Keith Jackson grew up in the tiny (population 210) rural community of Roopville, Ga. One day a neighbor dropped by his home and said that the young Jackson was out in the cornfield talking to himself.
He wasn’t talking to himself. Jackson was calling the college football games that were being played over and over in his head. He had dreams, even then, of being a voice in college football. Well, Keith Jackson didn’t become a voice of college football. He became THE VOICE of the game he so loved. And in the process he made us love it just as much.
The word came Saturday morning that Jackson, 89, had passed away in Southern California, his long-time home and a long, long way from Roopville, Ga.
Jackson, who retired after calling the win by Texas over USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl, had no peer when it came to using that splendid, unmistakable voice, to make us understand what we were watching. Jackson, as the great ones do, was there, to facilitate our enjoyment of the game.
He believed, as I heard him say once, his job was to “educate, illuminate and then get the hell out of the way.” He believed strongly that silence was a great thing, especially at an exciting end to a great game.
He retired once, in 1998, after calling the Tennessee-Florida State BCS championship game in the Fiesta Bowl. He said the travel was getting to him. But ABC worked out an arrangement that would allow Keith to call games closer to his home in Sherman Oaks and it extended his career. And boy were we all luckier for that.
Before his last game at the 2006 Rose Bowl, he met with the media to talk about his career. I walked up to group of about 10 reporters surrounding the great man. He saw me and stuck out his hand. “Hi, Tony. It’s good to see you out here,” he said. That was big.
When I wrote my first book in 1999, I dropped Keith a note asking him to write the Foreword. He gets tons of these kinds of request but he immediately said yes. I will never forget his generosity.
To concentrate on Keith’s work in college football is to miss the enormous breadth of what he covered after he got to ABC. He did it all: He was the first voice of Monday Night Football. He did the Olympics. He did the Major League Baseball Playoffs. When Chris Chambliss hit the walk-off home run to win the 1976 American League title, it was Keith Jackson making the call despite getting verbally stepped on by Howard Cosell.
The point is that Keith’s voice, knowledge, preparation and timing transcended whatever sport he was calling. It didn’t matter if it was rowing or a college football national championship. He cared and accordingly, he made you care. That was his greatness.
So here is a toast to Keith Jackson. We will never forget you. RIP.