PASADENA, Calif. — It is roughly 20 miles from the Rose Bowl to Sherman Oaks, the Los Angeles area community where Keith Jackson has lived for most of his adult life. He landed there after a stint in the Marines and a campus sojourn at Washington State.
The longtime voice of the Rose Bowl, Jackson will not be in attendance at the Georgia-Oklahoma game on New Year’s Day. He is recuperating from foot surgery and will have just returned to his home on the mountain the week of the game.
The proximity of the Rose Bowl to his residence was such that, in the past, he could arise on New Year’s Day, drive down to the stadium and routinely call the game for ABC. Like going to the office and taking care of business for the day.
His last Rose Bowl broadcast came in 2006 when Texas defeated USC 41-38 to win the national championship as the No. 2 Longhorns upset the No. 1 Trojans.
Moving into retirement, Jackson, the longtime voice of college football for ABC, remained close to the Rose Bowl hierarchy and saw officials add his name to its broadcast center.
It was hard for his old friends and the legion of college football aficionados, who came to appreciate this folksy Georgian’s affiliation with college football, when Keith called it a career. They had become attached to his down-home phrases like, “Whoa Nellie,” and a robust and resonating “Fum-ble” that stretched into a half-dozen syllables.
In anticipation of a great game in that last broadcast, he said to his partner, Dan Fouts, “[Tonight], we are going to play football, Yippee!” Expectations were met in one of the classic Rose Bowls.
Jackson’s love for the game was deep and abiding. His retirement was difficult for this admirer. It meant that I would no longer cross paths with him in the fall. He no longer would find his way to Athens and sit on my back porch, where he would pontificate and regale friends with his classic recollections. Jackson is, after all, a raconteur for the ages.
The times when I would visit him in Los Angeles were treasured highlights. It was not often, but any visit brought stimulating recall of his college football years and his austere growing up on a farm in the west Georgia community of Roopville.
It was emotionally fulfilling to reminisce with him. There was a compatibility with his memories. He knew what it was like to go barefoot. He rode a mule, named Pearl, to school.
He helped harvest row crops, he mended and fixed things. The outside world came to him via a battery-powered Philco radio. He was an aficionado of WSB, whose call letters meant, “Welcome South Brother.”
In the 1970s, he came to Athens to call a Georgia game, and I asked him to be a guest on the Georgia pregame show, which then took place on the hillside behind the stadium on Field Street. As we came back from a commercial break, before I could ask him a question, he, with the widest of grins, leaned into the microphone and said, “Welcome South Brother.”
Then he added, “I have always wanted to do that.”
When Georgia played UCLA in the Rose Bowl in 1943, he listened to the game on that old radio, not once thinking that he would become an iconic Rose Bowl announcer for a national broadcast network.
In late summer of 2015, I had a daily double experience with Keith and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Vin Scully. The week before Georgia’s opening game, with no commitments on the calendar, I found my way to L.A. and scheduled dinner with Keith on a Friday night and arranged the next afternoon to take in a Dodgers game which included a pregame visit with Scully, the Dodgers announcer for 67 years. I am sure you agree that it doesn’t get better than that.
The Friday plan was to take Jackson and his beautiful wife Turi to dinner, but as soon as we checked into our room, the phone rang and Roopville’s most famous citizen said, “We have decided that you are going to have dinner up here. I’m grilling lamb chops.”
His elevated patio on the back of his house has a stunning view of the canyon looking toward the Bob Hope Airport. His pool, deck and pergola are where he spent many hours with Turi and his family when he retreated there from his worldwide travels.
That night, after those lamb chops, cooked with tender loving care and accompanied with Idaho potato vodka, the conversation stretched on into the evening. He was in a loquacious mood. He explained that to satiate his wanderlust he had to join the Marines.
Austerity had locked him down, but he knew enterprise would open the door of opportunity. The military and the G.I. bill would usher him into a new world. The Marines were his only option to vacate the farm.
He was never resentful of the farming lifestyle, but he did not want to perpetuate it. He knew about prejudice, he knew about family issues, disclosing that his two uncles, among other things, were not imbued with brotherly love. A teacher, Mary Baxter, told him when she learned of Jackson’s military plans that he would never amount to anything and that his decision to join the Marines likely would result in him “getting killed.”
While I am overjoyed that Georgia is experiencing a Rose Bowl opportunity for the second time in 75 years, I lament that I am here and Jackson is not up to grilling lamb chops under his pergola and pouring Idaho potato vodka for a friend who passionately identifies with his love of football and appreciates, too, the values of life down on the farm.