November 30, 2005

Jackson Continues to Build on Legacy

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Notre Dame and Stanford played a great game Saturday night. The Irish narrowly won, 38-31, and the game wasn’t decided until a Darius Walker touchdown run with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter.

That play was one of the game’s major highlights. But another real highlight on Saturday wasn’t even on the field. It was up in the broadcast booth, as the legendary Keith Jackson – age 77 – was doing the play-by-play commentary for ABC.

The Georgia-born broadcaster has mostly covered Pac-10 games over the last few years, so the national audience doesn’t always get to hear him on TV. Yet, if you’re a sports fan, you probably know of his work. For decades, he has been the voice of college football. He has covered legendary games, and witnessed some of the best teams in NCAA history. He has become so linked with sports commentary that he currently appears in those cool Gatorade commercials, such as that Hawaiian Ironman ad featuring Jackson’s dramatic voice-over.

He is the archetypical play-by-play man. His presence is such a natural part of college football that he makes everyone else look like an imitation.

And Jackson can still effortlessly bring a game to life, like when he notes in the middle of a USC-Oregon game that the Trojans’ offensive line is, “the reason why Matt Leinart has a small cleaning bill.”

That’s a perfect sentence to inform us of a fact (Leinart is rarely sacked), present us with an image, and convey a kind of newness so rarely heard in the cliched world of sports broadcasting.

And Jackson has been creating originality in that world of broadcasting for a long time. He was born in rural Georgia back in 1928, although he’s spent most of his life out west. As a young man, he served in the Marines, and then went to Washington State University to study politics.

But once there, Jackson decided to study journalism and broadcasting, following the footsteps of another Washington State graduate, Edward R. Murrow.

He initially did both news and sports work for ABC. In fact, Jackson once covered a day baseball game in Los Angeles in 1965 – before reporting on the Watts Riots later that same evening.

He joined ABC’s college football corps in 1966, and since then, he has broadcast many classic games. In 1979, he did the play-by-play for one of the greatest games in football history – a 14-7 Alabama win over Penn State. Jackson’s call of a late, fourth-quarter play is almost as well known as the game itself:

“Fourth down and a foot separating top-ranked Penn State from a possible national championship. Fusina hands to Guman. He didn’t make it! He didn’t make it! What an unbelievable goal line stand by Alabama!”

This Saturday, Jackson will close out the college football regular season at the USC-UCLA game. He’s covered many games in the history of this crosstown rivalry – one of the first was his call of the famous 1967 USC-UCLA contest that gave USC a national title.

Then, on Jan. 4, he will cover this year’s national championship game at the Rose Bowl. There’s a good chance he may retire after that game.

Jackson had planned retire once before in 1999, leaving ABC after many years as its top national play-by-play broadcaster. But, after a little while away from football, he decided to return to the network, and primarily cover games on the west coast (he lives in L.A).

That has meant a few extra years in which sports fans have been able to enjoy his work.

It’s true that Jackson may be a little past his prime – after all, he’s almost 80. But, he still has that rare ability to create a living story out of a three-hour game; to create a kind of warmth that is often lacking on TV. And, after all these years, he can still capture the essence of college football better than just about anyone else.

Ted Nyman is a Sun Staff Writer. Fast Times has appeared every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Ted Nyman