Former WTMJ Packers voice Bender now in Phoenix

Posted at 12:00 AM, Jan 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-14 13:49:26-05

Since 1960, only four men have had the job of radio play-by-play voice for Green Bay Packers football on WTMJ. You're most familiar with three of them: Ted Moore, Jim Irwin and our current voice, Wayne Larrivee.

The other guy was Gary Bender. He only had the job for five years, with Jim Irwin alongside him on color commentary, in the early 1970's before a long network TV broadcast career came calling. He had previously been calling Kansas Jayhawks basketball.

"I sent a tape to Joe Colleen at WTMJ, not even knowing that Ted Moore was out, and they hired me on my tape. That's how it all began," explained Bender, who now lives in the locale where the Packers and Arizona Cardinals will play Saturday, Phoenix. "Jim and I hooked up and did those games together and also did the Badgers games on Saturday."

Like Irwin, Bender was a very busy guy. Not only did he do Packers and Badgers football, but he did Brewers baseball with Bob Uecker and Merle Harmon on WTMJ - all that besides anchoring sports twice an evening for what was called the Wisconsin TV Network.

It was a labor of love for Bender, but it was laborious travel between his Badgers, Packers and all his other duties.

"I finally found a guy who would be willing to fly me from Madison to Green Bay if he could just come up to the broadcast booth," said the resourceful Bender. "I cut out a lot of driving."

The seasons he called Packers games - 1970-74 - were not banner years for the franchise. Phil Bengston's last year was Bender's first, and he stayed for Dan Devine's entire tenure.

"We did have one year in 1972. We won the Central Division, when we had the John Brockington-Macarthur Lane duo, just an outstanding running team," said Bender.

"Other than that, it was a challenge...the real Achilles heel was that we didn't have a quarterback that could keep defenses honest."

Bender called teams with Bart Starr, Don Horn, Zeke Bratkowski, Scott Hunter, Jerry Tagge, Jack Concannon and John Hadl at quarterback...more starting quarterbacks between 1970 and 1974 than the Packers have had between 1992 and today, a reflection of how the Packers struggled in that era.

The year Starr returned as coach (1975) was the year Bender left WTMJ to become a network voice at CBS, thanks to a co-worker who overheard some CBS network executives having a conversation in a New York deli.

"How (broadcast agent Bob Rosen) discovered who I was...he was in a delicatessen in New York, visiting with the president of CBS Sports, Bob Wussler. They got up to leave. Wussler said to Rosen, 'We just lost Jack Buck. He's leaving CBS to go to NBC to do a new show called "Grandstand." Do you know anybody out there, a young guy, who might be network quality?' " explained Bender.

"A guy sitting over at an adjacent table got up, walked over, said 'Gentlemen, I couldn't help but overhear your conversation. I don't want to interfere, but I've got someone to recommend...I do the Big Ten Game of the Week for TVS (a syndicated sports broadcast network before cable TV) and I've got a guy doing the games with me named Gary Bender.' That's how I got hired."

There but for the grace of a pastrami sandwich went Gary Bender's network career.

Months later with CBS, Bender called TV play-by-play of one of the most famous endings in NFL history, the invention of the Hail Mary when Roger Staubach's Dallas Cowboys beat the Minnesota Vikings in December 1975.

BONUS VIDEO: Watch a 1977 Packers game Bender called with former Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas in the YouTube player below.

Bender's voice may be most connected to two college basketball broadcasts watched over and over for more than three decades:

1) Michael Jordan's game-winning shot for North Carolina to beat Georgetown in the 1982 Final Four

2) North Carolina State's miraculous alley-oop at the buzzer to beat heavily favored Houston in the 1983 Final Four

But another event involving a Wisconsin athlete may have been his most poignant broadcast experience - West Allis-based speedskater Dan Jansen in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, while working for ABC.

"Prior to our arrival there, Dan Jansen's sister (Jane) had died of cancer. (ABC broadcast partner, Madison native and 5-time Olympic gold medal speedskater) Eric Heiden went down to Dan Jansen and told him, 'I think you're distracted...I recommend you don't skate,' " Bender explained.

"Dan decided to go ahead and he crashed, did not skate well at all. We move ahead a week. It was going to be the premiere event for Jansen, his world record, gold medal winner that seemed to be an automatic. All he had to do was skate. Believe it or not, he skated, and with about 10 meters to go, he crashed again. I remember saying on the air, 'Oh no!' "

After that failure by Jansen, Bender was given the assignment to reach Jansen for a live interview. Bender said he had to find a back way around the Canadian Mounted Police to reach Jansen for the live interview with almost no time to prepare.

"It ended up being one of the best interviews I've ever had. Roone Arledge, who was the producer, he told me later, 'I've never seen a more emotional interview.' He was crying, and I was almost (crying)."

By that point, Bender was also calling college football and basketball for ABC. He had moved to Phoenix, Arizona. The Cardinals moved there from St. Louis and hired Bender to do their play-by-play. He also called TV broadcasts for the Phoenix Suns until 2011.

Yet even as he lives in the Valley of the Sun, the Packers remain true to his heart - along with his loyalties for Saturday night's playoff showdown.

"I would be rooting for the Packers. They were so good to me," said Bender.

"I have those kind of attachments to Green Bay, to Madison, a lot of my friends there. I would be rooting for the Packers."