Longtime Alabama football play-by-play man Eli Gold will serve as the voice of the Arena Football League's Nashville Kats. Photo Credit: Gary Cosby Jr./USA TODAY NETWORK Eli Gold emcees during the homecoming pep rally in front of the Gorgas Library on the Quad Friday, Oct. 22, 2021. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

It takes a special person to do radio play-by-play for football. Recently, two special people have surprisingly left the teams they are most associated with.

Last month, Eli Gold, the longtime voice of Alabama football, was forced out after 35 years. Last week, Bill Hillgrove announced his retirement as the voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers after 30 years. These are seismic changes in the world of sports broadcasting.

Gold and Hillgrove made memorable calls for iconic football teams. Alabama has won the most national championships in the poll era with 16. The Steelers are tied with the New England Patriots for the most Super Bowl victories with six. Gold and Hillgrove enunciated that success with aplomb. Their departure should make us all appreciate football’s play-by-play announcers.

Radio is the most intimate of media. When you choose radio, it’s often because you feel connected to the person speaking. This is especially true of football. Listening to Gold and Hillgrove was as comforting as hearing the voice of an old friend. And it’s not a job that everyone can do successfully.

Each sport is unique when it comes to radio broadcasting. In baseball, you must be an excellent storyteller due to the time between pitches. In basketball, you must speak quickly due to the constant action. For football, it can be particularly challenging because you have to provide a lot of information within a short span of time. Different players are entering and leaving the field. You have to understand schemes and game situations. And occasionally, it’s not always easy to see what’s going on due to the weather.

And yet, radio play-by-play broadcasters are expected to deliver to their listeners without missing a beat. The fact that Gold and Hillgrove made this seem so easy over three decades is a credit to their professionalism and skills.

“When I first got hired, one description that Jim Host, who hired me, talked about is it being like a chessboard,” said Tom Leach, Kentucky’s radio broadcaster for football and basketball. “Offense versus defense is somewhat like a chessboard. You have to self-edit because you can’t set every piece on the chessboard, so to speak, and talk about where everybody is. But you try to give the best idea of what it looks like before the ball is snapped.

“As a play-by-play guy, you follow the ball. I’ve been blessed to have analysts who are really good at following the other things to help the audience understand. There’s a lot going on, and you can’t describe it all. There are 22 moving pieces.”

Another key difference is the audience. Football is the ultimate TV sport. Most fans would prefer to watch a game than listen to one. When people follow the game on the radio, it’s often because they can’t view it. Perhaps they are working, driving, or can’t access the TV broadcast for whatever reason.

The radio play-by-play announcers are always there to keep fans connected to their favorite teams.

“You have to be able to concisely and accurately describe (the action) so that it’s easy to understand,” Leach said. “As much as there is on television, there is always someone at their kid’s soccer game, somebody on the road traveling somewhere, or somebody stuck at work. There’s always going to be that audience for radio.”

Neither Gold nor Hillgrove are completely leaving football. Gold, 70, has been recently hired as the voice of the Nashville Kats of the Arena Football League. Hillgrove, 83, will remain the voice of University of Pittsburgh basketball and football.

They will continue to do what they do best. But now when we tune in, we’ll listen with a greater sense of appreciation.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.