When Keith Jackson phones an airline or a florist or a Chinese restaurant, he's often interrupted before giving his name. "It's startling how many people will ask, 'Are you the Keith Jackson?'" says Jackson, in a voice familiar from 500 Saturdays. "I always tell them, 'I don't know if I am or not.'"
His confusion is understandable. Sure, when you or I think of college football, we think of Jackson, who teed up his 39th season last Saturday by calling the Notre Dame--Pitt game (page 48) on ABC. But when Jackson thinks of college football, he's required to conjure other images. "Neyland Stadium in Tennessee," he says by way of example, "where you could look up the river on the third Saturday in October and see the leaves changing and the Tennessee Walker [horse] going by with the bluetick hound barking at him. And afterward, you could sit on the porch of that old hotel on the riverbank, eat salted cornbread and watch the moon come up. And if Tennessee won, that moon was always orange. But if Alabama won, why, you'd swear it was almost red."
Jackson's voice turns 77 next month, along with the rest of him (save his twin artificial knees, which are three and a half). The voice remains pure Southern comfort, full of "big uglies" and "by gollies," though lately bereft of its "whoa, Nellies." Just as the most famous line in Casablanca ("Play it again, Sam") isn't in Casablanca, so Jackson's signature phrase is one he never says. "I did have a mule as a boy," he confesses, "but her name was Pearl. Used to set on the shady side of her on hot afternoons in Georgia."
Jackson grew up just east of the Alabama line, in a place so small it was nameless. ("We were so far out in the country, we put on clean overalls when the gas truck come.") There, he developed a kind of Southern literary pigskin idiom, part Tennessee Williams, part Tennessee Walker horse, in which pants are "britches" and helmets are "hats" and a coach recruits every "hand-spanked Georgia boy he can find." When Jackson briefly worked for the BBC in London in 1958, his boss used to say to him, at idle moments, "Speak some of that Southern stuff."
He will happily oblige on Oct. 8, when Jackson calls the 100th Texas-Oklahoma game in Dallas. "I want to go down and do a few whoopees and hot dangs and stir the water," says Jackson, who has spent the last six seasons "west of the big mountains," traveling to Pac-10 games from his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. (He ended an eight-month "retirement" in 1999 after ABC agreed to a deal under which he would do primarily Pac-10 games.) He lives near his favorite place in college football, the Rose Bowl, and in January he'll also call that game, whose nickname can only be said properly in a Jacksonian cadence: "The Granddaddy of 'Em All."
It's not easy being the quintessence of college football. On the street Jackson is still startled by strangers shouting, "Fum-bull!" They forget that he called the first season of Monday Night Football and 10 Olympics and traveled exhaustively for Wide World of Sports. "I ran into Jim McKay at Heathrow Airport in London once," Jackson recalls of Wide World's longtime host. "He was sitting on a bench. I said, 'Jim, what are you doing here?' And he said, 'Resting.'"
Jackson broadcast baseball for ABC, too, but the last game he announced--the Mets-Astros 16-inning epic in Game 6 of the '86 National League Championship Series--was the last game he attended. No, his favorite people are football men who talk funny. "Ol' Scrappy Moore coached the Chattanooga Moccasins and wore black-and-white shoes and a Panama hat on the sideline," he says. "Talked a little funny, too. Bill Munday--remember him?" The Georgia radio man called touchdowns by saying, "Lord, he's goin' to Hallelujah Land!"
Ol' Scrappy's Moccasins are now the Tennessee-Chattanooga Mocs, whose inoffensive mascot is a mockingbird called Scrappy. "The NCAA can make anybody cynical," says Jackson. "But I'm not. It's still fun to see new generations enjoy the game peaceably. I get there an hour and a half before the game and watch the bands rehearse, the people carry on. You let it seep into you. Then they put it on the tee, the red light goes on, the door closes and you got it all to yourself."
Like the rest of us, he suffered a near paralysis of grief watching coverage of Hurricane Katrina. "Got a bunch of shirttail cousins in Louisiana," he says, "and it's demoralizing, how quickly you can be done."
But last Saturday, Jackson offered the illusion of timelessness. His contract is up at the end of this season, and he'll return if he's asked back. But when he does retire, he knows precisely what he'd like to do: "Become shop steward of the International Porch Sitters' Union," he says. The truth is, he and his wife of 53 years, Turi Ann, have three children and they have three children, and when the time comes, this hand-spanked Georgia boy will hunker down and devote himself full time to being--what else?--Granddaddy of 'Em All.
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"I get there an hour and a half before the game and watch the bands rehearse," says Keith Jackson, 76. "You let it seep into you."