Well, folks, we've lost another one. Lon Simmons, Dick Enberg, and now the great Keith Jackson, who just passed away at age 89. Known as the "Voice of College Football," he also called baseball (Chris Chambliss' epic home run in the 1976 ALCS comes to mind), the Olympics, and of course, the first year of ABC's "Monday Night Football" alongside Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.
Jackson's rich, penetrating baritone was one of the signature sounds of the sporting world. Many of us who've worked in radio and other speaking engagements have secretly, or perhaps not so secretly, sought to emulate the effortless-sounding timbre of that voice, which placed the listener squarely into the middle of the action but comfortably so, as if we and Keith were sitting in rocking chairs in the same living room, he providing the narrative, we the attention. It sounded so natural. Maybe it was.
If you were following our old '66 Le Mans down Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in San Anselmo on New Year's Day some 39 years ago, you might have seen the thing swerve abruptly right, then left. That was the moment Keith Jackson's stentorian voice bellowed "He didn't make it!" as Alabama's defense stopped Penn State on fourth-and-goal in the 1979 Sugar Bowl and snatched the then-mythical national championship away from the Nittany Lions. That's one of a couple of dozen memories, many of them New Year's Day memories, that the name conjures up now.
His last broadcast was the Rose Bowl of 2006, the Texas-USC spectacular capped by Vince Young's touchdown. We saw and heard him briefly when he appeared as a guest in the booth of another fantastic Rose Bowl, just over a year ago, and the thrilling game on the field momentarily gave way to sadness as we realized that great voice and that friendly face were not long for this world.
Keith Jackson wasn't the first to say, "Whoa, Nellie!" but he made the phrase his own, and every time we've appropriated it for our own use, it's his voice we've heard as we proofread the piece. To make a Bay Area connection here, we'll wager that if the late, great Bill King (another loss) were still around, he'd confirm his "Holy Toledo!" was modeled after Keith Jackson's signature. Everybody needs one, don't they?
Far better than meagre words are samples of the legacy Keith Jackson has left us. Here's a few:
The Seattle Seahawks are a disgrace to football, sports, America, and humanity. The luckiest team in football is also the dirtiest. You may remember these classless crybabies reacted the same way when New England was running out the clock in Super Bowl XLIX-- deliberately trying to injure the winning team's players because this wretched abomination of a "football team" can't handle losing.
It's clear that Seattle's management and coaching tolerate, if not encourage, this cheap-shot mentality. Not that long ago, Sean Payton and members of the New Orleans Saints were suspended for a full year for doing far less than this. Will Commissioner Goodell act accordingly? At the very least, Michael Bennett should be immediately suspended for the rest of the season, including the playoffs (if they somehow manage to slither into the postseason again). And a suspension for Pete Carroll, whom we once admired, seems appropriate too. We've seen enough of this bunch.
The National Football League went all-out today, on Veterans Day weekend, to reaffirm and loudly, publicly, and universally show its collective and unified support for our military. For the first time this season, no players sat or knelt during the National Anthem. FOX Sports delivered their pregame and postgame shows from a Navy installation in Norfolk. There were countless shout-outs to military units at home and abroad, and displays of honor for our veterans and their families. That the Seattle Seahawks (above) linked arms while standing for the anthem is no insult by any stretch of the imagination; displays of team solidarity are just as right and proper as are displays of respect for our nation and her flag.
In other words, damage control is in full swing. Commissioner Goodell, who is under siege from all sides and over many issues, knows how unpopular the players' implied disrespect for the country that permits them to make millions playing a game has been. He knows this is not and has never been a First Amendment issue. He knows that while our veterans have fought and died to preserve the right to free speech-- even, perhaps especially, unpopular speech-- the image of professional athletes in what has been the nation's most popular and explicitly patriotic sport refusing to honor the flag has already cost his league millions of fans, drawn the ire of sponsors, and tarnished the NFL brand. Irretrievably? No one knows, including Goodell.
So what happens now? It's too late for Goodell to "get tough" with the players' union. That ship has sailed. There will be no change to the disciplinary policy until the next CBA is signed, and any such change will now come at a stiff price.
No, the question before us is, is this it? Was today's infusion of league-wide patriotism a singular event, or a turning point? Will players now stand for the rest of the season, and if they do, will the angry and hurt fans begin trickling back into the alarmingly empty stadiums we've all seen lately?
Or will players go back to sitting or kneeling next week, now that the requisite honor has been, however briefly, paid and acknowledged? And if so, what will that mean for attendance, for sponsorship-- in short, for revenue-- as the playoffs and Super Bowl approach? Can you imagine a Super Bowl with visibly empty seats? You may be sure Commissioner Goodell can.
Turning our attention back to the football field, the 49ers won their first game of the season today, decisively defeating the battered New York Giants at Levi Stadium. Congratulations to coach Shanahan and general manager Lynch. May this be the first of many to come! Who knows, maybe this edition-in-progress of the 49ers will be enough to draw our attention back here after years of neglect.
As with the anthem issue, time will tell. In the meantime, we wait.
"I'd rather be Dwight than president," quipped the legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen in the euphoric wake of the 49er franchise's finest moment, the 1981 championship win over Dallas forever immortalized as "The Catch." And for a few years that some of us 49er fans will never forget, Dwight Clark indeed seemed to epitomize all that was right and good about our team, his sport, his league, his adopted city, and even his country. Confident yet quiet, tough but never mean, a family man adored by countless women and admired by more than a few men, DC met the world with a ready smile, a firm handshake, and the unmistakable attitude of a winner. He played on two world championship 49er teams and could have played on two more; his unfailing sense of timing told him to retire at 30, still a force on the field and in the clubhouse, while making way for the greatest player any of us have ever seen.
Yes, Dwight Clark is a gentleman, and yes, he was a football player, too, a tough and rugged one. The movie-star looks-- in recent years, he's reminded us of Frank Gifford-- couldn't conceal a ferocious competitive spirit. Bill Walsh, who was scouting someone else at Clemson that day, saw it, and made one of his mental notes. Defensive backs who tried to catch Clark and his herky-jerky running style (one of his early nicknames on the team was "Herk") from behind found themselves grasping at air as somehow he stayed ahead of them all the way to the end zone. "The Catch" followed a week in which Clark had been bedridden with the flu. He drew savage hits from DBs and linebackers every time he caught a pass. He confessed there were moments on the field he couldn't recall, yet teammates and opponents saw him soldier on through it all.
And that fighting spirit was on display Sunday at Levi Stadium. Weakened by this savage disease, but defiant in its face and determined to endure as long as he can, Dwight Clark looked past himself, speaking of others who will fight this same battle as he called for renewed efforts to find a cure for the yet uncurable. There's no give-up in Dwight Clark. There never was.
Many of his 49er teammates joined him in what may be his last public appearance; a sea of red "87" jerseys spreading across the field, paying tribute to one of their own. Joe Montana, then and now a close friend, was there, of course. Fittingly, the Dallas Cowboys were there, too. Though he never played it up himself-- he'd tell you Eric Wright and Lawrence Pillers and Jim Stuckey won that game, not himself-- Clark long ago resigned himself to his public persona being wedded to that one transcendent event, among the most iconic in NFL history. Unfailingly gracious as the inevitable subject came up time and again, Dwight Clark managed his moment in history.
And now another inevitable subject confronts Dwight Clark. As he spoke, we were reminded so poignantly of Ronald Reagan's farewell to the country and people he loved, as he gracefully but reluctantly exited the stage and stepped into his final, dimming years. Facing his friends, his fans, and his family, filled with the class and character he displayed throughout his life, Dwight made his statement with strength and courage.
We first saw Dwight Clark at Candlestick Park on October 19, 1980, in his breakout second season for the "Roaring Back" edition of the 49ers. Almost exactly one year later, he brought us to our feet in the first quarter as he took a simple short pass from Joe Montana and turned it into a 41-yard touchdown, fast-stepping across the choppy, muddy field as a horde of defenders pitched and yawed in frustrated pursuit. That touchdown held up as the 49ers defeated the Los Angeles Rams, 20-17, the first time they'd ever beaten their arch-rivals at Candlestick Park, in a day when that rivalry meant something. It was an early, but crucial, step on the road to that first Super Bowl championship.
Dwight was there for the final step, too, and for many more afterward. He helped our beloved but beleaguered football team define a new reality, a new standard, for the league, for the game, and for the legions of fans who followed. Many of us have a hard time regarding football players as heroes today; we've seen too much, they've done too much, we've all of us likely expected too much for that ever to be a simple equation again. So let's not use that term. Let's simply regard this strong but unassuming man, whose star shone brightly across our lives for a moment in time, as our brother.
By now most of us know that fame, money, and accomplishments don't make for an easy life. An insulated one, maybe; a "pass" on behavior that might get the rest of us locked up, probably; a sense of freedom from the decisions "normal" people face every day, certainly.
Gregg Allman never had it easy. He endured more personal tragedy than anyone ought to; that at least half of it was self-induced doesn't make any of it less grim, nor does the evidence that he was strong enough, eventually, to overcome all, or almost all, but that last enemy itself.
If you grew up south of Mason and Dixon forty-odd years ago, chances are Gregg's and his brother Duane's band, the Allman Brothers, was a major part of your life. Unlike the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the other British bands, unlike the legends of California psychedelia, the Brothers weren't iconic, larger-than-life figures. They were guys like us, something akin to a group of slightly older cousins and their buddies, who discovered they had the skill and the drive to play with the big boys-- and to knock their socks off. "The best band I ever heard," said the late promoter Bill Graham, who heard 'em all.
A natural sideman, composer, and arranger, Gregg Allman, like Robbie Robertson of the Band, was forced into a frontman/spokesman role by dint of circumstance and by a vacuum of leadership in his group. Like Robertson, by doing so he caused friction and resentment among the men who were his closest friends; unlike him, he handled it in spectacularly awful fashion and the tabloids had a field day. Yes, he overcame it. Eventually. The band was never the same, but the music carried on. Gregg Allman got into music because he wanted to play the blues. Like many before him, he ended up living them out, money and fame and accomplishment notwithstanding.
Perhaps Gregg's most ridiculed effort was the 1970s album he put out with then-wife Cher: "Two The Hard Way." Prophetic, though, in that the hard way seemed to be Gregg Allman's only way.
News reports say the last song he performed was "One Way Out." He couldn't have picked a more appropriate number to say farewell.
Good old Verne, Verne Lundquist that is, announced he is stepping down from full-time work as a football broadcaster, which means the SEC Network is taking a big hit only slightly less daunting than would be an Alabama loss in September.
Verne did a lot of 49er games back in the 1980s as the Number Two NFL play-by-play man for CBS, partnered for a time with Dan Dierdorf, who went on to Monday Night Football. You can get an idea of Verne's professionalism and his urbane, encouraging nature just by asking Mr Dierdorf-- and, we're sure, his most recent partner, former NFL quarterback Gary Danielson. By all accounts Verne Lundquist is one of those men who makes friendships easily, and then keeps them. He's also something of a Renaissance man, well-read, well-traveled, knowledgeable, yet relatable. We were always impressed by what seemed to be a vast reserve of native intelligence just beneath the folksy exterior he presented.
In recent months we've waved goodbye to the likes of Lon Simmons, Vin Scully, and now Verne Lundquist. We're glad Verne will continue part-time, with his true passions: the Masters, the PGA, and the NCAA Championship.
A class act all the way, Verne Lundquist's own farewell to football fans can be found here: