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CBS celebrates 50 seasons of 'The NFL Today'

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James Brown wasn't new to hosting a NFL pregame show. He had been the conductor for the popular FOX NFL Sunday ever since the network began broadcasting games in 1994.

Yet when Brown moved to CBS in 2006, he felt an acute sense of history in sitting in the host chair for NFL Today for the first time. He immediately thought back to the days when the show transformed the course of sports broadcasting in the 1970s.

"Absolutely, I did," Brown said. "I was fully aware of the legacy of the show, and the work of Brent Musburger and his group. It is an iconic show."

CBS is celebrating the 50th year of NFL Today this season, the longest-running show in sports. This is not to be confused as being the 50th anniversary, because the network did not have NFL rights from 1994-97.

Starting on Sept. 13, 1964, the NFL Today made its debut as a relatively modest 15-minute pregame show hosted by the recently retired New York Giants great, Frank Gifford. Since then, there have been a total of 43 hosts, analysts and reporters, including 8 NFL Hall of Famers, who have formed the various teams. Brown is very high on the current lineup for the one-hour show, featuring Boomer Esiason, Bill Cowher, Phil Simms, and Nate Burleson.

However, there is no question the most important pairing occurred in 1975 when then CBS Sports head Bob Wussler teamed Musburger with Irv Cross, the first African-American full-time sports TV analyst, and Phyllis George, a former Miss America. A year later, legendary sports handicapper, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, added another dimension with his game picks to the unique cast.

Wussler wanted to transform the pregame show from a fairly staid, Xs and Os preview of Sunday's games to a format that not only highlighted the personalities of players and coaches, but also the folks in the studio. Viewers watched to see the interactions between Brent, Irv, Phyllis and Jimmy as much as they did for their content.

"CBS made them very recognizable figures in sports," Brown said. "It truly was ground-breaking." When told NFL Today is in its 50th season, Cross said, "That's hard to believe."

The former Eagles and Rams defensive back writes about his major role in his new autobiography, "Bearing the Cross: My Inspiring Journey from Poverty to the NFL and Sports Television" (co-written with Clifton Brown). He recalls the on-air chemistry actually was a product, in part, of a stressful event. He said NFL Today received "a threatening call" just before it went on the air prior to Super Bowl X in Miami in 1976.

"We looked at each other, and Phyllis said, 'Let's make this show our best one ever,'" Cross said. "Whenever you have a threatening experience, there's a bond that develops. We relied on each other. There was a greater sense of what we were trying to accomplish."

Cross, 78, felt George was essential to the show because of her ability to get players to open up in interviews.

"Back then, players weren't used to being interview by a woman," Cross said. "They said things to her that they wouldn't say to me."

Musburger, meanwhile, played a crucial role in dictating the show's pace and feel as the host. "We had a wonderful assortment of personalities," Musburger said. "I didn't view my role as just being a traffic cop. I tried to put out the good stories that I thought the public was interested in."

Musburger said he had no idea how popular the show had become until people started to come up to him saying, "You are looking live," the signature line he used when NFL Today cut to the various stadiums for that Sunday's games.

"It became a part of me," Musburger said.

Indeed, Musburger became the prototype for the modern studio host, and the 1970s NFL Today became the template for the myriad of studio shows in all sports that followed. The formula of personality and chemistry that currently exists today all can be linked back to Brent, Irv, Phyllis, and Jimmy.

"Because of the proliferation of studio shows on the air now, there's so much out there right now," Brown said. "Why do people choose one show over another? It's the personalities. It's about the person who is delivering their takes."

Cross, who left NFL Today after the 1989 season, was the 2009 recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Pete Rozelle Award, which recognizes long-time exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football. Cross definitely appreciated the honor, but his place in sports TV history already was secure.

"A lot of great memories," Cross said. "It was a special time."

A Football Life: Hall of Fame Washington coach Joe Gibbs is the latest subject of A Football Life,/em> (Friday, NFL Network, 9 p.m. ET). He became the first coach to win three Super Bowls with three different coaches.

"What it comes down to is working with people," said Coy Gibbs in the film. "That's what he's great at."

Family: NFL Network shares four inspiring stories featuring players, team executives and fans with NFL Football Families (Friday, 7 p.m.).

The one-hour show focuses on stories of giving and the bonds of family featuring Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Chiefs QB Alex Smith, Panthers RB Fozzy Whittaker and Saints staffers Jerry and Mark Romig. Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett provides original spoken pieces throughout the show centering around four pillars that define family -- compassion, support, teaching and community.

NFL Football Families is the concept of NFL Network's Rhett Lewis, who serves as an executive producer on the special.

Extra points: There will be a special Thanksgiving edition of NFL GameDay Morning at 10 a.m. Eastern on NFL Network. It includes a feature on Steelers rookie quarterback Josh Dobbs and the bond he formed with a child with brain tumors while at the University of Tennessee.

NFL Today (Thursday, CBS, 4 p.m. ET) also will have a special Thanksgiving Day feature. When the Chargers made the move from San Diego to Los Angeles this year, public relations director Bill Johnston stepped away from his executive job with the team after 38 seasons to care for his wife, and former high school sweetheart, Ramona, who is battling Huntington's Disease. Bill and Ramona's daughter, Hayley, narrates this powerful Thanksgiving story with the help of family members, friends, Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and others, as they fight with a single-minded purpose to bring an end to this devastating disease.

Week 12 announcer lineup

Thursday

Fox, 12:30 p.m. ET

Minnesota at Detroit: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman

CBS, 4:30 p.m. ET:

Los Angeles Chargers at Dallas: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo

NBC, 8:30 p.m. ET

New York Giants at Washington: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth


Sunday

CBS 1:00 p.m. ET

Miami at New England: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts

Cleveland at Cincinnati: Andrew Catalon, James Lofton

Buffalo at Kansas City: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green

CBS 4:25 p.m. ET

New Orleans at Los Angeles Rams: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo

Denver at Oakland: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon

Jacksonville at Arizona: Spero Dedes, Adam Archuleta

FOX 1:00 p.m ET

Chicago at Philadelphia: Kevin Burkhardt, Charles Davis

Carolina at New York Jets: Thom Brennaman, Chris Spielman

Tampa Bay at Atlanta: Dick Stockton, Mark Schlereth

FOX 4:05 p.m. ET

Seattle at San Francisco: Kenny Albert, Ronde Barber

Tennessee at Indianapolis: Chris Myers, Daryl Johnston

NBC 8:30 p.m. ET

Green Bay at Pittsburgh: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth


Monday

ESPN 8:30 p.m. ET

Houston at Baltimore: Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden

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