A summer ago, a perusal of my calendar revealed that there was nothing booked on the weekend before the start of football—a very rare circumstance. With a frequent flyer assist I found my way to Los Angeles to see an old friend. Reaching out to Keith Jackson, I subsequently made arrangements for us to fly to Los Angeles for the weekend. Found a Marriott in Sherman Oaks, a neat suburb of L.A., where the Jacksons live and made plans to take them to dinner.
When we arrived and were settled, he called to say, in that distinct voice of his, “We’re going to have dinner up here.” Keith and Turi live in retirement up on the mountain in Sherman Oaks. His deck out back is the place he lives to be. He has a pool, a pergola and a big grill. Life is grand on his deck. He grilled lamb chops for us and introduced us to potato vodka from Idaho.
An evening, with the man who was the face of college football for years for ABC TV, left his guests enamored, appreciative and proud. When he drove us down the mountain late in the evening, it made me think of that standard line in the society pages of weekly papers, like the Carrollton Times-Georgian: “A good time was enjoyed by all.”
Following the Rose Bowl in 2006, Jackson, the Georgian, who rode a mule to school as a boy, only to travel the world as a sportscaster for ABC television, retired to his home in the hills of Sherman Oaks.
That deck has been very important in his life. “Always will be,” he intoned when we visited him. There was a time when he could take a dip in the pool with his kids when he was home from his wide world of travel, a memorable highlight that delightfully endures. He and his stately wife, Turi, with her Norwegian good looks, could sit on the deck and enjoy the cool breezes of the summer and chill of evenings in the fall, reflecting on a storybook career.
They have always enjoyed grilling and dining under the pergola, which offers shade from the sun and brings about soothing ambience for the meals they enjoy. Jackson was so universally appreciated during the time that he called college football games, everybody who knew him became “homefolks.” What would you expect from a generous and affable man with roots in Carroll County?
College football never had a greater friend. Keith was the face and voice of the campus game from 1952 until he retired in 2006. The highlights of his career include calling the Rose Bowl 15 times, more than any announcer. When he was a barefoot country boy in Roopville, Ga., he listened to the 1943 Rose Bowl on a battery operated radio. Georgia defeated UCLA, 9-0, as WWII gripped the nation. There was no electricity on the farm, but there was an outhouse, an early-to-bed-early-to-rise routine, unending manual labor and Pearl, the mule he rode to the Roopville schoolhouse.
He grew to be a strapping boy of 6-3 and could “carry two sacks of guano about, one under each arm.” He did well in school, never complained about the innumerable farm chores which he had to fulfill each day from tending to the garden to harvesting row crops in early fall and cutting firewood in winter. However, there was a hidden wanderlust which dictated that while he was comfortable down on the farm, he wanted to exit and see what the outside world offered.
Keith lied about his age and joined the Marines when he was 16 much to the chagrin of a not-so-clairvoyant teacher, named Mary Baxter, who advised against his military objective. “You will get killed,” she complained, “or you will never amount to a hill of beans.”
Her negative stance rip-sawed a nerve and brought forth the ultimate in satisfaction in 1952 when he called the radio broadcast of a Washington State-Stanford game. He had always been motivated to prove his teacher wrong. Nothing sinister or vindictive but he wanted to make something of himself, never once expecting that he would rise to the level of celebrity that came his way.
When he was discharged, having spent time in China and the Far East, he was a forward thinking man with a canny insight into making mature decisions. He knew that the G.I. Bill would send him wherever he wanted to enroll. He sought two degrees, one in political science and one in police science. Washington State in Pullman, Wash., about as far away from Roopville as the moon to his family and neighbors, offered that option. He headed West and never returned except for calling football games in places like Athens, Tuscaloosa, Knoxville and Auburn.
Still proud to have been a country boy, Keith Jackson is a versatile broadcast icon who covered 10 Olympics, was the first play-by-play announcer for Monday Night Football (with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith), covered sports in countless countries and helped Walter Cronkite cover the1964 Republican convention in San Francisco. He has won practically every award imaginable in sports broadcasting.
Washington State has named the building, which houses its Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, “Keith Jackson Hall.” Such honor usually is associated with donors who make contributions in excess of seven figures. The Rose Bowl has named its broadcast facilities, “The Keith Jackson Broadcast Center,” but the University of Nebraska made his day when it built a restroom in the broadcast booth at Memorial Stadium and put up a sign, “The Keith Jackson Toilet Facility.”
In his storied career, there was never a hint of anything off color or out of order. He was a gentleman and a friend to all those who came into his sphere, although there can be raw candor in his conversation when he is pontificating. He takes things seriously, although not himself, his country boy modesty trumping all conversations.
If you follow the sports scene, you may be fortunate to rub shoulders with those who are the best of their times. To be able to have one of the greatest of broadcasters invite you to his home for dinner and then cook lamb chops at his grill, is a signature moment worthy of bronzing.
Here’s to the sage of Roopville, whose voice resonated with millions across continents. You can be sure that “he never forgot where he came from.”