Every college football stadium, no matter how large or small, shares the sounds of the actual games being played on the field. Cracks, smacks, clacks and whistles. But each venue also comes with its own unique soundtrack, a deep cut playlist of fight songs, alma maters and cheers and chants perfected over more than a century.
Each team and venue also has its own voice. No, not accents or dialects or local lexicons, but rather the radio-delivered, vocally painted pictures of that local hero who has earned the right to carry the title “The Voice of (insert your favorite team here).”
Since 1988, the Voice of Alabama Crimson Tide football has been Eli Gold. He has called the action for seven national titles, 11 SEC championships and 35 bowl games. Living rooms and tailgates from Huntsville to Mobile and Vinegar Bend to Muscadine have screamed as Gold described yet another national championship and have cried as he’s delivered bad news from lost Iron Bowls.
For more than 30 years it had become impossible to close one’s eyes and conjure up the sounds of Alabama football and not hear the voice of Gold. Until one year ago.
“I always realized how special this job was and how much it meant to me,” Gold, 69, said last week, sitting in a recliner in his Birmingham home, wearing an Alabama Football t-shirt and sipping water from an Alabama Football stadium cup in a room tastefully decorated with just the right mix of Alabama Football memorabilia. “This job is like holding a rare piece of crystal. I always knew that. It’s now been reinforced.”
Reinforced because it was taken away. Gold missed only one game over the first 32 years in the Alabama broadcast booth, and that happened only because of the coronavirus pandemic, and he still managed to miss only one game. But it was a year and a half later, in the spring of 2022, when Gold went to bed via his normal nighttime routine.
“I woke up seven, eight hours later, whatever it was, and my legs didn’t work. My legs did not work,” Gold remembered, still shaking his head in disbelief nearly 20 months later. “I could not walk. I couldn’t get out of bed. Nothing. I don’t know what happened.”
Wife Claudette dug out a wheelchair that had been left in the house by another family member and somehow managed to get her husband, who is much larger than she is, into the chair, into their SUV and to the hospital. Doctors were flummoxed and would stay that way for the remainder of 2022. For more than 200 days, Gold was in and out of hospitals, medical centers and did a stint in a skilled nursing home to learn how to walk again. There were still no answers.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Claudette admitted now. “That whole time they ran tests, and ran tests, and ran tests, and nothing showed up. They gave him steroids to build the strength back in his legs, but they still had no idea what was wrong. They kept saying, ‘Well, just take him home’ and I would reply, ‘And do what? I don’t know what to do!’ Finally, I sat down on the couch and I looked at the doctor and I said, ‘We’re not leaving here until you find out what’s wrong. We’re not leaving.'”
Over those seven months, Gold lost 140 pounds. He simply didn’t feel like eating. He also lost the entire 2022 college football season. Claudette made the call to the athletic department that Gold wouldn’t be able to make it into the booth that fall. She also made the decision to keep the details of her husband’s struggle private. When Alabama released a statement about his absence, it only described “health issues.”
“We live a public life here in Birmingham, so that felt like the best approach because we honestly didn’t know what was wrong,” she explained. “That didn’t stop people from speculating, especially as the season went on, but we honestly didn’t know. He was up and down, and we just kept going back for tests.”
That lasted until Dec. 23, 2022, when Gold developed a new complication.
“I ended with the worst case of hiccups you could ever imagine,” he said. The spasms were violent and continuous. “Not one hiccup now and then another one in five or six seconds or eight or ten seconds. But it was hiccup, hiccup, hiccup, hiccup. … I mean, one right after the next, after the next, after the next. I couldn’t even catch my breath. I couldn’t breathe. And when they investigated, they found a malignant growth in my esophagus.”
It was a tumor. Located just below the vocal cords that produce Gold’s legendary voice. The steroids and other strength-building treatments used to regain the use of his legs had also masked the issue that had caused all his problems, including the disconnect with his lower extremities. He had lymphoma.
“So, December 23rd, it was, ‘Merry Christmas, Eli, you have cancer,'” Gold said, with a laugh of surrender. “But oddly enough, there was relief in the diagnosis because now there was a target. Now we could actually start a treatment with a specific goal instead of feeling like we were guessing all the time.”
On New Year’s Eve 2022, the same day Alabama defeated Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl, Gold began chemotherapy treatments.
“I was lying there in the hospital with IV tubes going in me,” he said. “They’re dripping poisons into you and I’m lying there and I’m watching this red stuff going in, and this white stuff, clear stuff. And I realize, you know, this is for real, man.”
So was the continuing fight and the risks that came with it. There was one night Claudette and their daughter Elise were sitting in the hospital room that went from quiet to instantly filled with frantic doctors and nurses. Gold was crashing, and they warned Claudette he might not make it through the night. Then there was the day Gold’s skin became dark red, like sun poisoning, from head to toe, and his vitals started sliding again. He was allergic to the antibiotics he had been given.
Finally, on April 21, 2023, more than a year after waking up without the use of his legs, Gold rang the bell that signified the end of final cancer treatment. For Alabama fans, it was the sweetest bell heard this side of the Denny Chimes.
Praise the Lord and Roll Tide! My friend and co-worker Eli Gold just rang the bell completing his cancer treatment! pic.twitter.com/JhTdc5VHJ7
— Tom Stipe (@TomStipe_RTR) April 21, 2023
“I have seen how hard he’s worked, and I’ve seen it from beginning to the end,” Gold’s wife said as tears welled up in her eyes. “The only thing he was concerned about was going back to work. ‘I’ve got to get better for football. I’ve got to get better for football.'”
His original goal was to return for A-Day, Alabama’s spring game, the day after he rang the bell, but that didn’t happen. He wasn’t up for it and, more importantly, he wasn’t prepared. In the weeks leading up to the 2023 season he called the Tide’s other scrimmages to get his mind and eyes back up to football speed. He’s also voiced hundreds of promos for Alabama radio network affiliates and has taken to singing in the car and shower. “No one from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will be calling me to join anytime soon, but it works.”
He won’t travel with the team this fall. Chris Stewart, who filled in for Gold last fall, will stay on the microphone to cover road duties this season, though Gold promises if Alabama is in the College Football Playoff National Championship game Jan. 8 in Houston, he’ll be there.
“My entire life I have been on the road,” he said of a career that has included stints in the NHL, countless other hockey leagues and a decades-long career in motorsports radio and television many believe should one day result in election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“When they played that season without me, I absolutely felt left behind, like a piece of me was missing,” Gold said. “My coworkers did such a tremendous job and were so respectful of me during my absence. But man, it hurt.”
Last Saturday, Gold was on the call for Alabama’s season opener against Middle Tennessee. It was the first time he had been in the Bryant-Denny Stadium broadcast booth to call real-life football game since Nov. 20, 2021.
“There is a tradition in any program, and Eli’s been a part of that tradition for a long, long, time,” says Bama coach Nick Saban, who does his weekly radio show alongside Gold every autumn Thursday night. “When people listen, they expect to hear Eli Gold.”
Now they will again. For how long, who knows? But Tide fans will take whatever they can get, from now until whenever the end might come. Because not so long ago, it felt like that most familiar voice in the fall soundtrack of Alabama football might not ever be heard again.
“‘That play-by-play guy is like family,” Gold said of his role in the lives of Alabama fans. “‘It’s like that comfortable, old pair of shoes. He’s there. Has been forever.'” Then Gold turned to their role in his life.
“Football is upon us. And you know, that’s the best medicine I could have had.”