I was in the middle of doing my chores with the NFL Network’s pregame coverage on when I first heard of the passing of Keith Jackson. It made me stop everything I was doing and sit still for a moment.
Keith Jackson was as much a part of my childhood as scraped knees, comic books, GI Joes, and Transformers. Back in the day, Saturdays had a schedule that was always followed to the letter: waking up early for cereal and cartoons, cleaning up with Soul Train providing the soundtrack, martial arts flicks, and, of course, college football.
I grew up in New Haven, Conn. The local ABC affiliate (WTNH, Channel 8) was located near the center of town. Before the advent of cable television, when you still had an antenna on top of the tube, Channel 8 came in clearer than all the other channels. Watching college football on Saturday afternoons with Keith Jackson providing the play-by-play was a gimme.
I didn’t realize then what I understand today: the difference between announcers and sportscasters. Anybody can be an announcer. You can trot out someone of average diction and they can describe what’s going on as they see it. It doesn’t take a large abundance of talent to be an announcer.
To be a sportscaster, however, that’s not something just any ol’ body can do. It takes talent to be a sportscaster. It takes a mastery of language and intelligence to be a sportscaster. Sportscasters turn the games we love to watch into theater and the moments within the games into something that goes beyond it, something that becomes part of our athletic lexicon, something that lasts forever.
We know this because Jackson called some of the most memorable moments in college football history.
We still remember the 2003 Fiesta Bowl when Vince Young and his upstart Texas Longhorns defeated USC, led by a pair of Heisman Trophy winners in Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. We still remember Florida State’s Wide Right I and Wide Right II as well Kordell Stewart throwing a Hail Mary against Michigan that’s up there with Doug Flutie’s in signifcance.
Jackson was a sportscaster because he was never limited to the collegiate gridiron.
How many sportscasters (or human beings in general) can sit next to Dick Vitale and not get swallowed up by his enthusiasm, baby? Jackson was a fixture on another piece of my childhood: ABC’s Wide World of Sports. He covered popular sports like boxing as well as a bunch of obscure sports I don’t remember today. Jackson was as much a part of Wide World of Sports as Jim McKay verbalizing the words “The Agony of Defeat”.
Jackson was on call the night Reggie Jackson became REG-GIE!!!! in the ’77 World Series and the night Bucky F*****g Dent was born in ’78. He covered the Olympics, the NBA and auto racing. He was Monday Night Football’s first play-by-play announcer. The moments were never too big for him. Jackson, as a sportscaster, had the ability to articulate the moment without inserting himself into it. In 2018, this is an art on life support, if not deader than fried chicken already.
With Jackson’s death (and the death of Dick Enberg on Dec. 21), I was reminded that sportscasters are few and far between. Today we have networks giving us factory made personalities who are announcers masquerading as sportscasters. They have none of the innovation and intelligence that made Keith Jackson an icon.
I still think of those Saturday afternoons watching college football on ABC with Keith Jackson on the play-by-play. It was a simpler time before cable television, 24-hour sports news cycles, the Internet, and announcers more worried about their social media following than creating a moment became commonplace. I know we can never go back to the way it was. However, taking a few minutes to remember what Keith Jackson gave us sports fans put a smile on my face.
Keith Jackson is as much a part of my childhood as scraped knees, comic books, GI Joes, and Transformers. He was the epitome of what a sportscaster should be, not limited by the sport or the magnitude of the event. Jackson was so damn good at what he did he inspired a bunch of imitators who will never be as good as the original.
And so, it is done. As we say goodbye to Keith Jackson, let us remember all of those Saturday afternoons. Let us remember how he was as much a part of college football (and sports in general) as the players and coaches he covered. I most certainly will.