Jackson linked generations of college football fans

5/4/2006 - College Football

Keith Jackson announced this week that he has had enough. It took him until he turned 77 years of age to decide that he would rather go fishing than call a college football game for ABC Sports. His unwillingness to stop has been a gift to us all.

It's remarkable that, in an age when nearly every game involving any Tom, Dick and Hairy Dawg who puts on a uniform is televised, having Jackson call your game still meant something. It would pain his sense of modesty to hear it, but he became as big an event as the event he covered. That is no small achievement. On a Saturday when a dozen games were televised, Jackson continued to stand out.

He served as a link from the era of Game of the Week to the era of College GameDay on campus. When Jackson regaled us with anecdotes about Bear Bryant -- whom he always referred to as Paul -- or Bud Wilkinson, you didn't have to wonder how he knew. Jackson heard it from the legends. In an age of "Instant Classics," you can't place a price on the value of his memory bank.

Print and television reporters by and large don't have a lot of respect for each other. Print guys think TV guys are lazy. TV guys think print guys are lowlifes who have yet to learn of the invention of the steam iron. Yet they agreed in their respect for Jackson.

On the day before the last game he called, Jackson stood in the hallway of the Beverly Hilton, the media headquarters for the 2006 Rose Bowl. Jackson had his back to the wall. The reporters and minicams were three deep around him.

I have to tell you, I'm 46 years old, and when Jackson saw me walk up and said, in the midst of answering a question, "Hello, Ivan," I felt like a schoolkid who had just been recognized by the principal.

Jackson's decision to retire came hard. I know. I ghostwrote his farewell to college football for Sports Illustrated. That would violate my contract with the Worldwide Leader in Sports, except that it took place in 1999.

Jackson went on a farewell tour during the 1998 season, called Tennessee's national championship victory over Florida State in the BCS' first championship game, and fully intended to call it a career. After one look at his rocking chair, Jackson decided he would rather spend his Saturdays sitting in a press box.

ABC accommodated him by keeping him largely on the West Coast. With that promise in his vest pocket, Jackson gave us seven more seasons of his unmistakable delivery and his understated, wry humor. He gave us seven more seasons of himself.

For fans and viewers of a certain age, he is college football's Walter Cronkite (if you're younger than 25, Google Cronkite and see what that means). There are dozens of men and women calling college football games, but there will be only one Keith Jackson. When he retired this time, I think he meant it.

Here's hoping Gatorade keeps making those ads.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.