seconds: “Last play of the game. This is it. Ward flushed out of the pocket. Throwing in the end zone. Knocked down by Wooden! The game is over! The Irish have upset Florida State! Notre Dame wins! Pandemonium on the field! 31-24! Notre Dame is No. 1!”

For all his enthusiasm, Mr. Roberts was known for remaining clearsighted in his broadcasts. “When Notre Dame stunk, he said they stunk,” Darin Pritchett, a South Bend radio host, told the Chicago Tribune in 2006.

“The thing that set him apart was the fact that he was so methodical in what he did,” sportscaster Johnny Holliday, the voice of the University of Maryland football and basketball teams, said in a phone interview. Holliday, who worked Bullets and Senators games with Mr. Roberts in the early ’70s, recalled how Mr. Roberts was a stickler about tradition and propriety, even when it came to the performance of the national anthem.

“He’d put a clock on it. He’d start the stopwatch and say, ‘This is way too long, it’s a minute and 24 seconds — it’s supposed to be done in 58 seconds. This is not acceptable,’” Holliday said with a laugh. “When he did a Senators game, he did it exactly the way it was supposed to be done: He would paint the picture, but wouldn’t be overly graphic or off the charts with emotion. He would let the game dictate the excitement. If the game was exciting: boom.”

Mr. Roberts, he added, “was as talented as anyone that I’ve ever worked with.”

The older of two sons, John Robert Baffa was born into an Italian American family in Chicago on Oct. 21, 1928. He changed his name after going into broadcasting, looking for something more traditionally “American” sounding to appease station managers. He adopted the first name of his father, Anthony, who worked on the railroads. His mother, who worked at a Kresge’s department store, would later use an earpiece to listen to Mr. Roberts’s broadcasts during Mass, taking a seat near the back of the church to avoid causing a stir.

Growing up in the South Side neighborhood of Roseland, Mr. Roberts listened to radio broadcasts of his beloved Chicago Cubs and lionized NBC sportscaster Bill Stern. “I loved radio. It was the theater of the mind,” he said in 2016, adding: “I always did my broadcast the way that I would like to hear it if I was sitting in my rocker, listening to Bill Stern doing Oklahoma-Texas. I wanted to do it the way he did it — exciting.”

After Army service in Japan, Mr. Roberts studied broadcast journalism at Columbia College in Chicago, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1956. He was hired the next year by a new station in Clinton, Iowa, where he was paid $62.50 a week to do sports shows, farm reports and virtually anything else that needed to be announced on air.

By the end of the decade, Mr. Roberts was honing his craft as a sportscaster in Illinois, covering college football in Macomb and high school basketball in Decatur. He did play-by-play for Indiana University’s football team before moving to the Washington area in 1970 to join WWDC-FM and later WRC-FM, where he was an announcer for Navy football games, the Baltimore Bullets (now Washington Wizards) and the Washington Senators.

Along with Ron Menchine, he was one of the last voices of the Senators before the franchise left to become the Texas Rangers in 1972. Mr. Roberts was on the call when the team played its final game at RFK Stadium, in front of an angry crowd that poured onto the field just before the last out, dismayed that the city was losing its baseball team for the second time in just over a decade, following the original Senators’ departure for Minnesota.

“It’s like an army of ants out there, going through the jungle,” Mr. Roberts said on the air. “They’re just chomping away at everything they can get their hands on!”

Fifty years ago, baseball left Washington in a chaotic stampede

Mr. Roberts joined the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1979 and was soon a fixture of major broadcasts, in addition to appearing regularly on the syndicated news show “America in the Morning,” offering sports commentary opposite host Jim Bohannon.

His first marriage, to Mary Jane Wittenberg, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of more than 20 years, Shirley Roberts; four children from his first marriage, Lance, Tracey, Kerry and Daryle; three stepchildren, Keith, Tricia and Kevin; a brother; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Roberts was awarded the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame’s 2005 Chris Schenkel Award for excellence in broadcasting. The next year, he was replaced at Notre Dame games by sportscaster Don Criqui. Westwood One said that Mr. Roberts left after failed negotiations, although Mr. Roberts said otherwise: he was fired “for no cause,” he claimed, by a new regime at the media company.

“I’ve still got a thousand touchdown calls left in me,” he told Post sports columnist Leonard Shapiro, who wrote that Mr. Roberts’s absence from Notre Dame games was “a travesty of the highest order.”

Mr. Roberts retired from broadcasting, spending some Saturdays at the golf course instead of watching college football games. Still, he said he couldn’t help but follow the Fighting Irish closely. “You can’t get it out of your blood, you know? Once it’s in there, it’s in there,” he told the South Bend Tribune. “That’s all there is to it.”

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