The Voice

The Larry Munson story

It’s been likened to gravel. A cement mixer. Even a dump truck. So much has been made of that voice. For the legions of University of Georgia fans, it is so venerated and so beloved that it seems to exist as an entity unto itself. The voice of Georgia football. That rough and perfect voice that once cried out, “Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott!” That pleaded, “Hunker it down one more time!” That exclaimed, “My God almighty, did you see what he did?!”

It almost has a life of its own, that voice. It is Georgia/Florida 1980. Georgia/Auburn 1982. Georgia/Tennessee 2001. For more than 30 years it has been the soundtrack for the Bulldogs’ agony and ecstasy, raw emotion converted to ragged decibels.

And it is telling me to go left.

It, or rather, he, Larry Munson, who is master of the voice, is on the telephone, giving directions to his Athens home. They come out sounding like Herschel high-stepping toward the end zone: You’re coming down 316! . . . There’s a Home Depot on your right! . . . A Lowe’s on your left! They’re flankin’ ya!

Munson’s home is a tidy brick box in a quiet subdivision. The man who answers the door is clad in a green sweatshirt and black nylon sweatpants. He wears white Nike sneakers with a Georgia red swoosh. He has age spots and gray hair, a firm handshake and a vaguely stiff-legged jaunt. His pants shush when he walks.

He sits down in a living room filled with the emblems of an outdoorsman—stuffed ducks, wildlife paintings—and the first thing he wants to talk about isn’t Georgia football, or even sports at all. He wants to talk about things you’d never expect Larry Munson to talk about. Like jazz. It’s one of his first loves. Who would have thought that the voice of the Georgia Bulldogs was once accomplished enough as a pianist to perform with the legendary Tommy Dorsey Band? Or that he mourns lost loves? Or wrestles with regrets?

Being in Munson’s home, hearing him speak with such honesty, is like peering behind the Wizard’s curtain in Oz. The irony of the Emerald City was that the people all revered the Wizard, yet no one had ever actually seen him. He seemed omnipotent and otherworldly when he was really just . . . a man. Like the Wizard, Munson looms in our consciousness as something wonderfully larger than life. The Voice. But if it’s the voice that occludes the man, it’s also the voice that reveals him. Because, in his candor, in the twilight of his career, The Voice has drawn back the curtain.

To actually watch Larry Munson call a game is to discover another dimension to The Voice.

His investment in the outcome is as much physical as emotional. At Nashville’s Adelphia Coliseum, for example, his Georgia Bulldogs (and if they are anyone’s, they are certainly his) are facing unranked Boston College in the 2001 Music City Bowl. When the Dogs return the opening kickoff 86 yards, Munson rocks back and forth, ticking off the distance in cadence: 40, 30, 25, 20. His body moves in a sort of focused choreography that accompanies his play-by-play.

Three plays later, the Bulldogs score. Yet Munson is subdued. After 36 years of calling Georgia football, he just knows about these things. And that’s why he seems so cautious in a moment others would celebrate. “Remember, folks, what some coaches say: Sometimes when you score quickly in the game, you relax and you get in trouble.”

Munson doesn’t relax. And sure enough, the Dogs are down 13–10 in the third quarter. As Georgia maneuvers deep into Boston College territory, Munson’s body is taut. His palms are pressed to the table as if he wants to leap out the press box window and take care of business himself. All the while, he lubricates The Voice with swigs of Diet Coke.

“Dogs kn-ock on that door and then kn-ock again. . . . Boston College got a lot of beef up front. They sh-oved us down.” Finally, when Georgia scores, Munson sits back in his chair and, for only a moment, relaxes. “Man,” he says. “It’s been a week of Sundays since we’ve had the lead.”

As the game’s tension builds, Munson’s voice morphs too. He gets more raspy, more hoarse, a tire tread wearing off until the metal rim grinds on asphalt. A muscle at the side of his neck bulges when he growls. This is when his commentary gets its most animated. He hangs on his big-money words, the ones that pack the wallop. He rides them like a slide, pausing at the top before catapulting off the end. “Sh-otgun,” he’ll say. “He s-pins him around.” Munson lets the pressure build in his voice; his tongue revs there behind his teeth before the words explode from his mouth.

It is here, as the pitch of the battle reaches its height, that Munson has always blurted out his most famous lines. Name a famous Georgia football game from the last three decades and you can usually identify it by Munson’s vocal supernova.

Take Georgia/Kentucky 1978. With Georgia down 16–14, the Dogs drove into field goal range. Eight seconds left. Rex Robinson put up the kick. “It looks good,” Munson cried out. “Watch it. . . . Watch it. . . . Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! . . . The bench is unconscious! He kicked the whatchamacallit out of it!”

Or Herschel Walker’s first Georgia touchdown, part of the Dogs’ storied 1980 season: “Oh you, Herschel Walker! My God Almighty! . . . He drove right over two orange shirts just driving and running with those big thighs. My God, he’s a freshman!”

It is a voice revered by generations of fans. How many kids have been the stars of backyard fantasies with The Voice calling their moves? Here is a radio man who has continued to be adored in an era dominated by visual media. Why? Because with Munson, you still get the picture. And you get heart. In a one-dimensional medium, he calls the games in 3-D. Classic Munson is a verbal fist pump. Sanford Stadium may be packed between the hedges, but the majority of those fans will still tune in Munson on their headphones, letting The Voice explain what they see.

That’s because his is the voice of the fan: their frustration and excitement, their agony and ecstasy. His “we/us/our” speaks of unabashed allegiance. Held up beside the studied neutrality of TV announcers, he is what some derisively call a “homer.” But love him or hate him, you have to give him this: Munson brings personality and humanity to the game.

Even now, even though he is 79 years old, Munson can still rise to the occasion like no other announcer. Look no further than last season’s game against Tennessee. With a 20–17 lead and two minutes left in the game, Georgia could smell an upset. Instead, the Vols scored with less than a minute to play. “It over,” Munson said, his voice heavy with despair. “I suppose a miracle could still happen.” He offered up that seed of hope with no apparent conviction. And yet . . . how does Munson just seem to know these things? With five seconds left, Georgia pulled out a miracle and scored, and Munson went wild. “My God, touchdown!” he exclaimed. “We just st-epped on their face with a hobnailed boot and broke their nose! We just cr-ushed their face!”

When asked about it later, Munson says he didn’t even realize he knew the phrase, which refers to the sole-studded jackboots worn by Nazi soldiers during World War II. “For the life of me, I don’t know where it came from,” he laughs. “It’s really so dumb, if you think about it.”

But there it was: the line by which the game was defined.

Not that his wit is always appreciated. One of his most famous calls was in 1982 when Georgia clenched its third straight Southeastern Conference title and a trip to the Sugar Bowl in a crucial win over Auburn. Georgia, ahead 19–14, was trying to just hold the Tigers off long enough to eat the clock. “Hunker down, you guys,” Munson pleaded. “Auburn is trying to br-eak our hearts here. . . . I know I’m asking a lot, but hunker it down one more time.” When Georgia deflected a sure touchdown pass, Munson exclaimed, “Dogs broke it up! They broke it up! . . . Ohhhh! L-ook at the sugar falling out of the sky! Look at the su-gar falling out of the sky!”

More like salt on a gaping wound for Auburn fans. Hearing that call, a frustrated Auburn alum leaned around the corner of the broadcast booth and threw a glass of whiskey at Munson. He laughs as he tells the story. “I can still see him now. Big orange coat. Cowboy hat. Big fella. But that’s college football.”

No one throws whiskey on Munson at the Music City Bowl, and there will be no storied last-second comeback. But Munson still rings up a defining line for the game. In the waning seconds, when Georgia’s fate seems sealed, Munson’s body sags. He leans back in his chair, sighs, and says in that weary Jimmy Durante voice: “The clock is killing us. The scoreboard is killing us. But we, the men, are killing ourselves.”

A throwaway line, perhaps, but it also carries a powerful resonance. At its core are universal themes—time, achievement, accountability—with which everyone grapples as they age. Where has the time gone? What have we accomplished? What could we have changed? Those are questions the man behind the voice contemplates. Especially now. Especially as he watches the clock wind down on his time in the booth.

Sitting in his living room surrounded by the artifacts of his career—photographs, awards, a Georgia Bulldogs TV tray—Munson recognizes the inevitable. “At times you know you’re not doing what you used to do. Not in the way that you used to do it,” he says. “You wonder, ‘Well, wait a minute. Maybe I better walk away from this while I’m still able to do anything at all halfway decent.’ ”

He plans to finish out the 2002 season, with an option for more. And then, the legendary Munson will retire.

Later, he recalls some cassettes he came across of calls he did in the ’70s. “I’m quite proud of some of that work,” he says. “I was quick and I was on top of the play. . . . I didn’t realize how fast I had become. And it sounded really good to me. So I would imagine that when I was younger, I was probably a very good play-by-play man.”

Good, but not necessarily financially aware. If you think Munson has gotten rich off the Bulldogs, think again. For him, the thrill of the call has always mattered more than his paycheck. “Everybody thought he was a high-paid personality but he really wasn’t,” says Bulldog Club executive secretary Loran Smith, who has done sideline commentary for as long as Munson’s been in the booth. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Munson was still making only $250 per football game years after the championship 1980 season. He didn’t pursue lucrative endorsement deals and took only whatever booster clubs were willing to pay him to speak; one time for an engagement in Jacksonville, he asked only for gas money to get there.

Smith recalls a period in the 1980s when Munson found himself in dire financial straits after a longtime TV side job ended because the network folded. “We all got together and figured out a way to get him some income, get his play-by-play compensation up,” Smith says. “We did a fund-raiser, and I got a bunch of Georgia people to raise some money that we put in a trust fund to educate his kids. Larry is his own worst enemy when it comes to business. He’d drive to Waycross and they wouldn’t pay him any expenses. I’m not talking about modest. It was way less than modest. He just wasn’t tough.”

As the afternoon sunlight shines weakly into the room through tall windows from the porch, Munson sits in a brown leather chair and reflects on the path he has taken. “If I had taken some jobs that I turned down years ago, I would have made a lot more money,” he says. “Sometimes I had regrets about that.”

In a different time, in a different world, he might never have been a sports announcer at all. Born and raised in Minnesota, his first passion was jazz and he was an adept pianist. “I had enough talent in my body that I really seriously considered going all the way with it,” he says. He was good enough for a short stint with The Tommy Dorsey Band before he was drafted into World War II. Because he had no sense of smell, the Army put him in the recovery room of a Texas hospital. In those days, patients were anesthetized with gas or ether, which often made them vomit when they came to. “I had to clean them up,” laughs Munson. “They said it wouldn’t bother me because I had no sense of smell.” And did it? “Damn right!”

At the end of the war, he took his $200 discharge pay and went to radio school. Six weeks later, he had a job. An avid outdoorsman who had spent long hours hunting and fishing with his father, Munson was hired as a sports announcer in Wyoming for $55 a week. A year later, he moved to Nashville to announce Vanderbilt sports. There he stayed for nearly 19 years, eventually adding TV fishing-show host, local TV sports anchor, even deejay to his resumé.

He had other offers, including lucrative ones in Major League Baseball, but he never bit. Not even when Chicago called offering the White Sox announcer gig. “Back in those days I wasn’t considering anything unless I had [jobs announcing] football and basketball with it,” he says. Besides, by then he had a wife and two adopted kids and knew the best fishing holes in Tennessee. What could the Midwest offer that he didn’t already have?

But in 1966 the newly transplanted Atlanta Braves coaxed him down I-75. “I thought Atlanta was gonna be a really good sports situation,” he says, adding that he suspected a job calling Georgia football would soon open up. So he hauled his family farther South to work for the Braves and later got the Georgia job as well. Two years later, “when the Braves put a ball player in my chair,” he returned to Nashville. During the next 12 years, Munson commuted to Athens to call Georgia football while he kept his fishing show and did other announcing jobs in Nashville. Along the way he divorced, got remarried, had two more kids. In 1978, he finally moved to Georgia for good. (He even took on Georgia basketball for nine years.) All tolled, he has 55 years in the Southeastern Conference, 36 of those at Georgia, under his belt.

In hindsight, it’s tempting to think Munson has always been revered, but actually, Georgia fans didn’t take to him right off. “They knew little about him, never saw him and couldn’t adjust to his style after having been with [long-time Georgia announcer] Ed Thilenious,” says Smith. “Once they adjusted, they just loved him. But announcers are really appreciated when a team wins. And if a teams wins in a dramatic fashion, they really love us.”

And love him they do. Munson is the university’s most beloved personality, and the ratings of his radio shows consistently help keep WSB Radio at the top in its market.

“He’s a guy who does it exactly how the journalism schools tell you not to and it works for him,” says Braves broadcaster Skip Caray. “He’s got it really figured out: Georgia fans love to listen to him when things are going good. And teams Georgia plays, whenever Georgia falls behind or one of those teams scores against Georgia, those fans want to flip over to listen to Larry moan. . . . I can’t imagine anyone listening to a Georgia game on TV when they have the chance to listen to Larry Munson. You don’t say that about many guys, that they can control your choice of how you listen to a game. But Larry Munson is one of those guys.”

That Munson is also one of the last old-school radio guys left prompts admiration from other long-timers in the business, like 31-year University of North Carolina announcer Woody Durham. “We all have great respect for him because of his longevity, the legendary figure he has become, the job he’s done, the following he has. There are several guys in the SEC that I think you could say do a good job, but when you talk about guys in those terms, Larry comes out head and shoulders above anybody you could mention.”

Munson’s advancing age and a recent rash of health problems—back surgery, prostate surgery and, this year, skin cancer—have cemented his decision to step aside. “You find that there are certain things that you don’t do as well as you used to,” he says. “You should be on top of your game when you leave. And that’s what’s hard, boy.”

For fans and colleagues alike, it’s almost impossible to envision a Georgia Bulldog game without Munson in the radio booth.

Says Caray, “I feel sorry for whoever replaces Larry Munson. If I were to advise an announcer about replacing Larry Munson, I would say, ‘Try to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaces Larry Munson.’ ”

As the afternoon sunlight in his living room fades, Munson grows contemplative. He shifts in his brown leather armchair, his nylon pants a hush of motion. “I find myself wondering if I have regrets. Or how many regrets I might have,” he says. “Maybe this is an age thing. You get old and then you have regrets about the way you treated somebody or you think you treated them and you don’t know.”

Asked if it ever surprises him to realize how much he’s aged, he nods. “I sit in a damn movie and”—he pantomimes the motion of fidgeting in his seat—“you sit this way and then you move that way. You sit for two-and-a-half hours or whatever.” He pauses. “Now the movie ends. And I’m stiff and don’t know it.” He rises from the armchair, slowly, achingly, his legs seeming to oblige him the stiffness he describes. “I’ll stand up and I can’t turn.” He gestures to an imaginary aisle. “For just 6, 7, 8 seconds I can-not turn to get out there. And when I do get out, I’m movin’ like an old man, and I have to get my hand on the rail.” He turns as if to vacate the aisle, grabbing at an imaginary armrest. “It only lasts 15, 20 seconds total. But I feel like I’m 99 years old. I feel like I’m dying, and I know I look like . . . shit, excuse me. And I’m just so s-tiff. And I can’t be-lieve that’s happening to me. I mean, I exercise.”

He gestures to a treadmill beside the couch. “I guess that happens to everybody . . . but gosh. Oh gosh! I can’t believe I’m that old. Holy smokes!”

His voice trails off for a moment. Then, “Sometimes something’ll pass by your mind, you’ll think about something you said or you did a long time ago and—goddamn, I get so mad at myself! I really do. . . . I’ve realized how much of an ego I had when I was younger and I probably showed it, and that’s embarrassing to me.”

His voice is soft, reflective. And then he begins to talk about something you never thought you’d hear Larry Munson, The Voice, talk about: an old flame who haunts him. And yet, The Voice is always so openly and unabashedly sentimental, that maybe it shouldn’t surprise at all.

“I went and found the graduation picture of the girl I should have married,” Munson says. “I guess I’ve had that up in there on my dresser now since, I don’t know, ’93.”

That was shortly after his divorce from his second wife. Munson knew his childhood sweetheart was married and lived in California, but he didn’t know where. He tracked down old high school friends who might know the address. “God, I had everybody looking for her, and I finally, finally got the address.” He wrote her a letter, sent a couple of photos of them from their youth. “I almost didn’t mail it; I wish now I hadn’t.” He chuckles. “Boy, you talk about a cooold wall. Oh man!” He pauses. “Never got a response. Not a ripple.”

Self-recrimination swirls around him. “I treated her like a dog. Bad. Really bad. And that bothers me. She was a really good guy.” He’s quiet a moment. “But I was lucky. I was married twice. . . . The first one was really a prince. . . . The second one . . . [was] a beautiful girl. We had great looking kids.”

He changes the subject, but later the old flame comes up again. “It’s been a long, good life,” Munson says. “You’ve lived your life and you’ve raised two families. And you can’t say you should’ve married somebody else because you wouldn’t have had your kids. Who knows what would’ve happened if I’d taken one of those other roads?”

Though his own children are grown, young people are still a regular part of Munson’s life.

One cold, rainy Saturday, for example, Munson, again in Nikes and black nylon pants, stands in the lobby of Athens’ Beechwood Cinemas. He is surrounded by five young students who have joined him to see the Sissy Spacek film In the Bedroom. Munson, a lifelong movie buff, spends much of his spare time here. For 10 years he has taken groups, usually students, to a movie every Saturday (Sundays during football season), then culls their reviews for his daily WSB Radio show. Rather than being intimidated by his age and celebrity, they seem to regard him as a sort of endearing uncle. He particularly enjoys the company of the girls because, he says, “they’ll discuss wardrobe and stuff. Once they find out that I’ll say something like, ‘So-and-so had on a really bad dress in that one scene. . . .’ Boy, that really opens it up.”

The response to the Oscar-nominated movie is five emphatic thumbs down.

“I hated it,” says a pretty blonde named Katie. “It was so boring. I was just waiting for it to end.”

Munson laughs, then prods for more. “You didn’t think Sissy Spacek was strong?”

“She was okay, but there just wasn’t enough direction to the plot,” she says.

“Did you think it was a dead loss, too, Christina?” he asks a petite brunette.

“It was, like, not connected?” she says. “Like, they’d just show stuff and then they’d black it out to the next scene, and I was, like, what’s the purpose?”

As their harsh critique continues, Munson only chuckles. “I’m gonna tell the world that you all hated it,” he says. He asks if anyone wants to go see The Royal Tenenbaums next, but everyone has either seen it or can’t go. “If I mention another title, then can we go?” he quips.

Leaving the theater, he admits he missed some of what happened simply because he couldn’t hear it. “I wish, when I die, I could have enough money to buy Beechwood a new sound system.”

He has one other wish in anticipation of his death. There is a lake in middle Georgia where Munson regularly goes fishing with his sons. They live in Tennessee and Alabama now, but the outings have become a ritual. “I only take them now on the lake where I took ’em when they were boys,” he says. “I’m trying to keep that memory in their minds.”

He has set up his will to have his ashes scattered on this lake when he dies, to the accompaniment of the UGA jazz band.

It’s inevitable that these things plague the thoughts of the aged, and for Munson they’re still premature. But professionally, he’s the last of a dying breed.

“I think, as these old voices disappear, I don’t know that we’ll ever be replaced. I do think the young guys coming up will be technically better. But I don’t know if they’ll do the games like we did.” Then he reconsiders. “Anybody can be replaced. Everybody has a style, and mine was probably pulling way too hard for our team to win. I could really get lost in it. . . . I’ve always really wanted to win.”

What Munson doesn’t realize is that he already has. It’s like that beautiful irony of The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard didn’t give Dorothy and her friends anything they didn’t already have.

What Munson has given, his fans already have. The Voice.