SHERMAN OAKS, Calif. ‚Äî
Keith Jackson, native of Roopville, and the longtime face and voice of college football on ABC, has always enjoyed his surroundings on Whitespeak Drive. The focal point of a good life centers around his patio, which is accompanied by an arbor that would remind any Southerner of an expansive, trellised, scuppernong vine.
The view of the metropolis out across the canyon is the first thing you notice as you settle in on a wooden deck by the pool. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôve spent a lot of happy hours here,‚Äù he said as he and his wife, Turi Ann, sat down with a couple of bottles of water. ‚ÄúWe have reached the age,‚Äù the 84-year-old network icon said, ‚Äúto where we are looking after each other. We don‚Äôt travel and we don‚Äôt go very far, which we sorta like.‚Äù Airliners rumbled audibly, but not intrusively, in the distance as they approached the Burbank airport. Deer feed at the base of his house, which sits cozily on a mountain cul-de-sac. ‚ÄúWe like for them to come around,‚Äù Turi says. ‚ÄúWe try to grow things for them.‚Äù
Jackson has been retired for a half dozen years, and, while I understand life‚Äôs vicissitudes, I don‚Äôt have to like them. And I don‚Äôt. Jackson says that when he gave up college football announcing following the Rose Bowl in 2006, he didn‚Äôt really miss the grind and travel hassle ‚Äî and that when he said he was through, he meant it. The memories, however, will always bring about reverent and affectionate recall ‚Äî those days when he would arrive at the stadium long before anybody else. ‚ÄúI wanted to hear the band rehearse,‚Äù he smiled on a recent summer day. ‚ÄúI do miss the pageantry and excitement of college football. I enjoy all of that on television now, but it is not like being there live. But there comes a time to quit, and I knew it was time.‚Äù
Last year, he experienced a scary internal disorder, which has been corrected, and the skin cancer on his forehead is under control. ‚ÄúI was always bareheaded,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúStarting with those days on the farm in West Georgia when I pulled fodder hatless in the bright sun. I fished for years in Canada bareheaded, I played golf bareheaded, and I paid for it years later.‚Äù
In a three-hour conversation, which was unbridled and sprinkled with humor and opinion, we reminisced about old friends, games and his life as a versatile announcer. He was the first play-by-play announcer for Monday Night Football, something which gives him trivia status, but he was all too pleased to leave the NFL ‚Äúand go back where I belonged.‚Äù He never covered a sport or event that he didn‚Äôt like ‚Äî from the Olympics to Major League Baseball to NBA playoff games to PGA Tour golf to boxing ‚Äî but his home was always college football.
He was the first American announcer to broadcast an event from the Soviet Union (a crew race between the Washington Huskies and a Soviet team). Jackson even covered a political convention ‚Äî the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco with Walter Cronkite.
Jackson became preeminently popular on college campuses. His down-home style endeared him to the college folk. He was the first to refer to Michigan‚Äôs 111,019-seat stadium as ‚ÄúThe Big House,‚Äù and his sometimes-folksy, Southern vernacular often led to him being imitated. When Nebraska enlarged its press box, Cornhusker officials asked for suggestions. Keith had only one: ‚ÄúPut a restroom in the broadcast booth.‚Äù
Jackson made friends in the business but always stuck with the notion that he should be objective and fair. ‚ÄúI tried my best to live up to that.‚Äù When Georgia, with freshman Herschel Walker in the backfield, won the 1980 National Championship, Keith called the game for network cameras in the Sugar Bowl. It was nice that a team from his home state had reached that pinnacle, but during the broadcast, he played it straight. Privately, he was very proud.
Keith Jackson, one of college football‚Äôs greatest friends, may not miss the game, but I think I can speak for many college football fans. We surely miss him.