It was probably on some lazy Saturday afternoon or evening in 1990 when the sound burned itself into my memory. I was in seventh grade, and a Notre Dame linebacker with a previously checkered career was in the midst of an All-America season. He must have been playing on the road, because if he’d been in South Bend, Brent Musburger would have been the one saying his name. Instead, Keith Jackson was calling the game, and when that linebacker made a tackle, Jackson said…
And there it was.
From that point forward, the quintessence of college football in my mind was Keith Jackson saying the name Michael Stonebreaker as a drumline pounds out a beat between plays. I can’t think of the sport without hearing those two words uttered by that voice. I cover college football for a living, so I think about college football a lot. Consequently, my brain frequently serves up the memory of Keith Jackson identifying a 225-pound middle linebacker from Louisiana playing for a Catholic university in Indiana.
Jackson flew to that big broadcast booth in the sky on Friday. He was 89. He left behind a wife, children and grandchildren. He also leaves behind millions of college football fans who consider his the definitive voice of the sport. It may not be Michael Stonebreaker for everyone else, but the better part of three generations of college football fans have their own Keith Jackson phrase that triggers a flood of memories.
Maybe it’s Jackson’s classic Whoa, Nellie. But most likely it’s something more specific.
• Maybe it’s Hello, Heisman, when Michigan’s Desmond Howard returned a punt 93 yards against Ohio State in 1991 and struck the Heisman Trophy pose in the end zone.
• Maybe it’s He didn’t make it, which is what Jackson yelled when Alabama’s Barry Krauss stuffed Penn State’s Mike Guman on the goal line in the Sugar Bowl to give the Crimson Tide the 1978 national title.
• Maybe it’s Hoooooooold the phone, which was Jackson’s way of reminding everyone that an official had thrown a flag in the end zone in overtime of the Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Miami following the 2002 season.
• If you grew were watching on one particular affiliate, maybe it’s Jackson saying Goodbye, in your face as Bo Jackson scored a touchdown in the 1983 Iron Bowl as a Birmingham television reporter broke into the broadcast to deliver a tornado warning.
• Or maybe it’s He’s going for the cornerrrrrr. He’s got it! That’s what Jackson said when Texas quarterback Vince Young scored on fourth-and-five to lift the Longhorns to a win against USC in the Rose Bowl following the 2005 season. That game was the last one Jackson called.
Jackson guided an awful lot of us through our college football education. His twang came from Georgia, but he learned to call games on the other side of the country while attending Washington State on the G.I. Bill. Jackson once said he pretended to call games while walking around the cornfield near his childhood home. Years later, thousands of backyard football games would be narrated by a kid doing his best Jackson impression. One of those impressions even wound up on The Simpsons in the season 11 episode called “Faith/Off.” “Oh doctor, with S.U. behind and seconds left, my supply of homespun sayings is lower than a doodlebug in Aunt Tillie's root cellar,” the obvious Jackson stand-in says. “So we'll-Oh, jumpin' crawdaddies! Is that Lubchenko coming back on the field?”
If Jackson tried to break into the business today, he’d probably be told to take voice lessons so he could sound more like he came from nowhere. But he was perfect for a sport with a heavy Southern audience. For one section of the country, he sounded exactly like college football. But he called games everywhere. At Legion Field. At the Coliseum. At the Big House. If you heard Jackson’s voice, you knew the stakes were huge.
There are plenty of fine television announcers calling college football today, but none has the voice that can produce the visceral effect that Jackson’s did. He had a catch phrase, but he didn’t force it. He maintained the requisite Voice of God tone most of the time, but he couldn’t hide his joy when he saw something amazing, and that was the best part. When Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart’s pass landed in the hands of Michael Westbrook at Michigan in 1994, Jackson acted just as surprised as we did watching at home.
It seems fitting that the final college football play that took place during Jackson’s lifetime was a 41-yard touchdown pass thrown in overtime of the national championship game by a true freshman backup quarterback on second-and-26. That’s exactly the kind of play Jackson would have called brilliantly.
The only thing that would have made it more perfect was a blitzing Michael Stonebreaker.