Sunday died in April 2013; now Saturday has gone along with it. Maybe they’re huddled together in some football heaven.
For just as the spare, reassuring voice of Pat Summerall meant it must be Sunday and it must be autumn and it must be near daylight saving time, the frenzied, reassuring voice of Keith Jackson meant it must be Saturday. It must be randy, rowdy, rollicking Saturday. The weekend must be underway. The nerves must feel at leisure. The crisp air must be on the way.
Hear the eternally pleasing voice of Jackson, who died at 89 vivid years Friday night, and you might close your eyes and see the leaves turning outdoors even while you remain on the sofa. Hear the voice of Jackson, and you might know the football situation on the television called for gravitas, even if the unpretentious voice did manage to arrive at gravitas without trying. Hear that voice, and every American region seemed contained somewhere within it, from the boyhood on a Georgia farm near the Alabama line to the longtime residence in Los Angeles to all the chronic alighting everywhere in between.
With his trips into the pizazzy corridors of the English language, this man who broadcast everything from Olympics to baseball helped make madcap college football into madcap college football yet also exceeded college football and then sports, becoming a form of Saturday bedrock.
Hear the voice, and you might know you’re shirking an errand, and you might not care.
The voice took a technical game of stupefying moments and 100,000-strong crowds and distilled it to its humanity. Jackson would call a game in the Midwest yet give a score from Arkansas vs. Mississippi and say, “Them Hogs and Rebels’ve been fightin’ down there a loooong time.” He would call a UCLA quarterback throwing a late bomb on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum floor by blaring, as the ball launched upward, “throws it just as far as he can throw it . . .” In a first quarter, he would introduce an offensive line, maybe Nebraska’s, and refer to some 280-pounder as “the runt” of the bunch. He would forgive a compromised running game by commending the defense as like “sticking your head into a sausage factory.” After a time, he would change how you viewed games, would keep you staring at blasé games just to hear what the voice might yield next.
Yet the voice, so lush with possibility, also knew how to go spare.
“Nice kick. Got a little wind under it. (Pause) Look at that! (Pause.) Oh my goodness! (Pause.) One man [to beat]! (Pause.) Goodbye. (Pause.) Hellooooo, Heisman!”
That would be Michigan’s Desmond Howard, along the hurried path of his 93-yard punt return against Ohio State in 1991, sweeping into the end zone at the end.
“He’s going for the cornerrrr! He’s got it! (Long pause.) Vince. (Short pause.) Young. (Short pause.) Scores.”
That would be Jackson’s entire call of the last touchdown he would call, Texas’s final offensive play with 30 seconds left and a 38-33 deficit in the unreasonably good 2006 Rose Bowl, with that “r” in “corner” held through part of Young’s diagonal fourth-down trek from the Southern California 8-yard line to the pylon at the front-right corner of the end zone. That came just after ABC ran a graphic of the longest winning streaks ever — because USC stood sixth with 34 at that moment — and just after Yale appeared twice on the list, from the 1890s, and Dan Fouts said, “Nobody wanted to play Yale back then,” and Jackson said, “Noooooo! Don’t jab a finger at that bunch. They’d beatcha up.”
Then, as Texas and USC lined up for one of the most serious plays in the game’s history, the voice reminded us it also wasn’t that serious, simply by saying, “I’m too old for this.”
“That thumping sound was the doorrrrr, closing.”
That came just before Jackson’s first retirement, in early 1999, the one retirement he couldn’t quite keep, just after Tennessee completed a 21-yard, fourth-down screen pass, Tee Martin to Shawn Bryson, in the Fiesta Bowl and Bowl Championship Series title game. It gave Tennessee a first down at the Florida State 10-yard line, with a 23-16 lead, inside two minutes.
“Phil Fulmer went to see George Cafego, who was an absolute legend in Tennessee football history, two days before he passed away,” Jackson then said, referring to the Tennessee coach and Cafego’s death the previous February. Continuing: “And George said to Phil, ‘Good luck. I’ll be watching.’ ”
Then, in a turn only Jackson would make, he continued, “Good night, George. And thanks.”
On the next play, Tennessee fumbled the handoff exchange. It would prove harmless, but in the moment, it looked catastrophic until Jackson again brought it back to humanity when he said to his broadcast partner, Bob Griese: “You see something like that, Bob, and you say, ‘Why in the world would anybody want to coach?’ ”
Good night, Mr. Jackson. And thanks. Thanks for making life so much better than it would have been without you.
After all, when a sole straggler driving a Florida highway that Fiesta Bowl night in 1999 pulled over and rented a room, the sole purpose wasn’t to watch the game. It was to hear, one last time, the voice collaborating with the game. That voice mandated a highway exit both random and urgent, an exit made because a vast deprivation lay ahead after that game, and here came a last chance to savor something authentic, something irreplaceable.