Howard Cosell tells the world John Lennon is dead. The following is an excerpt from Mark Ribowsky’s Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports:
Having gotten the news about Lennon, the skeletal ABC News staff on West Sixty-ninth Street called the truck outside the Orange Bowl. When he was told of the shooting, producer Bob Goodrich relayed the news to Roone Arledge, who told him not to tell Cosell while the game was on the air. He said that Cosell was a friend of Lennon and it might upset him. Goodrich waited until an impending commercial came on, then broke it to Cosell, who in turn told Frank Gifford and Fran Tarkenton, the former Viking and Giants quarterback who filled in for Don Meredith on the games he took off.
“He was shot outside his apartment, the Dakota apartment building,” Cosell said.
“Oh boy” was all a shocked Gifford could say.
Cosell’s immediate reaction wasn’t shock or grief but reluctance about announcing it when the commercial was over. With the game tied 6-6, he worried that the drama and flow would be interrupted. A play might even be run without a call if he couldn’t squeeze it in, and a story of this magnitude couldn’t be tossed off in a line or two. Amazingly for the self-identified journalist, a man who had been so crushed when Arledge refused to allow him to go live in Munich, his inclination was to say nothing about Lennon, leaving it to the news people.
“Fellas, I just don’t know,” he hemmed. “I’d like your opinion. I can’t see this game situation allowing for that news flash, can you?”
Gifford—the jock who in Cosell’s regard was out of his element beyond a gridiron—was the one who demonstrated the best news judgment and decisiveness. “Absolutely. I can see it.”
“You betcha. You’ve got to. If we know it, we’ve got to do it.”
Sighing, and far from convinced, Cosell said, “Alright.”
Gifford dispensed some advice. “Don’t hang on it. It’s a tragic moment and this is going to shake up the whole world.”
“Alright. I will get it in. Let Giff call this play and then I’ll get it in.”
When the game resumed, the first lull came when the Patriots moved into field goal range and called a time-out. As kicker John Smith was shown warming up his leg on the sideline, Gifford tried to find a comfortable transition, awkwardly saying, “John Smith is on the line. And I don’t care what’s on the line, Howard, you have got to say what we know in the booth.”
Given his cue, Cosell was now in almost the exact situation Jim McKay had been in Munich. “Yes, we have to say it,” he began. “Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses.” The juxtaposition between reverie and reality, with Smith on camera trotting onto the field for his field goal attempt, was particularly brazen as Cosell continued, cutting sentences into fragmentary phrases.
“An unspeakable tragedy. Confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all of the Beatles. Shot twice in the back. Rushed to Roosevelt’s Hospital.”
A pause, then, in a slow rhythm, “Dead…on…arrival.”
It would be yet another indelible marker of his rendezvous with popular history, three words spoken as deliberately and profoundly as those by McKay on that black early morning in Munich when he intoned, “They’re all gone.”
“Dead…on…arrival.” Other than “Down goes Frazier,” he had never spoken three more powerful words in his life. Knowing it himself, and almost winded, he let out a breath before going on, “Hard to go back to the game after that news flash, which in duty bound we have to tell you. Frank.” Gifford could only append, “Indeed it is.”
The game proceeded, its outcome the height of triviality to millions of viewers, and to the men in the booth. A few minutes later, given breathing room, Cosell repeated the news, injecting an epilogue, movingly reciting from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense.”