National broadcast legend Keith Jackson, who died Friday at 89, was a Washington State grad who began his career in Seattle, from where he made his mark in Russia.
Keith Jackson was that rare sort of personality so endearingly engaging that everywhere he worked, people liked the idea of having a small claim on him. Broadcasting a college football game on national TV, fans of the host school believed that when he did “our” game, he was “our” guy.
He was. He was everyone’s guy.
His manner, wit, self-effacement and elegant yet earthy grasp of language made him “our” guy, whether he was in Tuscaloosa, Innsbruck or Moscow. His splendid baritone voice, which he could use to command a confrontational moment as well, made it a thrill to be in his presence, just listening.
There are, however, three places whose claim rate a priority for his remarkable life, which ended Friday at 89.
The first goes to the farm in rural Georgia where he was raised and absorbed his country humor and grace.
The second was Pullman and Washington State University, where he attended on the GI Bill after four years in the Marines and learned broadcasting, and where in 2014 a building was named in his honor.
The third was Seattle, where in 1954 he had his first professional break as a news anchor and sports voice for an infant TV station, KOMO.
In that job, young Jackson saw an opportunity with a major story that helped turn him into a national broadcasting legend.
In 1958, Jackson was part of a pioneer moment at the intersection of politics and sports. At the height of the Cold War, the University of Washington crew was invited to compete against a premier crew from the Soviet Union, Leningrad Trud, one that had beaten the Huskies a little earlier in the famed Henley Regatta on London’s Thames River.
It was the first appearance behind the Iron Curtain for a U.S. sports team since the end of World War II. Jackson did the first live radio broadcast back to the U.S., where the audience listened with glee as the all-collegiate Huskies beat the bigger, older Russians by about two boat lengths on the 2,000-meter Khimkinskoe Reservoir course.
Jackson, along with Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Royal Brougham and Seattle Times columnist Georg Meyers, broke through the politics, bureaucracy and logistics to report a culture-clash story between Russians and Americans that played out in sports instead of a battlefield.
In 2011 at Seattle’s annual Sports Star of the Year event, he told some of the story of that dramatic clash:
In 1964, Jackson headed to the big time with a job at ABC radio in Los Angeles. He picked up some assignments for TV, including a parachute-jumping contest on ABC’s Wide World of Sports anthology show that caught the eye of legendary TV sports executive Roone Arledge. Jackson was assigned to college football in the mid-1960s and was good enough in 1970 to be given the play-by-play job for the first season of Monday Night Football.
Jackson will be forever known as the voice of college football, but he also had stints covering the NBA, MLB, auto racing and the Summer and Winter Olympics.
During his 2011 visit in Seattle, where the SSY event has named after him its annual award for outstanding work by a media member, he admitted the only sport he had a hard time with with was baseball.
”Too many games,” he said. ”I did the (Class AAA Seattle) Rainiers. That was enough.”
Then he chuckled: “I liked the ‘Wide World of Sports’ concept. You get to see a bunch of funky places and get yourself locked up in plenty of jails.”
That year, he presented the award posthumously to Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus, whom he met in the 1960s when both were up-and-comers in Los Angeles. He recounted how much work it took break into sports broadcasting, which Niehaus finally did with the California Angels, partnering in 1969 with another broadcaster who would become a national legend, Dick Enberg.
Calling Niehaus “my kind of guy,” Jackson said, ” He would go to all the meetings, meet all the right people and beat the bushes to get in the business. You get in this business, you have to work. It’s no fun sometimes.”
Jackson could not get over the task of calling baseball.
”Good lord, the passion that must be running through (broadcasters) veins,” Jackson said. “Imagine 162 games with the same people. I can’t imagine any more passion than Dave Niehaus.
“When it’s done, and you’ve done a good job, it’s rewarding. I don’t know Dave’s parents, but someone raised him very well.”
On stage before the award was presented, a five-minute highlight video was played of Niehaus’s greatest calls, inspiring a huge ovation.
“Did you hear that, Dave?” Jackson said. They love you.”
They do, as did so many love the work and the manner of Keith Jackson. Imagine the privilege of being at the celestial bar when Jackson pulls up a stool next to Niehaus.