If his life had unfolded as he planned, Cris Collinsworth wouldn't be spending this week in the Twin Cities, studying video of the Patriots and Eagles. He'd be in an office, poring over the details of the new U.S. tax code.
The former Bengals receiver began attending law school while still playing in Cincinnati. Armed with an accounting degree — and an affinity for business and tax law — Collinsworth saw his future in the legal world, even after a radio station asked him to be a fill-in host.
"[Broadcasting] seemed like a good go-between, a way to make a little money while I was finishing school,'' he said. "But somehow, I'm still doing it.''
A dalliance that has spanned nearly three decades and three networks will reach another milestone Sunday, when Collinsworth, 59, calls his fourth Super Bowl. Amid the sea of former coaches and players who flood NFL broadcast booths, Collinsworth has distinguished himself by simply being himself.
Working with longtime NBC broadcast partner Al Michaels, Collinsworth's ability to interpret an often-complex game for a wide audience has made him one of the network's most enduring — and endearing — personalities. His colleagues say his on-air manner reflects who he is outside the booth: often funny, sometimes provocative, and utterly, unashamedly in love with football.
Had he flopped when he replaced the beloved John Madden, Collinsworth might have ended up in a law office after all. Instead, he will come full circle Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, calling the same matchup — New England vs. Philadelphia — as in his first Super Bowl telecast in 2005.
"I had no idea what I was doing when I started,'' said Collinsworth, in his ninth season as Michaels' partner on NBC's "Sunday Night Football'' telecasts. "But one thing I recognized early on was that there were 10 guys who sounded like John Madden. And I didn't understand why. John Madden is arguably the greatest broadcaster of all time, but I don't want to be John Madden.
"You have to be who you are. People can see through a phony. If what I'm doing is good enough, great. And if not, that's OK, too. It's been good enough for 28 years, so I think I'll stick with it.''
Actually, it's been more than good enough. Collinsworth has won 16 Emmy Awards for his work as an analyst in the studio and at games. His face is familiar to millions of viewers; "Sunday Night Football" has been the nation's top-rated prime-time show for the past seven years, and he and Michaels called Super Bowl XLIX, the most watched TV show in U.S. history.
Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff, the executive producer and director of NBC's NFL telecasts, respectively, agreed that Collinsworth's appeal comes largely from his ability to explain the game engagingly to both experts and neophytes. Unlike many former athletes or coaches, he also saw broadcasting as a unique challenge to be mastered.
"He's not an ex-football player doing television,'' Gaudelli said. "He's a television broadcaster who happens to be an ex-football player. He made it a point to really study, understand and become proficient in the job of broadcasting. And not every ex-pro athlete is able to do that.''
Collinsworth's career shift began shortly after his 1989 retirement from the NFL, when Cincinnati radio station WLW asked him to do an hour of sports-talk radio as a fill-in for host Bob Trumpy. That led to doing features for HBO's "Inside The NFL,'' then to a four-game stint as an NFL and college game analyst at NBC.
Though Collinsworth finished his law degree, he turned out to be a lousy negotiator; when he demanded that NBC double his salary to $3,000 per game, the network cut him loose. He was gone only a year before returning, winning his first Emmy in 1997. Collinsworth spent part of his career at Fox before coming back to NBC in 2006.
His legal training did prepare him for another facet of his new career: the intensive study required to prepare for every game. Collinsworth's trademark is his insatiable appetite to learn everything he can about the teams featured in each broadcast. His routine begins on the flight home from the previous game; after hours of reading, he spends two full days analyzing game film, then another day interviewing players and coaches. Collinsworth also is majority owner of the football analytics website Pro Football Focus.
"His preparation is insane,'' Esocoff said. "Between the film study and the coaches' meetings and the note-taking and the statistical review, he comes into a game so well-prepared that if he said on the air 5 percent of what's in that brain of his, it would still be sensational.''
Gaudelli said that surfeit of information gives Collinsworth a "fearlessness'' on the air, knowing he can back up his opinions with facts. His confidence also is rooted in his eight seasons with the Bengals, when Collinsworth learned how to maintain his cool in unpredictable, pressure-filled situations — just like being on live TV.
After arriving in Jacksonville, Fla., for his first Super Bowl telecast in 2005, Collinsworth realized the broadcast booth at EverBank Field was so remote that he couldn't read the uniform numbers. He rushed to an optician the day before the game and did the broadcast wearing new contact lenses, underscoring the nature of a profession he says is "like working on a high wire.''
"It's the greatest part of the job, and the most frightening part of the job,'' Collinsworth said. "No matter how much homework and studying you do, there's always something that happens. As John Madden liked to say. 'Eventually, the game breaks out.' And then it comes down to how you react, what you see and what you do in the moment.''
Collinsworth, Michaels, Gaudelli and Esocoff have worked together for several years, making the high wire slightly less unpredictable. While they tell the tale of the game unfolding before them, Collinsworth's secondary mission is to share the "terrific story lines'' of Super Bowl LII.
As he clicked off the list — Eagles quarterback Nick Foles' comeback! LeGarrette Blount and Chris Long winning rings with the Patriots last year, now playing for Philly! — Collinsworth's voice bloomed with excitement, in a way it probably wouldn't have if he were discussing tax law.
"Believe me, I'm not longing for the days when I was going to become a lawyer,'' he said, laughing. "Especially come tax time.''