Vahe Gregorian

From would-be autobiography, Keith Jackson’s own oral history

Legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson, who died Friday night at the age of 89, was the voice of college football to many viewers.
Legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson, who died Friday night at the age of 89, was the voice of college football to many viewers. TNS

For many of a certain age, Keith Jackson’s velvet, staccato voice and folksy insights weren’t merely synonymous with college football.

His unique touch conjured the game to life, in this moment reminiscent to me of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.”

And his style and perspectives dominated and animated the soundtrack of our youth and love for sports – a wide world of them that included the nooks and crannies of that long-ago panoramic show and the Olympics and “Monday Night Football.”

So it was one of the great joys of my life when an indulgence of fate connected me with Jackson in the late 1990s to write his autobiography with him.

Through 20 hours of phone interviews and a memorable dinner in California with Jackson and his elegant wife, Turi Ann, we put together the underpinnings of a proposal.

But before we went any further, the idea unraveled because of Jackson’s frustration with a new middleman inserted into the mix.

At least that’s what he told me, and we had a few nice conversations after that.

When the news broke Saturday of the death of Jackson, 89, I was compelled to rummage through boxes for the transcripts of those interviews and was grateful to find dozens of pages.

What follows are excerpts focusing on his upbringing and philosophies of broadcasting, an oral history of Jackson’s life in his own words starting with his roots in rural Georgia that includes some details that Jackson rarely shared.

On his childhood:

“I was born on the kitchen table … We grew everything we ate. … I rode a horse to school …

“I rode to church with my grandparents in a horse and buggy, and you could possibly capsulize my life this way: In my 50th year, I played golf with guys who had walked on the moon.

“When I was about 4 years old, my father shot my grandfather and killed him. The bullet went through my mother’s cheek. And just missed me.

“To this day, I don’t know why. Not four people know about this. But I don’t think I can write a book without revealing it. Because the point of the book is don’t sing me your sad songs that I can’t do this and I can’t do that. You can do anything you want.

“I don’t know what caused it. I have never asked what caused it. I never had a relationship with my father. He went to prison.”

“My mother was working as a registered nurse, so my grandmother worked in the fields and raised cotton and corn and sweet potatoes and watermelon. She belonged on the frontier.”

“I had a battery radio. I’d climb up as high as I could in an old pecan tree, as high as I could without breaking my neck, and on a pure night you could listen to the (St. Louis) Cardinals. … We didn’t have the Braves then. The Atlanta Crackers were the (local) team, in the old Southern Association.

“One day my grandmother told my mother, ‘You need to go out there in the corn field and talk to your kid, because he may be crazy. He’s out in the corn field talking to himself.’

“I actually wasn’t talking to myself. I was just describing Walter Mitty’s flight over the line in the Rose Bowl. And I still see him some Saturdays. … I never sang in the shower. I called ballgames.”

“I knew that I was (going to be a broadcaster), but I didn’t know it. I’m simply doing what God made me to do. I don’t know how else to tell you.”

Jackson lied about his age, 17, to get into the U.S. Marine Corps.

“I wasn’t ready for college. I had no idea what I would have studied had I gone to college then. Wasn’t sure I could afford college. I got such an incredible jolt of confidence from my four years in the Marine Corps.

“When it was time to re-up, (the Korean War) was on the horizon. I knew something by then about things going on there. I was smart enough to listen and talk to people. I didn’t think there was a reason for Korea; I didn’t think there was a reason for Vietnam, either.

“But the Corps gave me more than I gave it. I went a lot of places and did a lot of things.

“The first time I saw the flickering little image called live television was when I returned from a tour of duty in China as a young Marine. It was in San Francisco. … It was about the most fascinating thing I had ever seen, though at the time (I had no idea) idea that most of the rest of my life might be involved with it.

Through the G.I. Bill, Jackson decided to go to Washington State to study criminal science.

“I took a little sniff at political science but began to get the feeling that this was going nowhere. … It didn’t seem like quite the right fit.

“I was lying in my dorm, listening to the local radio station, the broadcast of a Cougar football game. And it was all right, but it wasn’t that good. I felt I might do better given a little whittling time.

“I approached Burt Harrison, a professor and core character in the broadcast school named after Edward R. Murrow. … He was sitting in the music library, room of old records, at an old Underwood typewriter.

“I never would have had the (guts) to approach him if I hadn’t been in the Marines. So these things all go together.

“He pondered my arrogance for a moment while writing a classical music script for use on (local) radio. Then he reached into his desk drawer, handed me a tape recorder and told me to go record a game and let’s see if it’s any good. And I did. I wish I still had it, because it had to be awful.

“He listened to it (and said), ‘I don’t think you’re too bad.’ From there the journey was underway.”

Jackson changed majors, and in the autumn of 1951 began working for a small radio station in Moscow, Idaho, doing high school football for $15 a game.

In 1952, he did his first football game for Washington State, where he met his wife, aka “my feisty Viking.” He spent years in TV in Seattle before beginning a long association with ABC in 1962.

With the “Wide World of Sports,” he’d travel to 31 countries and cover everything from barrel-jumping wrist-wrestling to ski flying to a World Bikini Olympics, as he recalled it.

He would go on to call auto racing and 10 Olympics and several World Series and be part of the inaugural season of “Monday Night Football.”

“Everything except demolition derby,” he said.

But there was nothing he was more identifiable with than his role in college football, from the Rose Bowl, which he coined “the granddaddy of them all,” to dozens of campuses all over the nation that left an impression on him.

Typical of those observations was this recollection of Knoxville, Tenn:

“The river comes around the stadium, around the bridge, to the corner of town and back around the Hyatt. Right down at the corner where the turn is, the moon comes out on the third Saturday of October. It’s always a full moon. If Tennessee wins, the moon is orange. If Alabama wins, I’ll be damned if it’s not red.”

Alas, left untranscribed and unavailable Saturday from the interviews are Jackson’s views on many of the personalities he dealt with, many of the games and events he uniquely captured.

But here are a few of his memories and observations that were available:

On “Monday Night Football” with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith, an adventure that included his pants catching on fire at the Cotton Bowl from a Cosell cigar butt: “My job was a very simple one: to try to make sure the people knew what the score was, because there wasn’t much room to say anything more.”

On what makes college football special:

“The work ethic. I like the work ethic. Because you have to earn your way. And the little guy is always going uphill, but that’s why God made him a little bit quicker and probably a little bit more determined. And that’s why the people who coach the game have realized we can’t all be tree trunks. We have to wave and weave through the forest.

“It’s a festival. … I don’t know of anything else that happens on campus that can affect the attitude of 100,000 people, and by the end of the week that number could be a million people because everybody passes it on.”

On his turns of phrase, among the most memorable of which were “Big Uglies” for offensive linemen and “fum-BLE” and one he didn’t like to talk about — “Whoa, Nellie,” feeling his usage of it was exaggerated:

“Nobody writes my stuff. Most of the things you hear me say are not written. They’re a byproduct of your studying and preparation and your willingness to turn a phrase. I don’t have any trouble saying something in a manner that nobody else has said it. I know I can do that. And there are certain times I don’t give a damn if you understand what I say or not. If you think about it, you can figure it out. …

“It’s the flavor of the individual. It has to come naturally, otherwise it’s not flavor.”

On the duty of the broadcaster:

“There are times I turn on an athletic contest that I’m quite sure my profession has died. … If he wants to go into show business, he should go back to vaudeville and get his own stage. Amplify, clarify, punctuate. Don’t intrude. I live by that. I do not in any sense at any time try to intrude on what’s happening. I merely define it.”

Yes, he did, leaving us all the better for it. Rest in peace, Keith.

Vahe Gregorian is a sports columnist at The Kansas City Star: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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