Keith Jackson: Farewell to the Voice of Autumn

8:09 pm Sports

Byline: Dawn Shurmaitis

This time next year, Keith Jackson will be a hard man to find. He might be at his waterside get-away in British Columbia, reeling in a big one, or in California, sharing a quiet dinner with wife Turi Ann. There’s only one place you definitely won’t find Jackson, and that’s a cramped announcer’s booth atop a college football field.

This time next year, Jackson will be reveling in his retirement the way he’s always delighted in calling ball games. And that’s A-OK with Jackson, who’s been looking forward to retiring at age 70 for the last 40 years.

“I could have gone through the year 2,000, but I felt this was the time,” says the veteran ABC sportscaster. “There are all kinds of young bulls panting to take my place.”

That may be true, but certainly there are few bulls in Jackson’s league in the eyes and especially the ears of college football fans across the country. He’s a certified broadcasting icon now, with a firm place in sports history.

Don’t try telling him that, though. Sure, he may cry at the national anthem and get downright mushy when talking about his “long, tall, blonde” wife of 46 years. But when it comes to garnering accolades for his own career, Jackson is as cool as a September-grown cucumber. He’s spent 31 years as the network’s voice of college football, and he’s ready to call it a day.

He will miss the big stadiums and the small college towns, the great coaches and the memorable plays. He won’t miss the rigid schedules and cross-country travel that kept him away from his dinner table and loved ones every September, October and November. His last official act for the network will be Jan. 4, when he calls ABC’s national title game during the Tostito’s Fiesta Bowl.

When he joined the network in 1964, Jackson at first split his time between radio sports and news, while free-lancing for TV. The mix made for some curious days. He’ll never forget the afternoon he called a major league baseball game with Jackie Robinson only to fly home and find himself covering the Watt Riots in L.A. Along the way, he’s also reported on the two biggest medal winners in Olympic history – Mark Spitz in ‘72 and Eric Heiden in ‘80. Altogether, he’s covered 10 Olympics.

“We built the industry,” he says of ABC Sports and its chief architect, Roone Arledge. “We set the standard from the beginning.”

To hear Jackson turn one of his trademark phrases is to hear shades of all the great Southern voices of radio, the voices he grew up listening to as a boy on a “hard-scrabble, red-clay” Georgia farm “just big enough to make a living on.” The ones who made a particular impression? Alex Dreier, the big fella with the big voice, and John Fulton from Georgia Tech. And those famed announcers synonymous with the teams whose games they called: Mel Allen and the Yankees, Red Barber and the Dodgers.

“I used to climb up the pecan tree in the back yard, run up an antenna and listen to KMOX in St. Louis call the Cardinals games at night,” Jackson says. “I remember my grandmother saying to my mother, ‘Your kid is crazy. He’s sitting in the cornfield talking to himself.’ I was 8 years old and calling baseball games.”

Today, Jackson’s homespun calls have become part of sports lexicon. Who but Jackson could find a place in the blood and bone world of football for phrases like “Hit as hard as blackjack pine” and “No outstretched arms have reached to the heavens, but they’re teetering toward hallelujah land”?

“Broadcasting legend Ted Husings once told me ‘Never be afraid to turn a phrase. If they don’t understand it, they can look it up.’ Ted would borrow phrases from Shakespeare through the Bible. He was a great word mechanic.”

Jackson first found his voice (and his wife) at Washington State, which, he proudly notes, is the alma mater of famed newsman Edward R. Murrow. At that time, in the early 1950s, he thought he might study criminology and perhaps become a career military man. That was before he stepped into the 5,000 watt campus radio station. Fresh from the Marines and still all spit and polish, Jackson insisted he could do a better job than the kid already calling the campus games. So the station manager handed him a tape recorder and told him to have at it. Jackson never looked back.

Since then, he’s called baseball, “Monday Night Football,” boxing and basketball. It’s college football, though, that will remain synonymous with the name Keith Jackson.

While his stories spill like water, there are no plans for memoirs. “I’ve seen so many friends suffer that last chapter, their fingers bleeding,” he says. “And all publishers want is scandal. I’ve said all I’ve got to say. You waste your time looking back.

“It’s been a good ride.”

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