If a freshly retired NFL player were to make the transition to a career in the media, no one would be surprised. Current players today host their own podcasts or serve as contributors to network broadcasts.
But once upon a time — which, in this case, is 1994 — hardly any former NFL player made the immediate leap from wearing shoulder pads to holding a microphone.
Howie Long opened the pipeline by joining the fledgling show from the FOX studio just as the network acquired the NFL rights. Twenty-nine years later, Long’s second professional act has endeared him to another demographic of fans who don’t remember his hulking physique terrorizing the backfields during 13 seasons with the Raiders from 1981 to 1993.
The decision to retire at 34 came as a surprise, the Hall of Famer said. But he knew it then and his life proved him right: it was time to move on.
“I’m not sure I could have settled for being average,” Long told USA TODAY Sports by phone last month.
Long feels the same way about his broadcasting career.
“You want to make sure you’re contributing at the level that’s high enough for our show,” Long said. “You want to make sure you’re up to it.”
Beyond the fact that Long still has three years left on his contract with FOX, the good news for fans who enjoy watching Long is that he won’t be off-screen again in the near future.
“I started laughing 29 years ago,” Long said of his time at FOX, “and I haven’t stopped.”
“We all grow old together”
Long’s main comic relief over the past three decades has been Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Along with former coach Jimmy Johnson, Long and Bradshaw have been with “FOX NFL Sunday” since the show began. (Johnson left to coach the Miami Dolphins for four seasons in the 1990s, making Long and Bradshaw the longest-serving members of the series.)
“We all grow old together,” Long, 63, said, while noting that they exist in a form of “perpetual adolescence.”
On the show, Bradshaw bawls. Johnson gestures. Michael Strahan, the former New York Giants defensive end turned morning TV host, serenades. Host Curt Menefee does his best to keep everything together.
The real glue, said “FOX NFL Sunday” coordinating producer Bill Richards, is Long. He’s not the comic relief or the host. A healthy part of the actual football analysis on the show is Long’s thoughts, which he meticulously curated throughout the week using a yellow highlighter.
Bradshaw said he was going to bust his buddy’s chops for writing notes. In reality, Long often covers up for Bradshaw’s lack of preparation.
“For him to share this with me is like the ultimate act of kindness,” Bradshaw told USA TODAY Sports. “’Let me lift you up.’ I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing he is as a broadcaster.”
Long is vying with Johnson for the most-watched football award of the week, Richards said. As for memory and recall, Bradshaw said Long had the best he had ever seen.
“He can look at something and get it right the first time,” Bradshaw said. “It’s beyond impressive to me. His insight into how the game is played – no one can match him.”
According to Long’s wife, Diane, it’s the fear of failure that drives him, even after nearly three decades of broadcasting. Along the way, he’s become someone his colleagues gravitate toward when “nothing goes to his head,” Richards said.
“He is literally one of the best human beings I know,” Richards said.
Sons follow in dad’s footsteps
Long’s three children were under 10 when he retired and got into broadcasting. Now they have their own family.
“You try to pass that on to your kids,” Long said. “Time flies. I’m watching our grandsons and granddaughter…they’ll be coming out of the driveway soon.”
Speaking of those kids, the two sons who followed in his footsteps in the NFL — Chris, a two-time Super Bowl champion defensive end who played for the Rams, Eagles and Patriots; and Kyle, a Chicago Bears offensive lineman — took another page from the old man’s book and embarked on their own media endeavors. (His third son, Howie Jr., also works in professional football as a premium seating sales manager for the Las Vegas Raiders.)
“They grew up around the set,” Long said.
Chris Long, the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft, started his own “Green Light with Chris Long” podcast. Kyle Long, a 2013 Bears first-round pick who retired for the second time after the 2021 season, is a studio analyst for “That Other Pregame Show” on CBS Sports.
Their parents say Chris and Kyle’s post-playing careers come as no surprise. The medium chosen by each son also says a lot about them. Chris is a deep thinker who wants to control his content from start to finish. Kyle is a “lights on, let’s go” analyst, Howie Long said.
“It was fun to watch,” said Long, who had a front row seat to Chris’ Super Bowl victory with the New England Patriots.
Just as he made a conscious effort not to push his sons into football, Long had little involvement in turning his sons into broadcasters other than that’s what they saw him do. .
As his sons played on Sundays, Long had a unique perspective on the game. And lots of chills running through his body.
“If you go back and watch any of those shows, you can see how tight he is,” Diane Long said. “He’s trying to be a duck above water, looking all calm. But underneath you can see some of his body language where he’s nervous as hell looking at them.”
Howie Long doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. He can return to his primary concern of how to stay above the fray of constant hijinks surrounding him on set.
“He has a respect for the NFL that I guess a lot of us should have,” Bradshaw said. “I see football and television as entertainment. He watches it from an intelligent point of view and I admire that a lot. I respect that.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.