NEW YORK (AP) — Cris Collinsworth remembers the early days of his second career as an NFL announcer like this: calling a Browns-Colts game before Peyton Manning with only the road team's fans in Cleveland getting the broadcast.
For that low-key start two decades ago, he is thankful.
"I got a few years to be really awful before anyone saw it," he says.
Those in the business who saw him then would disagree, saying his ascension to the highest-rated TV show in prime time is not a surprise. And this is someone who wasn't a quarterback or a coach, wasn't a Hall of Famer or even a Super Bowl champion.
"My wife can tell you — when I first heard Cris, I said, 'Boy, this guy is good,'" said Al Michaels, now Collinsworth's broadcast partner.
The 53-year-old ex-wide receiver is in his fourth season as the color commentator on NBC's "Sunday Night Football," where he had to replace the man who redefined that job in the NFL: John Madden. This week, Collinsworth is calling three nationally televised games in eight days with the network adding a Thanksgiving broadcast.
"When I retired, I knew that they were in great hands," Madden says. "Cris was there and he was ready to go."
Collinsworth made three Pro Bowls and played in two Super Bowls with the Cincinnati Bengals before retiring in 1988. He did some radio as a player then some work for HBO's "Inside the NFL" after his career ended.
But what he suspects attracted NBC to initially hire him — back when the network had the AFC package — had nothing to do with football. Collinsworth started attending law school while with the Bengals, eventually graduating in 1991.
Network executives must have figured he had a quick mind. But it didn't feel like a natural move to Collinsworth.
In fact, he considered the NBC job a temporary gig, a way to make some extra money while he was still studying at the University of Cincinnati, recently married with a new baby at home.
He told his wife: "No way this is going to last. Bear with me."
And indeed it lasted only one season. Collinsworth asked for a raise, was turned down, and didn't call any games the next year. He was surprised when NBC wanted to hire him again the following season.
Now he's won 13 Emmy Awards and is still on "Inside the NFL," which has since moved to Showtime.
Collinsworth worked at NBC through 1996. He joined Fox in 1998, first as a studio analyst on the pregame show, later moving to a three-man booth with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman as the network's No. 1 broadcast team.
When NBC picked up "Sunday Night Football" in 2006, Collinsworth was hired for the pregame show. He was tabbed as Madden's eventual successor alongside Michaels.
Madden surprised NBC executives by retiring in April 2009, and the network announced the same day that Collinsworth would take over.
"I knew everything was going to be very, very smooth," Madden says of the transition. "It has, and I'm really happy it has."
The current lead NFL analysts on the other networks are two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks — Fox's Aikman and CBS's Phil Simms — and a Super Bowl-winning coach in ESPN's Jon Gruden. Collinsworth figures, in his own case, his long-term career benefited from his relative lack of fame as a player.
A bigger name would start with bigger games. He got to learn from his mistakes early on in front of tiny audiences, improving and improving to slowly work up to a bigger stage.
Madden believes Collinsworth had plenty going for him at the start. That legal background allows him to process the game and express those thoughts differently than any old former NFL player, Madden says.
"He's just not an X's and O's technical disseminator of information," says "Sunday Night Football" producer Fred Gaudelli. "Cris is a broadcaster. He really understands what is too much or 'how can I say this so that everyone understands this?'"
Collinsworth likes to lampoon the fact it took him five years to get through law school: "The joke is I got tenure and a diploma at the same time."
But it was law school — not studying film as a player — that taught him how to prepare himself each week to talk football to an average audience of more than 21 million viewers. He would start with 50 pages of notes, then distill that to 25, then to 15 then to five — and memorize those five pages.
Collinsworth insists he never saw all this coming early on, and yet his career also seems to have come full circle. When he started calling NFL games, his producer was Michaels' brother.
David Michaels was aghast when he saw Collinsworth's method of tracking players: He wrote all their names on the back of a folder. Michaels called up Terry Bradshaw, who sent over an elaborate board with places for names and numbers. That got Collinsworth through his first five years or so of broadcasting.
"I used to watch those guys on 'Monday Night Football' and go, 'Oh, my gosh. Can you imagine doing these games with the whole world watching?'" he says. "I was glad I was doing the game back in Cleveland."
Now the whole country is watching.