A six-time All-Pro, Dierdorf was one of the quickest offensive tackles ever when it came to moving laterally, but he was never the same after dislocating his knee in a game at the Meadowlands in 1979. When Giants end Mike McCoy fell on him in a crowd, Dierdorf recalls with a wince, "the outside of my [right] foot was lying on the field. I had to reach down, rotate it and pull the leg back into the socket."
A job on Monday Night Football is the Holy Grail of sportscasting, the prize every announcer covets. Because the show airs in prime time and an average of 50,000,000 Americans watch at least part of it each week, Monday Night can mean instant celebrity for a commentator with insight, humor and charm. Dierdorf has all those qualities, not to mention a "good ol' Dan" affability and a smidgeon of ego, which raises the possibility that, like Madden, he could develop into a TV folk hero.
If that happens, CBS can blame only itself for losing Dierdorf. As recently as last spring the network had him locked up—or so it thought. He joined CBS Sports in 1985, after having established his credentials as a sportscaster and as a hockey and football analyst on radio station KMOX in St. Louis. Ever the career planner, he thought he would have more security by calling the action than by analyzing it. But realizing that Dierdorf's true talent lies in glib, free-wheeling commentary, CBS executive producer Ted Shaker switched him to color last year and teamed him with Dick Stockton. By season's end, Dierdorf had leapfrogged a half dozen other analysts in one of the most rapid rises ever seen in sports broadcasting.
Dierdorf's contract called for CBS to have an option on his services in 1987 at a slight increase in pay. But through an administrative oversight that almost defies belief, CBS never got Dierdorf's signature on the contract. The network paid him the figures specified, and he worked faithfully for two years, but the two sides could not come to terms on the option clause and other contract details. Thus, when ABC offered him the Monday Night deal in April, Dierdorf was free to accept.
When CBS Sports president Neal Pilson found out his underlings hadn't dotted all the i's, his anger reverberated through the network's New York offices. Pilson and Shaker even flew to St. Louis for a face-to-face visit with Dierdorf, but they couldn't get him to stay. At least, Dierdorf says half seriously, they got a free lunch at The Grill, one of the four restaurants he co-owns with former Cardinals quarterback Jim Hart, and were allowed to make calls to their secretaries from the cellular phone in his Mercedes 560.
Dierdorf and his agent, Arthur Kaminsky, were hardly babes in the woods during this period. Perhaps to justify its bumbling, CBS has hinted that Kaminsky may have delayed the signing of the contract so his client could be free to solicit offers from ABC. Kaminsky denies this; he says that ABC came after Dierdorf, not the other way around. A few sour-grape suckers at CBS might say that Dierdorf should have stayed at the network out of loyalty, but he was under no legal or moral obligation to do so. Besides, the Monday Night deal was almost irresistible.
"I couldn't have been treated nicer by the people at CBS," Dierdorf told Eric Mink of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "It was very painful for me to extricate myself from CBS Sports. I did it with a great deal of thought, but how could I pass it [Monday Night] up?"
While his professional life has had few hitches, Dierdorf has experienced one grievous personal setback. In January 1985 his two-month-old daughter, Kelly, died, a victim of sudden infant death syndrome. "For some reason, usually between the ages of one and four months, they take a breath and don't take another one," says Dierdorf. "There's no struggle, no choking; they just stop, like flipping off the switch on a light. My wife, Debbie, woke up at 4 and realized she hadn't heard the baby cry for its feeding at 2:30 or 3. She knew right away. She came back into our bedroom carrying her. How do you describe it? It's beyond belief. You just go into autopilot. Every day you sit around and start falling farther and farther into that hole."
Dierdorf, who then had three other children (two from a previous marriage and one with Debbie), says Kelly's death taught him a hard lesson. "It made me more sensitive to other people's problems," he says. "When everything is going well, you're not aware of other people's problems. You don't have the time. Then when something happens to you, all of a sudden you find out that virtually everyone you know has a problem, sometimes a worse one than yours, and you have been blind to it." He and Debbie have since had another daughter, Katherine, who's one.
Dierdorf got out of his dark hole by immersing himself in work. "He's talked for years about his goals," says Debbie. "He was not shy about them. From the day he started at CBS, he wanted John Madden's job."