He didn't have the voice for it. He looked less like an athlete than any athlete that ever lived. He didn't have a quick wit or clever way of expressing himself. Yet Al Derogatis was probably the best color commentator in the history of football broadcasting, setting a standard for both that has rarely been topped.
Derogatis came along too early to really benefit from playing pro football. He joined the New York Giants in 1949 after an all-America career at Duke, and was their regular offensive tackle as a rookie, and became a defensive tackle the next year, leading to a Pro Bowl appearance in 1951. Alas, after the 1952 season, a recurrence of a knee injury suffered in college recurred, forcing his retirement and he left football to go into the insurance business.
But Derogatis kept his contacts in football. He worked for the Giants as a scout and in 1963 was broadcasting their games on radio. Eventually his work was noted and he joined the NBC TV team in 1968, and was paired with the great Curt Gowdy in 1971 as their number 1 broadcast team, broadcasting three Super Bowls (most notably, Super Bowl III, when the Jets upset the Colts) and many other pro and college events. Derogatis was replaced as Gowdy's partner by Don Meredith in 1974, and eventually retired from the job, his last year in the booth being 1977.
This bare history tells you very little about what made Dero great. His strength was in explaining what was going on -- what made the play work or fail. His insight into the subject was unmatched, often pointing out things before the instant replay came up. If you were new to the game, he made it more understandable. If you were familiar with it, he'd routinely point out things you never noticed before.
And he always remembered the game came first. No anecdotes about his playing career. No tangential discussions (even when the game was a blowout). Just a calm, professional demeanor that was designed to enlighten, not entertain (the game was the entertainment; Dero just made it more entertaining).
Of course, few people pat attention to football commentators, and those that do remember the self-promoters, the ego-driven, and the terrible. Derogatis was none of these things. He also had a reedy voice, a bit high-pitched for a modern announcer.
Football broadcasting has changed so that the color commentator is supposed to be part of the show, so Derogatis was something of an anachronism by the time he retired. But those who remember him agree: he was one of the best. And it's sobering to think he probably wouldn't be given much of an opportunity today.