Editor’s note: Jim Irwin talked to Packer Report recently for a feature that is set to run in the upcoming magazine. This is an abbreviated version.
Jim Irwin, the legendary “Voice of the Packers” from 1975 to 1998, died on Sunday from complications of kidney cancer.
Irwin’s enthusiastic voice painted a vivid picture of many of the greatest moments in Green Bay Packers history.
Whether bringing to life a pressure-packed, nail-biting last-second victory or describing the emotion of a demoralizing defeat, his sincere, easy-going demeanor and succinct words consistently captured the essence of every play.
From the lean years of the 1970s to the franchise’s return to glory in the mid 1990s, Irwin was a consummate professional and remained dedicated to telling the best story possible.
“I have had a privileged life and truly loved my job,” said Irwin, who resides in Orange County, Calif. “Not being a big statistics guy, I was a play-by-play announcer who tried hard to always be factual and tell the story as it happened. It was all about being on top of every play, describing the action in the best way possible and reaching a comfort level with the audience.
“I have many fond memories of Green Bay. Looking back on my career, I never envisioned that it would eventually lead to a spot in the Packers Hall of Fame.”
Upon arriving in Green Bay as sports director at WLUK-TV in 1964 during the glory years of the franchise, Irwin developed a good working relationship with legendary coach Vince Lombardi.
“Being one of only a few sports directors in the small community of Green Bay at that time, I became part of the entourage and had good access to Lombardi,” said Irwin, who majored in speech at the University of Missouri. “We often traveled with the team on road trips and developed a good relationship with everyone in the organization. I was there for the first two Super Bowls and when he stepped down. Thinking back on Super Bowl I and II, it is something to see the two weeks of hype and what kind of spectacle it has become over the years.”
Irwin moved to Milwaukee in 1969 in order to join WTMJ, continuing on as a television sportscaster and becoming a color analyst for Packers radio broadcasts.
He assumed play-by-play duties in 1975, being paired with Packers legends Lionel Aldridge and eventually with the great Max McGee in 1979.
“With the long-standing tradition of the Packers, I truly felt like the envy of every broadcaster,” said Irwin, whose career longevity has garnered three other hall of fame inductions (Camdenton High School in Missouri, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and Milwaukee Press Club). “My colleagues all had my back and provided great commentary, which allowed me the opportunity to get into a good rhythm and stay on top of every play. Packer fans are very knowledgeable about the game so it was a joy to be able to develop a great relationship with them over the years.”
Over the course of his three-decade career, Irwin witnessed the highs and lows of six coaching regimes, ranging from the struggles of Phil Bengtson, Dan Devine, Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg and Lindy Infante to the success of Mike Holmgren.
“Holmgren was an outstanding coach and used his methods to finally bring a championship back to Green Bay,“ Irwin said. “As was the case last year, there were a lot of injuries in 1996 that the team was able to overcome. The guys believed in what they were doing and worked through the adversity.”
Irwin recalled the frigid 1996 NFC Championship game at Lambeau Field on Jan. 12, 1997, as being one of his most memorable experiences as a broadcaster.
“It was the most thrilling moment of my career,” Irwin said of the Packers’ frigid 30-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers to punch a ticket to Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans. “It was cold that day and the stadium absolutely came alive over the course of the last four or five minutes as the Super Bowl finally became a reality. When the game was over, we didn’t want the day to end.”
With a trip to New Orleans in sight, he captured the moment as cornerback Craig Newsome ensured a victory on an interception with 3:32 remaining.
“Warm up the bus folks, we’re about to head south!” Irwin proclaimed.
For former Packer Pro Bowl center Larry McCarren, who joined the veteran team as a broadcast colleague in 1995, witnessing Irwin’s reaction was priceless.
“When the Packers finally won the NFC Championship Game in ‘96 after all of those years, it was easy to see that Jim was genuinely happy and truly enjoyed every moment,” McCarren said. “When I arrived on the scene to join them in the booth in ‘95, Jim and Max were already legendary NFL broadcasters. They were fixtures and a part of the fabric of the game. It just wasn’t a Packer game without them.”
Irwin’s final game broadcast came on Jan. 3, 1999, as the Packers lost to the San Francisco 49ers 30-27 in an NFC wild-card game. He was honored for his lasting contributions as a broadcaster and inducted into the Packer Hall of Fame five years later.
“It was a special day,” Irwin said. “I was honored when Packer president Bob Harlan informed me that I was going to be inducted. My family was allowed the rare opportunity to walk through the tunnel and onto Lambeau Field. Each time I look at my Packers Hall of Fame ring, it brings a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Over the course of 30 years, I had many friendships and loved my job.”
He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Gloria, along with two adult children (Ann and Jay) and his grandchildren.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.