Terry Bradshaw’s cancers shook tight-knit crew of Fox NFL Sunday show

Michael Strahan says Terry Bradshaw is the heartbeat of the "Fox NFL Sunday" pregame show. (Ian Maddox for The Washington Post)
Michael Strahan says Terry Bradshaw is the heartbeat of the “Fox NFL Sunday” pregame show. (Ian Maddox for The Washington Post)


LOS ANGELES — Howie Long was lying on the bottom bunk in a sleeping quarter on the USS Harry S. Truman when he saw something he would never forget. The “Fox NFL Sunday” show was shooting remotely in the Mediterranean Sea, and the Hall of Famer was sharing a small room with fellow on-air personality and close friend Terry Bradshaw. The pair got closer than expected that weekend.

“He goes up toward the top bunk and, you know, your dad’s tighty-whitey underwear,” Long said through a laugh. “That’s a sight that will forever be seared in my head.”

That was 22 years ago. Since, the show has continued to thrive as the king of the Sunday morning pregame shows while the cast has grown into a family. “Fox NFL Sunday” averaged more viewers than any other NFL pregame morning show last year, according to Sports Business Journal. Through marriages, child births, illnesses and life in general, Long, Bradshaw, Michael Strahan, Jimmy Johnson, Jay Glazer and Curt Menefee have become more than just co-workers. In an ever-changing media landscape with more platforms than ever, the longevity and continuity of the group, which has worked together for 15-plus years, are abnormal.

That’s why that family was shaken to its core in the past year when Bradshaw, 74, shared news of his battle with a pair of cancers. Treatment for bladder cancer, diagnosed in November 2021, was successful but had to be followed by surgery to treat Merkel cell carcinoma in the spring.

“I’ll be honest: I cried when I saw him,” Glazer said. “I kind of turned away, teared up and hugged the s— out of him. That’s my brother. It’s hard, man. It’s really hard.”

Strahan put it plainly when he called Bradshaw “the heartbeat of the show.” Bradshaw, Long and Johnson were there when the show debuted in 1994 after Fox acquired NFL broadcast rights. Nearly three decades later, the show is a mainstay, and the four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the Pittsburgh Steelers is the comedic engine — the aw-shucks elder with stories of yesteryear.

Bradshaw was content keeping his medical condition from the public, but viewers criticized his performance at the beginning of the 2022 season.

He struggled to complete his thoughts during segments, and at one point he had to lean on Long, resting his forehead on the former defensive end’s shoulder. Bradshaw’s face slumped a bit after the battles with cancer, but the viewing public didn’t know. Surgery left him winded; his left lung wasn’t at full strength. By the time the season began, Fox and Bradshaw’s co-workers knew, but he didn’t want pity from the public. He told his wife, Tammy, that he needed to say something once people started to talk, and he asked producer Bill Richards for time to address it on air.

“I got real self-conscious,” Bradshaw said. “I said, ‘I’ve got to get this out there because I don’t like what people are saying.’ And a lot of it was mean. It was mean stuff: ‘He’s embarrassing himself. Move on. He’s an old this and [that].’ I was like, ‘Whoa.’

“One’s bad enough. Two, are you kidding me? … Then all the people that been ripping me, they felt bad. And now I’ve got a whole brand new fan base. And so I should have done it earlier.”

While Bradshaw lauds the support he has received from others on the show, he unknowingly was a saving grace for another teammate. Glazer, 52, had been dealing with depression and mental health issues for years and didn’t necessarily cope in the best way. He has been with Fox since 2004 as one of the top NFL news breakers, and he credits Bradshaw opening up about his own mental health difficulties for allowing Glazer to move forward.

Glazer wrote “Unbreakable: How I Turned My Depression and Anxiety into Motivation and You Can Too,” which was published in January.

“For years, I thought I was having a heart attack when I was having panic attacks,” Glazer said. “We didn’t talk about it. And one day I heard an interview with Terry Bradshaw, who I had been working with, and he was talking about it. And I was like, ‘Oh s—, that’s what it is.’

“It gave me the confidence to talk about it inside this group. Funny thing is, they used to all say I was crazy. They know I’m crazy. … But they didn’t know how much pain I was in. Now that they do, all they do is tell me they’re proud of me.”

Glazer raves about the role the sextet play in one another’s lives, and they credit that for the success of the show. People have gravitated to seeing a group of friends talking ball before settling in for the day’s games. There’s an emphasis on casual interactions over hardcore statistical analysis. And that comes naturally because of the close relationships on and off the set.

During his playing days with the New York Giants, Strahan used to give Glazer rides home after practice when he was a local reporter. Now Glazer is godfather to one of his kids. Glazer and Menefee previously hosted “Unnecessary Roughness” on MSG Network, and Glazer was the best man in Menefee’s wedding. The group takes an annual trip outside of work responsibilities — the Florida Keys, Montana, Las Vegas and other destinations. Glazer helped train Long’s kids — Chris and Kyle — as they reached the NFL. Long laughs at the fact that the two were children when he first started on the show and now both are retired from the league.

“Howie’s wife and my wife text each other like high school girls,” Menefee said. “Our families are friends. We’re friends. Our text chain, if HR ever saw it, probably we’d all be looking for new jobs. That’s just what we do.”

Those relationships, Glazer explains, are critical to his mental health. He said his colleagues understand him more than his family does. He has gone to Long’s house on a bad day or can turn to any of them when, in his words, the beast gets out of the box and he’s struggling mentally.

“When February rolls around and the Super Bowl hits and that first weekend comes, I struggle without my family,” Glazer said. “This is my team. We’re each other’s team. And I struggle. I struggle all offseason when I’m not with them. That’s how much love I have for them.

“And they know it. … So Howie will check up on me. Curt will make sure I’m okay between the ears.”

‘I love being with those guys’

While his co-hosts are primarily known for football, Strahan has transcended the game more than his cohorts. He is a host for “Good Morning America” and was previously on “Live! With Kelly and Michael” and won daytime Emmys. Strahan even went to space last year.

Still, he’s there every Sunday morning during the season.

“I have the most fun that anybody should ever legally be allowed to have at work,” said Strahan, 51. “I absolutely love the guys. And I feel like if I weren’t a part of the show and if I went off and just focused on everything else that I’m doing, I would be the one who’s missing out. I would be missing out on the laughs. And I would always wonder, ‘What’s going on?’

“If the show ended today, if my career ended today, it would be the most fulfilling and fun thing I’ve ever done in my life — without a doubt.”

While Strahan is adamant about staying, Johnson may be the closest to leaving. The 79-year-old Hall of Fame coach is the oldest member of the group and has two Super Bowls and a college football national championship on his résumé. He has a home in the Florida Keys and spends plenty of time on the water. Johnson flies to Los Angeles to do the show only when Fox has a doubleheader. He’s the first on set because he’s still on Eastern time for a show filmed on the West Coast.

“I’ve been threatening to retire for five years, but it’s hard for me to pull myself away from it,” Johnson said. “I don’t fly all the way to L.A., at my age, for anything other than I love being with those guys. I see all these other shows, and they’re talking heads, and they’re talking statistics, and they’re boring. . . . We’re in the entertainment business.”

On any team or any show, everyone needs a role. And in every movie, the comedian needs a straight man. Welcome to the Bradshaw-Long relationship.

Long, 62, may be best known for terrorizing quarterbacks with the Raiders, but these Sundays he’s wearing a perfectly tailored suit, tie and pocket square to go with dark-rimmed glasses that give off a professorial vibe. Not a hair is out of place on the spiky, slightly graying, brown coif. As Bradshaw wanders off the cuff, Long is the practiced and polished load-bearing wall.

“Howie is the biggest square, nerd, whatever of all us,” Menefee said.

But that’s needed, even away from the set. During one of their overseas trips, Long and Bradshaw went to visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. No hats allowed, Long explained as they entered. Soon thereafter, Bradshaw came up missing.

“You see the interior of the church and it’s like the trumpets in your head are blaring,” Long said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And I turn around, and he’s gone, and I hear water splashing. He’s Baptist. He’s not Catholic. ‘You’re playing with holy water. What are you doing?!’ ”

In all of the chaos that revolves around the group, Menefee, 57, is the glue on Sundays. Serving as host since 2007, he allows the personalities to shine while keeping the train on the track and moving forward. The task wasn’t simple after he replaced legendary host James Brown. The show had established itself as the top NFL pregame show, and the only change would be Menefee. Any downfall and the finger would be pointed at him.

“The goal was not to screw it up,” Menefee said.

Sunday mornings are organized chaos on the Fox Studios lot in Century City as 20 to 30 people scramble in a pre-show practice routine on the new extended reality set. The stories are unending. Glazer remembers Strahan accidentally ordering them a couples massage. They all laughed when strait-laced Long struggled with a marijuana reference. The Bradshaw tales are endless.

And they all are trying to appreciate the moment. If anything, Bradshaw’s health scare reminded everyone to appreciate the present. Johnson already talks about retirement. Bradshaw knows the end is closer than the beginning. So the friends who have hung out in viewers’ living rooms for a generation try to cherish every moment.