By Luke Pasch, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 13, 2012
A peppy Tom Ufer steps into his office waiting area and catches me admiring a framed photograph on the wall.
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It’s a stunning panorama, snapped from the Michigan Stadium press box on Oct. 17, 1981 at halftime against Iowa. The marching band is on the field in a formation that spells out U-F-E-R.
With his father Bob's 1981 Rose Bowl watch snug on his wrist, he points at the picture and tells me to take a closer look at the more than 101,000 fans in attendance that day. Everybody in the photo — the fans, the band members, the stadium security — is looking up at the press box. Bob was sitting in that box, talking to the Michigan faithful through the PA microphone.
“I want you to know that what I’ve done through the years has been a labor of love,” Bob told the crowd. “And right now, I would like to God bless each and every one of you cotton pickin’ maize and blue Meee-chigan fans.”
Bob wasn’t done talking, but the crowd erupted, and a good deal of his farewell speech was muffled by the thunderous ovation.
Ten days later, Bob passed away at 61 years of age following a two-year battle with prostate cancer. Through sickness and health, through the struggles of cancer treatment, Ufer didn’t miss a single broadcast for 363 straight Michigan football games, from 1945 to 1981.
“He went out with his shoes on,” Tom says.
Bob was remembered for having fun with the play-by-play, but behind the scenes, he was the consummate professional. In the spring and summer, he was an insurance salesman in Ann Arbor, but come fall, he spent Wednesday through Saturday preparing for his broadcast.
“It was not something that came really natural to him as a broadcaster,” said Jerry Hanlon, a long-time assistant coach under Bo Schembechler. “He would come into my office while I was in a staff meeting and say, ‘Can I use your office, Jerry?’ And he would put on a projector of the film of our opponents, or of our games, and practice his craft.
“Oftentimes, I’d hear him broadcasting the game to himself in that room. He was a perfectionist.”
Being a perfectionist wasn’t good for Bob’s health, though.
In 1955, the year Tom was born, Bob was in the hospital with ulcerative colitis. Around the same time, NBC and ABC both gave him the opportunity to jump from WJR’s local radio broadcast to the national networks, but doctors told him he couldn’t do it, not with the pressure he puts on himself as he prepared for games.
So Bob didn’t go to the next level. Fans heard his voice just 11 times a year, and that was it. He had no interest in further jeopardizing his health, nor the work he put into each game.
“He’d memorize all the damn names,” Tom says. “I’d go, ‘Dad, who cares about the third-string running back for Northwestern?’ He goes, ‘He may have a mom and dad who are listening over there in Evanston, Illinois. I want them to know that I know who their kid is.’ ”
But on the air, Bob was — well — a total goof. A goof with an undying passion for the game of football.
He had nicknames for nearly everyone. To him, the field of football was the field of battle. Thus, Schembechler became General Bo “George Patton” Schembechler.
About five or six years after he coined the nickname, Bob received a letter from Patton’s nephew, who lived in Chicago at the time, saying that his uncle willed him the horn that was affixed to his jeep through battles in France and Germany during World War II.
Patton’s nephew asked if Bob wanted it for the football broadcast.
“I said, ‘Would I like it? Is the Pope Catholic? You bet I’d like it,’ ” Bob explained on the air. And he honked that horn into the microphone each time Michigan scored for the rest of his broadcasting career.
Before I leave Tom’s office — the same insurance business his father founded — he brings me into his study, where his walls and bookshelves are lined with autographed Michigan memorabilia. Photographs, plaques, game balls — he could probably sell half those things on eBay and buy an Audi.
He reaches into a cabinet and pulls out General Patton’s horn. He squeezes the bulbous end twice, likely jolting nearby employees who have that 2:30 feeling on a Monday. He doesn’t care.
“Wanna try?” Tom asks.
I take the horn from his hands, feel the rust and squeeze it a few times.
I think about the families across Michigan who gathered in their living rooms each fall Saturday and muted the television to instead tune into Ufer’s broadcast.