Jim Gardner just retired after 46 years as Philadelphia’s anchorman on 6abc. Angelo Cataldi is on the verge of stepping away after 33 years as the region’s top-rated sports talk radio host on WIP-FM. And earlier in 2022, Ray Didinger retired after a five-decade run as Philadelphia’s most trusted sportswriter and voice.
But amid this wave of Philly media retirements, Merrill Reese soldiers on. The voice of the Philadelphia Eagles on 94.1 WIP is in his 46th season of calling games every Sunday (and occasionally, on Thursday, Saturday or Monday) in the fall and winter. And at the age of 80, he has no plan to end his career. He re-signed with WIP in March to call games through the 2024 season.
“I want to do it forever,” said the Jewish announcer and longtime member of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. “I float for the three hours we’re on the air, and I love the preparation during the week.”
Reese enjoys his job every year, regardless of how good or bad the Eagles may be. But he acknowledged that 2022 has been particularly exciting. The Birds are 13-2 and a win away from clinching the top seed in the NFC for the upcoming playoffs.
A second Super Bowl within a five-year span seems possible. And that means Reese may get to relive the day he calls the highlight of his career: Feb. 4, 2018, when the Nick Foles-led Eagles defeated the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
The announcer has seen a lot of Eagles teams. He noted that this one compares to the 2017 club and the other great Eagles squads that he’s covered. Philadelphia’s quarterback, Jalen Hurts, is an MVP candidate. And the 2022 roster just sent eight players — Hurts, running back Miles Sanders, wide receiver A.J. Brown, offensive linemen Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson and Landon Dickerson, linebacker Haason Reddick and cornerback Darius Slay — to the Pro Bowl.
“I think this is one of the most talented teams I’ve been around,” Reese said. “I can’t think of a weakness.”
It is ultimately the success of the Eagles that makes the difference in Reese’s year. That’s because nothing else really changes for him. He listens back to games from the previous season before training camp every year to find out what he can do better, like using certain words less or speeding up during parts of the game more. Then, he goes to training camp every day to, as he describes it, “immerse myself in NFL football.”
Once the season starts, the announcer devotes his days, and even three hours each night, to memorizing jersey numbers, statistics and other relevant information. His wife, Cindy Reese, a former educator in Horsham, will walk around the house and call out jersey numbers. She said “88” last week, for instance, and Reese responded by saying, “CeeDee Lamb,” the Dallas Cowboys receiver who wears that number. (The Eagles played Dallas on Dec. 24.) On the day of his interview with the Jewish Exponent, Reese asked to do it at 3 p.m., after he attended press conferences with Eagles coordinators Shane Steichen (offense) and Jonathan Gannon (defense).
“He hasn’t changed as he’s had more years or gotten more popular,” Cindy Reese said.
From the time Reese turned 3 years old, he has been transfixed by football, baseball and other sports on the radio. He used to attend Eagles games as a kid in the 1950s at Connie Mack Stadium and Franklin Field and use binoculars to stare up at Bill Campbell, the team’s announcer at the time, in the broadcast booth.
As a student at Temple University, Reese called football, baseball and basketball games for the student station. After graduating, he worked for local stations in Pottstown and Levittown doing sports updates and a news show. Then, in the early 1970s, he auditioned to do sports updates for WIP in Philadelphia while sports director Charlie Swift was on summer vacation for a month. His first update was so good that the station signed him up to host Eagles pre- and postgame shows before he left the studio.
By 1977, Reese had joined Swift in the booth as his color commentator. And then, in December, Reese got a call at 2:30 a.m. from a friend of Swift’s: The announcer’s mentor had taken his own life.
“A chill went through my body,” Reese said.
The 35-year-old took over play-by-play duties that Sunday. Before the game, the players on each sideline turned to face the broadcast booth for a moment of silence for Swift. Reese just hoped that “something would come out of my mouth,” he recalled.
But then it did.
“And I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said. JE