TEMPE, Ariz. -- Ron Wolfley's voice is deep, burley and gruff, the type of sound you're more likely to find on a heavy-metal album or while watching a wrestling match than while listening to an NFL game or sports-talk radio. And it's so distinctly his. You always know who's talking when you hear it. When Wolfley, the color analyst for the Arizona Cardinals' radio network, gets excited on a broadcast -- which is often -- his voice practically vibrates through the airwaves.
"Ron Wolfley just sounds like football," USA Today's Doug Farrar tweeted in August.
Wolfley's phrases have become the stuff of legend -- "Kurt Warner can throw a Twinkie into a toaster" or "Carson Palmer can throw Spam back in the can" -- drawing praise from the likes of Al Michaels. Wolfley's Wolfleyisms, which are usually reserved for the radio waves throughout Arizona and parts of Oklahoma (because of quarterback Kyler Murray) during the regular season but can be heard nationally during Cardinals preseason games, rarely leave listeners disappointed. During a preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys this year, Wolfley and 17-year partner Dave Pasch started talking about accountability, and Wolfley quipped: "You bring enough dogs into a locker room, even the cats will start barking."
His vocabulary would make Merriam-Webster jealous and give the winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee a run for their money. It has been cultivated over years. He started to love reading books, especially the classics, in high school and, now, considers himself an "amateur littérateur."
"Carson Palmer can throw Spam back in the can" Wolfley
"Let's face it, I love words," Wolfley said. "I always have. I love words, especially words you can feel the meaning of, like 'schism.' Schism is a beautiful word because you don't have to know what the meaning is. You can feel what the meaning is. 'There's a schism.' I love words.
"Why would anyone ever call somebody a 'corruptible quibbler' when you can call them a 'venal pettifogger'?"
Behind the voice, the personality and the words is a man who learned how to harness a lifetime's worth of aggression, turning the pain of losing his father to leukemia as a teenager and desire to prove he was more than the son of a truck driver from the other side of the tracks into a broadcasting career that's been going for 23 years.
Building walls and tearing them down
Wolfley's life can be defined by epiphanies.
One of the first came before he was old enough to drive. Wolfley grew up at 45 Hodson Road, a three-bedroom house on a dead-end street that emptied into a gravel pit about 3 miles from what's now Highmark Stadium, the home of the Buffalo Bills. Wolfey described Orchard Park, New York, as a beautiful city, but one that's separated by the hill on which it's built. Those at the top lived in large homes, belonged to country clubs and wore the cool sneakers. In his case, those at the bottom lived in 1,200-square-foot homes with two brothers, two sisters and two parents, wore hand-me-downs and bought their sneakers at Kmart.
"You were always aware, especially when you went to your friend's house," said Dale Wolfley, one of Ron's two brothers.
Ron figured out he could even the playing field between his rich friends and himself through sports.
"It didn't matter how much money your dad made or didn't -- what an epiphany that was to me as a kid," Wolfley said. "I'm like, 'Wait a minute, when I step in between, the playing field literally was leveled. That really attracted me to compete and work the aggression of going out there and really kind of tapping into that motivation, that realization, that how much money your dad made wasn't going to help you or hurt you in between those white lines."
Wolfley was wound tight with anger as a kid. He wasn't going to walk away from a fight. "I'm going to say this: He wasn't afraid to get out of the car quickly," said Dale, West Virginia football's TV and radio color analyst.
"I was Pink Floyd meets Megadeth" Wolfley
Throughout high school, Ron Wolfley's father, Ronald, was in remission from leukemia three different times during the six years he lived with cancer. Football was an outlet for Wolfley to channel his pain into aggression, something he carried with him during his freshman year in 1981 at West Virginia as his father lay dying at their family home 280 miles away from Morgantown.
"I said to myself, 'I'm gonna take all that pain that I feel and I'm going to transfer it on you,'" Wolfley said.
He'd get in a three-point stance and hit anyone in his path as hard as he could muster. Ronald Wolfley died the spring of Ron's freshman year after years of experimental treatments at what was then called the Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo.
Ron's intensity, anger and aggression remained after his dad died. He held on to it for years, through the rest of his college career and a 10-year run in the NFL from 1985 to 1995. It's part of what drove him, what made him unrelenting on the field.
"When I was out there between those white lines, if I could rip a man's face mask off and beat him with it, I would have done it," Wolfley said.
He began his broadcasting career with a "chip in my heart," wary that people were looking at him as the son of a truck driver who grew up poor in Orchard Park and was 20 hours short of graduating from college instead of the four-time Pro Bowl fullback who played a decade in the NFL.
"I was Pink Floyd meets Megadeth," Wolfley said. "I mean, that was me. I was very introspective. Very defiant, arrogant, not toward other people, just toward other people that thought they were better than me.
"And because of that, I was really afraid to reveal how much I thought about things because I wouldn't let you use that against me. I can just see how long-headed all that is, and I can see it today and I'm not proud of it, that I was like that, that I was so in-your-face and so, 'What? You think you're better than I am?' It's horrible to go through life that way. I didn't see it until I was older."
Wolfley tried to rely on his strong faith to get him through situations, but if someone attacked him, Wolfley was right back at Orchard Park High School ready to fight.
For years, Wolfley didn't look at broadcasting as a career, even though he had a popular morning drive-time radio show and was named the Cardinals' color analyst in 2005, three years after first trying out for the job.
It took Wolfley a few years of working with Pasch to get comfortable, both in the job and with his new partner. The intensity that defined Wolfley on the field was evident over the radio.
He and Pasch spent hours talking on plane rides about things that had nothing to do with football. They discovered they shared a strong faith, and Pasch learned Wolfley was "one of the smartest guys I know."
Around 2008, when the Cardinals were making a run to Super Bowl XLIII, is when Wolfley's walls started coming down.
"All of a sudden, I realized that it was a broadcasting career," Wolfley said. "I became a better broadcaster, no doubt about it, when I let my guard down and just started enjoying the moment, as opposed to what you thought of the moment.
"That allowed me to be a better broadcaster, because I started having more fun and then all of a sudden I could tap into all of that good football stuff, all the things coaches used to say, all that stuff I would remember fondly."
'Where the fur flies'
When Wolfley finally became comfortable as a person and a broadcaster, he was faced with a new decision: What kind of broadcaster did he want to be?
On one hand, he thought he could be a traditional color analyst, give his thoughts, sprinkle in some memories, and provide a player's perspective. On the other hand, he thought he could do all that and tap into his deep well of literature and his love of words.
The words won.
Wolfley married a lifetime in football with a sense of humor and a passion for writing and reading. The result has been some of the most entertaining radio in the NFL.
It's driven by the books Wolfley reads, like "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" -- classics he reads once a decade. Wolfley has written poetry and supernatural fiction. He's already 80,000 words into a novel that he started in 2005 about the Nephilim -- biblical giants.
"I think I'll finish it," he said with a smile.
What makes Wolfley so entertaining is how he combines a dictionary worth of words with everyday phrases. His vocabulary was strengthened on bus rides when he was with the Cleveland Browns in 1992 and 1993. He, quarterback Bernie Kosar, and tight ends Pete Holohan and Mark Bavaro would sit on the bus, usually during road trips, and play the dictionary game. They'd be given words and have to figure out the definition.
"I've forgotten more words than I'll ever recall," Wolfley said.
His Wolfleyisms pop into his head at all times. Analogies have come to him when he's writing or reading. The kitchen has also been a productive incubator for Wolfley. One day, he was looking at beef jerky and thought that's a great way to describe offensive linemen.
Even in casual, off-air conversation, he spouts analogies. When talking about coaching, he said: "Hard coaching is like a warm blanket on a cold winter's night to me."
"He stuffed up the run like they ate a cheeseball last night" Wolfley
Craig, Ron's older brother, who's a broadcaster for the Pittsburgh Steelers, wasn't ashamed to admit he has taken a thing or two from Ron. And like nearly everyone else, he has his favorite "Ronnyisms," as Craig called them.
"I love listening to him," Craig said. "He gives out that 'There's no dirt like paydirt.' I love that. That's tremendous, or, 'He stuffed up the run like they ate a cheeseball last night.'"
Another one of Craig's favorites: "Running on the kickoff team was like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute."
One of Pasch's favorite Wolfleyisms has been, "Where the fur flies," in reference to brutality at the line of scrimmage. Another one Pasch likes: "Sometimes you're the pumpkin. Sometimes you're the teenager with a baseball bat on Halloween."
"That, to me, was just perfect," Pasch said. "I can visualize that. That came to life for me."
Ron Wolfley has a pile of words and phrases to use at various points throughout a game, sometimes even telling Pasch he wants to hit on certain topics so he can use a phrase or two. But even though he draws comparisons to Former Minnesota governor and retired professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, Wolfley wants to be known as a serious and legitimate analyst -- which, in many ways, he is.
"So many people laugh at stuff I don't mean for them to laugh at," he said. "I would like it if they learned a little bit about football as opposed to just say, 'What's he gonna say next?'"
After almost two decades working together, Wolfley still makes Pasch laugh, usually keeping him on his toes at the same time.
"It's genuine laughter," Pasch said. "It's not the canned broadcast, 'Oh, it's so funny.' It's, like legit. I mean he sometimes catches me off guard, and there'll be some new sayings."
Pasch isn't his only fan. When "Sunday Night Football" announcer Al Michaels first heard Wolfley several years ago, he was impressed by how Wolfley could make a preseason game "a terrific listen," which, Michaels said, was "not an easy thing to do."
These days Michaels will pop into the radio booth to shoot the breeze with Wolfley, and it's not rare to hear Michaels howl in honor of Wolfley.
"He has a unique way of describing the action -- puts phrases together like no one else," Michaels said. "My favorite nugget from a recent game calling an interception: 'He leaps up and snatches the pig.' Only the Wolfman."
Wolfley's voice wasn't always as distinct and unique as it is today.
Growing up, he sounded like a "yippy little dog," Craig said. That all changed during Ron's junior year at West Virginia. He was blocking a linebacker as the Mountaineers' fullback, his head up in perfect form, when the defender whipped his arm around and struck Wolfley in the throat. Wolfley was still spitting up blood three days later. When he talked, he felt "junk floating around" in his throat.
To this day, he thinks that hit changed his voice and it continues to get deeper as the 59-year-old gets older. "I've never actually had it looked at," Wolfley said in between sips of a venti coffee at a Phoenix Starbucks. "... It didn't bother me that much."
And now it defines him in many ways.
"You bring enough dogs into a locker room, even the cats will start barking" Wolfley
"The reason he's probably unique is because it's not just what he says but it's how he says it and it's the voice," Pasch said. "If he was a guy with a high-pitched voice that said, 'Where the fur flies,' and all the sayings, it would still be funny, but it wouldn't have the same long lasting effect.
"The reason it's funny is because of the way he says it. It's just his personality and the way he says it in his deep voice, and the uniqueness of his voice. That's what stands out to me about why he's so different than anybody I've ever worked with."
Not everyone likes his voice, though.
Wolfley is nearly as recognizable as most of the Cardinals' roster. He's a local celebrity. Fans want pictures and autographs or just to talk. However, the occasional fan will, as nice as humanly possible, tell Wolfley they love listening to him on the radio but they just can't stand his voice. And that's when something rare occurs.
"I'm like, 'I'm so sorry. It's the only voice I've got,'" Wolfley said. "They're very kind about it. They're not trying to rip you. ... And they're saying it with a smile on their face.
"I don't know what to say."