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Unfamiliarity won't be a bother for Buck

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Joe Buck mentioned an interesting item this week: He's never seen the Patriots play in person.

"Zero times. Never," said Buck, the lead play-by-play announcer for Fox Sports.

Not only that, but, "I've never met Tom Brady or Bill Belichick, either."

The explanation is simple. At most, the Patriots are on Fox two times per season, when NFC opponents visit Gillette Stadium. This year, the NFC teams making the trek to New England were Seattle (Oct. 17) and San Francisco (Jan. 2).

Fox took full advantage of the Seahawks' visit to feature the Patriots. It was foliage season, the Patriots were hot, and the Seahawks, 3-1 at the time, looked like the real deal.

The Fox pregame show even left its Los Angeles studio to make a rare road trip. "A team" analysts Troy Aikman and Cris Collinsworth were there, as were studio guys James Brown, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, and Jimmy Johnson. But no Buck.

"I was on postseason baseball duty," he said. "It seems to happen every time we do the Patriots." Dick Stockton handled the play by play that day.

"I've got a lot to learn," Buck said, "but I'm digesting it." And fear not about his unfamiliarity with Brady and Belichick. The Fox crew met with those two and many more Patriots starting Wednesday.

"Maybe I'll come at the game from a fresh perspective," Buck said. "It feels like we've done the Eagles 20 times so you don't want to feel they're `The same old story.' "

The game is the first Super Bowl for the current Fox crew. When the network last broadcast the Super Bowl in 2002, Pat Summerall and John Madden were celebrating their swan song together.

The next season, Fox Sports chairman David Hill and president Ed Goren assembled their new team for a practice telecast. Said Goren: "Afterward, I told them, `I hope you all get along real well because I think you'll be together for a long time. You have the chance to be as good as any broadcast group ever.' Joe was the obvious choice for the job, but he was in a tough position. You don't want to be the guy who replaces the legend [Summerall]. You want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaced the legend."

Buck has made sure that hasn't happened. At 35, he's the youngest announcer to be assigned the honor. "We were fortunate that the change [of announcers] came right after Fox had done a Super Bowl. Now, it's my third year doing football and I'm a lot more comfortable and feel we can just go out and do the game."

But it's not just another game, and Buck knows that.

"I'd be lying if I said we were approaching it as just another random game in October or November," he said. "There's nothing in sports like the buildup to the spectacle of this game. I've never been part of anything like this."

There's a slight, but noticeable air of melancholy to Buck these days because he wishes his father, legendary broadcaster Jack Buck, were still alive to share the experience.

"When my dad was dying, we talked about a lot of things, but calling a Super Bowl wasn't one of them." Jack Buck had called Super Bowl IV for CBS with Summerall. His passing in the summer of 2002 was a big story nationally, but a civic loss in his hometown of St. Louis.

But they did talk about doing a World Series. "I called home after broadcasting my first World Series game [in 1996]," Buck said. "My mom was doing verbal cartwheels. My dad finally came on the phone and said, `What time does the game come on, anyway?' Then he said, `It was great, Buck.'

The closeness of the Bucks came through loud and clear last month in a segment on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," showing why Buck was ready to step into a minor league booth at age 19 and work Cardinals games with his dad at 21.

He called Mark McGwire's historic 62d home run in 1998. "I'd written out what I wanted to say, then, when the moment came, the ball was a low line drive down the line. Instead of saying something grandiose, I had to make sure the ball was going out and also whether it was fair. You play it straight."

That's the way he did it last October in announcing the Red Sox' first World Series championship since 1918. "It's an honor to be on so many tapes of the telecast, even though angry Red Sox fans chased me into my hotel in New York during the ALCS," Buck said.

He also made headlines recently with his description of Randy Moss's feigned mooning of the Green Bay fans ("a disgusting act") and his statement that he wouldn't spill the beans on the air if he learned some Cardinals players were using steroids. "There's such a thing as professional self-preservation, too," he said.

He won't be afraid to voice his opinions Sunday . . . or use a light touch if needed. "You go with the pace of the game," he said.

Buck approaches the game with great respect for each organization. "I'm from St. Louis and, even though I was rooting for the Rams, I think Belichick won the 2002 Super Bowl. He did a genius job of coaching that game, starting with having the players take the field as a team."

The sad irony in that is that Buck saw that Super Bowl on tape. He'd planned to watch the game with his dad, who was hospitalized and developed medical complications that precluded him from watching the game.

When Sunday's game is over, Buck will be able to say he's seen the Patriots in person. He also can say that he's joined the likes of Curt Gowdy and Al Michaels in calling both a World Series and Super Bowl for the same network. 

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