Every college football fan holds a Keith Jackson memory close to their heart.
"Helloooooo, Heisman!" ... "Brown! Touchdown!" ... "We've got a fumble …"
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The 89-year-old voice of college football died on Friday, just days after the thrilling conclusion to the 2017 season, and all those memories will pour out. I'll spend the rest of the day texting his greatest hits to my high school buddies who grew up listening to Jackson in the 1990s. Every time Jackson exclaimed, "Whoa, Nellie!" you knew it was game on while you huddled under a blanket in the living room or crowded on a basement couch.
There was a big-time game on, and you knew Jackson was calling it. He was the standard, and his timing always made that moment perfect.
What's my favorite call? Chances are you won't remember this one: It's a run-of-the-mill, 39-yard touchdown pass from Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko to Greg Lee in the opener against Notre Dame on Sept. 3, 2005:
"Palko back, throwing deep. Got a man going down the middle of the field, he's caught it — it's touchdown for the Pitt Panthers! Greg Lee got a step-and-a-half on the defender and walked in. Pass. Was. PERFECT."
Jackson was winding down his career at that point, while I was just starting mine as a young copy editor with The Advocate in Newark, Ohio. But I didn't even need to see the play to know Jackson nailed the call. In fact, I had my back to the TV while designing the sports page. Jackson was delving into how Lee got a step on the play, when I had one thought to myself.
"Keith, you haven't lost a step."
I remember asking the rhetorical question to my buddies on the sports staff — more friends who will be getting those texts today.
"Can he do this forever?"
Of course, we all busted out our best "Whoa, Nellie," though none of us could quite land it right. Everybody laughed. Notre Dame would win by three touchdowns, but we kept it on, just to listen to Jackson. All of us were sports writers trying to make it in the field. We wanted to do this forever, and Jackson was one of those big reasons why. He was the standard.
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It's fitting Jackson's final game would come four months later in the legendary 2006 Rose Bowl between No. 1 USC and No. 2 Texas. I watched that game in the same place, with those same sports staff buddies, and I'm fairly we certain we all knew we'd witnessed a defining moment in college football when Vince Young made it to the pylon on fourth-and-5.
It's the crown jewel of the BCS era, so of course Jackson was on the call. He was always on the call.
Alabama's goal-line stand in the Sugar Bowl. Dan Marino's touchdown pass to John Brown against Georgia. Desmond Howard's punt return and the "Hello, Heisman!" that followed. Jackson was always there, and he made it feel like home.
He devoted 50 years to the profession — forever, for the rest of us. We didn't just grow up with him: We lived with him, and he lived with us in those living rooms, newsrooms and sports bars, every fall, in places like Tuscaloosa, South Bend, Lincoln and Ann Arbor. We couldn't wait to start the new year with him at the Sugar Bowl or the Rose Bowl.
There will never again be a statesman quite like Jackson. It was intros like this one — before the top-five showdown between Michigan and Penn State in 1997 — where his booming voice could make that game sound like the single-most-important thing in the world. The tradition, passion and inflections with each stake made you want to be there, no matter what the temperature was outside.
That's college football. That's where Jackson took us all.
Now we lose him, four days after Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa threw a walk-off 41-yard touchdown to DeVonta Smith for a 26-23 victory in the College Football Playoff championship game. Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit nailed that, of course. They are the ones who will call the next generation of games in this sport that, despite its flaws, proved once again how entertaining it can be. Jackson's voice proved the perfect balance for all of that emotion for so many years.
Think about it. Where were you when Tagovailoa reared back and threw that football? That's how so many college football fans feel when digging through their memories to find their favorite college football moment. Chances are, Jackson's voice is the soundtrack — even if it was just a touchdown in a losing effort.
"Can he do this forever?"
Turns out, he did. We're just lucky to have all those memories to take with us.