Keith Jackson was more than college football’s voice to New York fans
That voice, laced with honey, always will be associated with Saturday afternoons, so in that way it seemed proper that word of Keith Jackson’s passing became one of the essential sporting conversations on this Saturday, a day after he died at age 89.
For Saturday was Jackson’s terrain for the better part of four decades. You knew it was a Big Game when Jackson and Frank Broyles signed on from Los Angeles or Ann Arbor or South Bend, their dueling drawls a pleasing departure from the pitch-perfect Ken dolls with ideal — and dreadfully dull — diction who already had begun to inhabit broadcasts booths.
Thanks to Jackson, a running back losing his grip on the football wasn’t just a potential turnover, it was a “Fum-bullllll!” A long touchdown run wasn’t official unless Jackson didn’t spot a referee’s flag somewhere on the field, warning us to “hold the phone!”
And the Rose Bowl wasn’t just a game played in the sunshine on New Year’s Day. It was “the granddaddy of them all.”
For us, though, those of us who grew up in and around New York, that eternally melodic voice wasn’t contained simply to Saturday afternoons.
He was a Monday night — Sept. 21, 1970 — when the first prime-time pro football experiment aired, the first words of the first “Monday Night Football” coming from Keith Jackson: “From Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio … two powers in professional football meet for the first time … the New York Jets led by the passing wizardry of Joe Namath, and the Cleveland Brows, led by the power running of Leroy Kelly …”
He was a Wednesday afternoon — Oct. 15, 1986 — when the Mets and the Astros were in the bottom of the 16th inning of Game 6 of the NLCS, two outs, two on, the Mets up 7-6, Jesse Orosco on the mound: “Three-and-two to Bass … STRUCK HIM OUT! Kevin Bass swinging strikes on three braking balls and the New York Mets have won the 1986 National League pennant …”
He was a Thursday evening — Oct. 14, 1976 — when Chris Chambliss took a mighty swat at the first pitch he saw from Mark Littell in the bottom of the ninth, Game 5 of the ALCS: “Littell delivers … high drive hit to right-center field … it could be, it is … GONE!”
And he was an Easter Sunday — April 22, 1973 — when the Knicks were life-and-death with the Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals: “Boston inbounds and that’s it! The Knicks have come from 16 down and defeated the Celtics in double-overtime, 117-110, and lead three games to one …”
All of those moments, of course, would have been worthy of Jackson’s signature call — “Whoa, Nellie!” — but that was one he kept for Saturdays, for Michigan-Ohio State and USC-Notre Dame and Oklahoma-Nebraska. That, along with a host of unforgettable moments that he captured as only he could:
After Desmond Howard’s magnificent touchdown run against Ohio State in 1991: “Helloooo, Heisman!” Offensive linemen weren’t just big guys, they were “Big Uglies.” It was Jackson who took his first glance around Michigan’s mammoth stadium and immediately declared it “The Big House.”
And, appropriately, the last call of the last Big Game he ever did, the magnificent USC-Texas BCS title game in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4, 2006: “Fourth-and-5, the national championship on the line right here … he’s going for the corner! He’s got it! Vince Young! Scores!”
He had one hell of a run. No need to hold the phone.