‘A legendary talent’: the life and legacy of Fernando Von Rossum, a key man for the NFL’s growth 

This article was originally published in Spanish in December, 2021

“They look like the old Bucs in Rams uniforms,” said Fernando Von Rossum through WhatsApp a few weeks ago after a weak performance by the Los Angeles-based team, tying them to those losing Buccaneers teams in the 1970s and 1980s.

Half a century after announcing his first NFL games on nationally-televised games in México, Von Rossum still watches and is still just as excited by pro football.

“The NFC is a mess,” he observed after a week full of upsets. This is the same man who back in the day had to recognize the gait of each player so he could identify them off the television screen when he announced. That was a different world.

Finally retired from television a few years ago and settled far away from big cities in México, Von Rossum openly admires Tom Brady for playing at such a high level at 44 years old and admits that when he called games in the 1970s, he loved Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain, but he would never allow his feelings to influence his on-air announcing.

To chat with Don Fernando or to listen to him when he is invited as a guest on NFL programming, is like stepping into a time machine back to one of his magnificent broadcasts that marked a significant era in television in México, which was essential and absolutely crucial in generating and furthering the growth of the NFL internationally.

Fernando Von Rossum is the most important and transcendent Spanish-language announcer for the game of football. However, his legacy has not been properly recognized.

Von Rossum, México and an international NFL

The NFL announced this week that countries were assigned as home markets to certain teams to pursue direct business with brands and engagement with fans. Access to México – historically the most important market outside the United States for the NFL – was granted to a record nine franchises, three more than the amount that claimed the United Kingdom.

México is the biggest market for the NFL outside the US. /Photo: Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images

The Mexican NFL market would not have grown the way it did without the turbo-charging of a significant amount of games televised nationally there since the 1970s, particularly on Televisa, the dominant Mexican media behemoth. Von Rossum led those telecasts as their play-by-play announcer.

Enrique Búrak, a Televisa play-by-play and game commentator since the 1980s, grew up an NFL fan by listening to Von Rossum’s calls. So did millions of other Mexicans.

“I was captivated by the way Fernando conducted his orchestra, how he brought out the drama in games, with his own style, getting excited when he should, but without hollering willy-nilly because passion should not be measured by decibels,” Búrak wrote in his column in Mexican daily Milenio in 2016 after Von Rossum retired. “He had a peerless cadence, a total command of the language and of quiet moments in the telecast, beyond his great knowledge of the game, professionalism and versatility.”

Von Rossum’s influence can still be heard on Televisa’s broadcasts, where he shaped generations of announcers, but also in practically all other NFL broadcasters in Spanish in México, and also in digital and printed media, who adopted his style and terminology to describe and tell about this sport.

Unforgettable trio: Víctor Serrato, Von Rossum (middle) and Jorge Berry in the 70s. /Photo: FVR
Unforgettable trio: Víctor Serrato, Von Rossum (middle) and Jorge Berry in the 70s. /Photo: FVR

“When I started to call football games, I first thought of him, how he announced, not to simply copy him obviously, but to understand about rhythm, pace and how to run a broadcast,” revealed FOX Deportes’ NFL and soccer play-by-play man John Laguna. 

“That very distinctive voice, that style. I met him one time and he gave me so many tips that made me say ‘Wow. Respect,’ ” added Laguna, who lives in Los Angeles.

It would be impossible to quantify the far-reaching impact he had on the NFL in México, other Spanish-speaking broadcasters and fans. 

“To mention Fernando Von Rossum, is to mention a gentleman with lots of personality who laid down an original style… We grew up with that, that is how we learned to watch football,” said Aarón Soriano in an interview from Mexico City. For a while, he worked with Von Rossum and as a reporter has covered the last 26 Super Bowls in person, which is likely the longest streak by a Spanish-language reporter.

The announcer with a European last name

Fernando Von Rossum was born in Monterrey, in the Mexican state of Nuevo León. His father, from whom he got his name, had lived in San Antonio, Texas, where he played football. When his father moved to México, he founded the local football officials association. They were football pioneers in their region.

It turns out that the Von Rossum last name is German and Dutch, arriving in Rioverde, in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí, via New York and San Francisco.

Before he was an announcer, Fernando studied chemical engineering at Monterrey’s famed Tecnológico de Monterrey (Monterrey Institute of Technology). He remembers how in 1963 he began to watch American Football (AFL) games on television. The AFL later merged with the National Football League to form the modern NFL.

Von Rossum, who would naturally gravitate to watching football when he visited relatives in Texas, remembers the announcing was not very good, so he arranged for an audition at the Monterrey channel that broadcasted the games and soon enough landed the job. His first game was the Buffalo Bills at the Houston Oilers on October 20, 1963 on Channel 6 (XET).

In his first few years as an announcer, he broke through with a concept that only someone in his situation could have devised. “I realized that the audience did not know the game, that you had to explain the game. So I started thinking and said to myself: ‘Well, establish the nomenclature first.’ ”

By his third and fourth seasons of NFL announcing, Fernando Von Rossum had established and spread the Spanish-language football vocabulary, “so it could be more easily understood, ” as he said, with terms like mariscal de campo (quarterback), ala cerrada (tight end), apoyador (linebacker), esquinero (cornerback) and profundo (safety), etc.

In the Televisa studios: Roberto Keoseyán, Von Rossum and Alfonso Morales. /Photo: FVR
In the Televisa studios: Roberto Keoseyán, Von Rossum and Alfonso Morales. /Photo: FVR

Today, his terminology is standard on air and while the original English terms are now more widely known and understood, adapting the names of each position to Spanish since the 1960s was a critical step in introducing pro football to a large Mexican audience.

As usual, beginnings can be difficult, and filled with moments that today seem even absurd.

Von Rossum remembers calling some of his first Monday Night Football games from his room at home in Monterrey off his television screen, something he found embarrassing.

“I would call the game from home in Monterrey and my color commentator would be in Mexico City, but I could not hear him, nor could he hear me. So we figured I would call the action, wait 12 seconds for him to add his commentary, and then I would speak again. Let’s call that ‘artisanal’, confessed Von Rossum, cracking up at the memories.

The wonderful years

Fernando Von Rossum’s voice began to reach more parts of México at the end of the 1960s after several channels merged which allowed him and the NFL to open more doors. He navigated the evolving Mexican television industry at the time, and that is why he got the call at the beginning of the 1970s from what was later known as Televisa, right around the birth of the Super Bowl era. He was 28 years old.

Von Rossum recruited his friend Víctor Serrato to join him and Jorge Berry, a three-man booth that some old-time fans still consider the best ever in Spanish.

For today’s fans, who can find any of a million facts instantly on their mobile phones, it would be difficult to imagine days where such information was extremely hard to come by.

“You would write down every play,” explained Von Rossum, who would call the game while Serrato crunched statistics manually and Berry would tell stories and anecdotes. Those were the years when the Steelers and Cowboys won championships, became popular and split México into two large camps, right around the time the Raiders, or “Los Malosos” (Bad Boys) as Von Rossum christened them for posterity, emerged as a juggernaut.

The mexican broadcaster with the legendary Cowboys Bob Lilly and Jethro Pugh. /Photo: FVR
The Mexican broadcaster with the legendary Cowboys Bob Lilly and Jethro Pugh. /Photo: FVR

“The fan base grew because there was a time at Televisa where we would broadcast two Sunday games and the Monday Night game,” remembers the now-retired announcer, who also announced the playoffs, Super Bowls and countless college football games.

Women became interested in football, which is why I always insisted: because we are calling this game in Spanish, we will explain the sport. It was always a fine line. We could not afford to bore those who were knowledgeable, but we had to continue explaining the sport for new fans, because you did want to attract new audiences,” he added.

Legendary Don Fernando tells us he often bumps into fans that tell him they used to watch games he announced with their fathers when they were kids, and that now they would watch the NFL with their own children. In other words, football became a family tradition.

“That is when I realized we had crossed the generational bridge among the fan base,” noted Von Rossum. “The continuity of children who are reminded of their parents when they watch a game; it brings back great memories from their subconscious of watching games together.”

Álvaro Martín, who for three decades was the lead Spanish-language play-by-play NFL and NBA announcer for ESPN, highlights this generational span as an important part of Von Rossum’s legacy.

“His greatness lies in how he evolved his call throughout three generations of fans. Those who heard him in the 1970s had a very different level of knowledge of the game than those who enjoyed him in the 21st century, but his voice never lost any relevance because he adapted to the moment; a trait found in legendary talents,” says the Puerto Rico-born Martín, one of the most prestigious Spanish-language sports announcers in the United States.

The Televisa talent team would change over the years, but Von Rossum anchored it until 1985, when after he left Antonio De Valdés took over. De Valdés is still calling NFL games alongside Búrak and Pepe Segarra. This trio, by the way, constitutes another example of incredible excellence and longevity in Mexican sports announcing.

The most important moment in his career

The Kansas City Chiefs surprised the Minnesota Vikings 23-7 to win Super Bowl IV in January of 1970 in New Orleans. That was the first of 23 Super Bowl narrated by Fernando Von Rossum, whose legacy as an on-air talent shouldn’t just be measured by highlights that made countelss Mexicans and Spanish-speakers fans of pro football. The sheer volume of his work is remarkable: Von Rossum figures he called about 2,500 football games in his career.

Between 1972 and 1985, he was in charge of assigning licensees for NFL apparel in México, a key fan development driver south of the US border.

Von Rossum is the 'Iron Man' of the NFL broadcasts in Spanish. /Photo: Agencia Reforma
Von Rossum is the ‘Iron Man’ of NFL broadcasts in Spanish. /Photo: Agencia Reforma

Ask him what moment in his career is most rewarding and Don Fernando will not even bring up a specific game, Super Bowl, play or deal. He will tell you he arrived to work on a Sunday to Televisa to call an NFL game when he was told a young man he did not know was waiting for him.

“He tells me: ‘Look, I went through a horrible time in my life, a stretch so dark I thought of ending my life. Someone had your game on in the room next to mine and you said: ‘Football teaches you that if life knocks you down, you stand up, and if it knocks you down 99 times, you stand up 100 times, and that success only comes as a result of effort, sweat and tears. ‘So I got up’ he said. ‘I got up, I graduated from college and I want to give you a copy of my thesis’. ” 

“It’s the most memorable moment in my career. He autographed and dedicated his thesis for me.”

Von Rossum never saw the young man again and unfortunately lost his copy of that thesis in a house fire when he lived in Canada. But he tearfully remembers: “One is just a tool, no more. This reminds you about the importance of every word you utter on the air. It is a huge responsibility.”

Truthfully, Fernando Von Rossum always went on the air with spotless responsibility. He did so with a very special talent.

Surprise at Estadio Azteca

When Von Rossum returned to work at Televisa at the start of the 70s, the job he had at Channel 13 now was being done by José Roberto “Pepe” Espinosa, who won a place in the heart of pro football fans for his passion and knowledge as a play-by-play announcer and game analyst.

In 1997, Von Rossum returned once again to NFL announcing, but this time at TV Azteca – Televisa’s direct competitor – sharing the booth with Espinosa. They worked together until Von Rossum moved to Canada. “Pepe was one of those people you are proud to call a friend,” he remembers of the outstanding announcer who sadly passed away in 2007. 

Von Rossum (right) with legendary broadcaster Pepe Espinosa in Miami in 1997. /Photo: FVR
Von Rossum (right) with legendary broadcaster Pepe Espinosa in Miami in 1997. /Photo: FVR

There would be one more Von Rossum comeback to NFL broadcasting, a return set in motion by another of Mexico’s NFL legends.

Raúl Allegre, an NFL kicker from 1983 to 1991 and a two-time Super Bowl winner with the New York Giants, began to stand out himself as a game analyst alongside Álvaro Martín on ESPN’s Spanish-language networks in the hemisphere.

In 2005, the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers faced off at Estadio Azteca in the first NFL regular season game held outside of the United States. ESPN would cover the game and Allegre came up with the idea to persuade the network’s management to invite Von Rossum to join the telecast in Spanish, a possibility Don Fernando knew nothing about.

“The night before the game, I found him at the lobby of our hotel. I told him Álvaro wanted him to call the game during the second quarter,” remembers Allegre from his home in Austin, Texas. “He was overcome with emotion and nerves, because we sprung this on him late and he felt unprepared. The next day, we got together to prepare the game and it was a smashing success.” 

Due to that invitation, the planets began to align for yet another Von Rossum return to NFL announcing.

The return of the legendary announcer would take place on FOX Sports en Español and it would last for almost a decade until 2015.

Von Rossum's last broadcast was in the Super Bowl 50 working for FOX Sports. /Photo: FVR
Von Rossum’s last broadcast was in Super Bowl 50 working for FOX Sports. /Photo: FVR

A very special treat was working closely all those years alongside his son Fernando Von Rossum de la Vega, an announcer just like his father and who he first worked together on TV Azteca NFL telecasts.

“I always admired him, would listen and watch him, was proud he represented the NFL’s business in México before they even thought of opening an office. His office was always full of NFL-branded products. Everything he had in that office was incredible,” says Fernando Jr., whose first memory of his father as an announcer was an audio cassette his mother recorded of a Super Bowl game his dad announced with Víctor Serrato and Jorge Berry.

Father and son began to call Pittsburgh Steelers games together in the late 1990s and were in charge of Steelers’ activities in México and got to know Steelers’ legendary principal owner Dan Rooney, one of the most outstanding team owners in the history of the sport and the NFL. Fernando senior and junior also called Super Bowl XLII for FOX Sports en Español, when the New York Giants ruined the New England Patriots’ perfect season.

His legacy demands recognition

“Mexican fans consider Don Fernando as one of the foremost NFL voices in México due to his extensive coverage of NFL regular season and playoffs games, as well as Super Bowls,” NFL Mexico Director Arturo Olivé said via e-mail. “He left a foundational legacy in the history of NFL announcing in México.”

His legacy truthfully goes beyond calling games. Von Rossum became a true NFL ambassador for Spanish-speakers. His broadcasting style spawned a school of announcing, and those announcers in turn made becoming an NFL fan far easier.

Von Rossum (left) with Espinosa and Joaquín Castillo at another Super Bowl with TV Azteca. /Photo: FVR
Von Rossum (left) with Espinosa and Joaquín Castillo at another Super Bowl with TV Azteca. /Photo: FVR

Don Fernando had the ball in his hands in critical moments in the NFL’s growth and development and he knew exactly what to do with it. 

“He originally became the go-between between two countries and two cultures, in particular sports culture and within that football culture, a sport with rules and subtleties that are not apparent nor easily understood,” said Álvaro Martín, the outstanding play-by-play announcer now calling Steelers games.

“He always placed the best interests of the fans at the top and his announcing reflected that,” said Allegre, the history-making former NFL kicker and now standout game analyst.

“To me, Von Rossum is the father of the NFL in México”, says John Laguna, play-by-play announcer for FOX Deportes.

“He established his personal style, which you have to respect,” added Aaron Soriano, the longtime NFL journalist. 

“Football incarnate,” according to Enrique Búrak.

It is time for the NFL to formally recognize Fernando Von Rossum’s legacy, not only for all his outstanding achievements accrued throughout his long career, but also as the greatest and most historic sports announcer who paved the way for the NFL’s growth in México, in other Spanish-speaking countries and in the United States.