Bruce Cunningham had narrated many a newscast and called many a game before he ever sat behind the public-address microphone at PSINet Stadium on Aug. 28, 1999.
Talking in public was his calling, and yet he felt something different as he stared out at the sea of purple-clad fans.
“Terror,” Cunningham recalled. “For the first three or four years, I was scared to death. … The audience is all right out there in front of you.”
The veteran Fox 45 broadcaster could share that emotion with a chuckle because he settled into the role of Ravens public address announcer for a 20-year run that ended Tuesday morning when he resigned his post.
“When I hit the twenty year milestone last year, it sort of felt like a finish line, but I shrugged it off and chalked it up to fatigue,” Cunningham wrote on Fox 45’s website. “But it was indeed a finish line and after announcing the two pre-season games, I realized I was done. The fire in the belly was gone.”
The Ravens will have a new public-address announcer for their first home game of the regular season Sept. 15.
Cunningham said he’ll happily move a few doors down to the press box at M&T Bank Stadium, where he’ll cover the team for Fox 45. He wiped away a few tears after posting his decision, but felt confident in his judgement.
“Bruce Cunningham is a historical member of the Ravens’ home-game presentation,” team spokesman Kevin Byrne said in a statement. “We were honored to have him participate in what we believe is the best home-game entertainment in the NFL. We thank him for his excellent work.”
The 61-year-old Cunningham did not mince words in a phone interview Tuesday, saying he stepped down because his recent performance had not lived up to his own standards.
“That was weighing on me,” he said. “I went out and did these last two preseason games, and I was really unsatisfied. I just knew this decision had to be made. [The Ravens] didn’t say anything, but I knew. The man in the mirror started talking sense to me.”
He started to wonder if he was slipping last season when he mistakenly referred to Ravens kicker Justin Tucker as Kyle Boller, the team’s former quarterback. It was a mental misfire, the likes of which anyone could suffer, and it actually became a running joke between Cunningham and Tucker.
But it nagged at the announcer.
“I felt it come out of my mouth, and I wanted to grab the words and stick them right back in there,” he said. “I was devastated. … I couldn’t give myself a reason why I had done it, and that one got me thinking.”
Cunningham said he made the decision now so the Ravens would have plenty of time to find his replacement before their home opener.
Byrne said he was caught slightly off guard, “but we all move on, so I kind of understand it.”
He said the team has identified replacement candidates and will hold tests over the next few days to zero in on a new announcer.
Cunningham had already worked as a public-address announcer for several minor league baseball teams when he came to Baltimore in 1991 to work for fledgling Fox 45, where he now serves as sports director and daily sports anchor.
He made his name in the city in part by calling radio play-by-play for the Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League. He subsequently called Ravens games on the radio when the NFL returned to Baltimore in 1996.
Byrne said he reached out to Cunningham when the Ravens needed a new public-address announcer in 1999 because of his natural humor and credibility with fans. He also loved the broadcaster’s old rock-and-roll spirit, which survives from his days as a radio disc jockey.
“He has to put on the sport coat and tie to go to work, but he’s a rock-and-roller at heart, and he brings that type of enthusiasm,” Byrne said. “As we tried to ingratiate ourselves, so to speak, into the community, he was a familiar voice, somebody they knew and trusted already. And to have him on game day gave us a recognizable name and voice to give us a little more credibility.”
Cunningham accepted the gig, figuring it would last a few years. “I never set out to become any kind of cornerstone,” he said.
In the early years, he’d lean to the right when he was unsure how to pronounce someone’s name, a tick that led to many good-hearted jabs from his spotters, Steve Stofberg and Mark Penn, and producers Greg Massoni and Chris Shaffer.
Their football Sundays usually began around 9 a.m. with a two- to three-hour read-through of each game’s script. Cunningham studied hard to master the pronunciations of visiting players’ names. More importantly, he summoned the energy to stir a packed stadium to frenzy.
He found that easy to do in the years when Ray Lewis danced out of the tunnel to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” but more difficult in recent seasons.
“The thing about that job, it takes a lot of energy and it takes a lot of passion,” Cunningham said. “And I was finding it hard to muster that anymore. … Physically, I’m not sure I was up to it.”
Cunningham, who lives in Pasadena with his wife, Wendy, acts as a tireless booster for his adopted home, posting sparkling shots of downtown Baltimore on social media to counteract more derisive depictions of the city. He often bemoans the angry state of political discourse in modern life.
This helps explain why he cherished the fellowship he felt Sunday afternoons at M&T Bank Stadium. “That’s what the job is really designed to bring out is love,” he said. “I hope I did that.”
He’s thought about how alien he’ll feel turning left toward his press seat instead of right toward the public-address booth when he steps off the elevator at the Ravens’ next home game in 3½ weeks.
“But I’ll tell you what I think I’m really gonna feel,” he said. “Which is just peace — the knowledge of a job done as well as I felt like I could do it.”