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Eagles-Cowboys brings memories of late Birds broadcaster

It was in the dark hollow of a December night that a terrible reality disguised as a dream woke Janet Swift.

It was in the dark hollow of a December night that a terrible reality disguised as a dream woke Janet Swift.

Stirred to consciousness by some unknown force in the early hours of Dec. 7, 1977, the 16-year-old girl rose up in her bed and screamed, "Daddy's dead!"

A short while later, the Drexel Hill teen's dreadful premonition was confirmed. Her father, Philadelphia sports announcer Charlie Swift, 43, had committed suicide not long after midnight.

That chilling story haunts me each year when, as is the case Sunday night, the Eagles visit Dallas.

Not many happy stories have emerged from those trips. Philadelphia has lost 36 of the 59 games it has played in that Texas city. But it's the Eagles' 24-14 loss on Dec. 4, 1977, that remains the saddest of all. It was the last game Swift broadcast.

As I always did then, I'd turned down the TV volume that Sunday and listened to Swift do the game on WIP radio. I wish I could recall my favorite broadcaster's valedictory words that afternoon. But I'm sure they didn't offer any clues to the tragedy ahead.

He was an everyman in the booth, relaxed and informative, affable without being smarmy. At a time when the game's complexities were starting to be layered into broadcasts and telecasts, Swift kept it simple, able to convey inside-football without ever being condescending.

In some ways, the last place you'd have expected to find Swift was in a sports arena. "He was," I wrote some time ago, "better-suited to the tiny crow's nest atop the Palestra than to the national spotlight's glare."

He didn't look like an athlete, unless you consider a jockey an athlete. As the Daily News' Joe Clark noted in his story on the announcer's death, "Charlie Swift was 5-foot-4. But he worked in a land of giants."

While the football and basketball players who populated that land favored long shags, mullets, and Afros, Swift stubbornly maintained a crewcut. The plaid sports coats and Sans-a-Belt slacks he favored betrayed his East Stroudsburg, Pa., roots.

A Penn State graduate, Swift didn't have Howard Cosell's vocabulary, Bill Campbell's passion, or Harry Kalas' vocal cords. And yet, in this cynical city, he was enormously popular, successful, and busy.

As WIP's sports director, Swift offered sports updates and minute-long commentaries - insightful audio columns - throughout the day. He was the lead Eagles announcer from 1969 through 1977. He and Al Meltzer shared duties on the telecasts of Palestra doubleheaders. He called 76ers games on Prism.

Listeners felt that he was their friend. John Paul Weber, a WIP colleague, said that while Philadelphians traditionally were hypercritical of sports announcers, the station received few complaints about Swift. They sensed his dry wit, his lack of pretension, and his compassion.

"He was a tough little guy with a heart of gold," Jack Edelstein, the longtime spotter on Eagles broadcasts, once said.

If he were depressed or troubled in those days after the Eagles fell to 3-9 with the loss at Dallas, no one noticed.

In fact, Swift had just completed what friends called "some lucrative business ventures." He had two more Eagles games to do, and then a winter filled with college and pro basketball.

On the night of Dec. 6, he left the radio station about 10:30 p.m., had dinner with friends at Jimmy's Milan on Rittenhouse Square, then retreated to a Sansom Street bar for a nightcap.

"He was in as good spirits as I'd ever seen him," Weber said.

Police in Delaware County later said Swift did not appear intoxicated, but as he drove home to his Media condominium, the broadcaster nodded off. His vehicle struck a concrete abutment on Springfield Road. Though he'd been issued a DUI citation in Marple Township earlier that year and briefly lost his license, he was not charged or cited.

His injuries were minor - a cut on the bridge of his nose - but the car had to be towed. The investigating police officer drove him back to his ground-floor unit at the Holly House Condominiums, remarking later that Swift seemed "very quiet."

It was sometime after 12:30 when he entered the residence he shared with his second wife and two stepchildren. An earlier marriage had ended in divorce and Swift's first wife and two teenaged children resided in nearby Drexel Hill.

According to police, he sat down at the dining-room table, lit a cigarette, and read the paper. At some point, he wrote a brief note to his wife, one that provided no explanation for what he was about to do. Then near 12:50, there was a gunshot. His wife found Swift slumped over the table. A .22-caliber handgun was resting near his right hand.

An hour later and a few miles away, Janet Swift screamed.

Merrill Reese, who had been hired as Swift's summer replacement and now was his Eagles color commentator, got the news in a phone call. He was now the team's lead broadcaster.

That next Sunday, before the Giants-Eagles matchup at Veterans Stadium, there was a moment of silence for the deceased announcer. Most of the 47,731 fans turned toward the broadcast booth and Reese.

It was an astonishingly painful way for the younger broadcaster to have ascended to a job he'd always dreamed about, and the headphones he wore could easily have been a crown of thorns.

"My knees were knocking," Reese recalled.

Then the Eagles' Nick Mike-Mayer kicked off. Bobby Hammond looked upfield as he caught the ball against his chest.

"He's at the 5, " Reese began, as one great Philadelphia voice gave way to another.