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The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla., Ken Willis column

The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. — Ken Willis The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

Jan. 13--Nearly five years ago, some TV marketing folks at Fox were eating dinner and kicking around ideas for the opening of the 2013 all-star race broadcast from Charlotte.

"Who could we get for the intro?"

It was going to be a lead-in focusing on the history of the event, full of great highlights. The all-star race was a spotlight event and the network wanted someone outside of the regulars to narrate and give it a little rhetorical heft.

Two of the folks at the table were longtime college football fans. They looked at each other and came to simultaneous agreement.

"Keith Jackson."

Hey, Walter Cronkite was long dead and James Earl Jones was busy. Keith was on his porch and, conveniently, just up the hill from a radio studio he still used occasionally for such gigs. He recorded the intro, it was great, and everyone was happy.

Keith Jackson's death, at 89, was announced Saturday. He rode a mule to elementary school in Georgia and lived out his long-shadow days in the splendor of Sherman Oaks, California. Only in America.

In between, he became a sports legend by infiltrating our psyches.

Not sure how many different ways you can separate the true giants from the mere greats, but an old saying comes to mind: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Yes, but ...

Keith Jackson was among the very few who became so ingrained in our consciousness, people weren't necessarily doing impressions of Keith Jackson, but actually impersonating other peoples' impressions of Keith Jackson.

John Wayne, Howard Cosell, Richard Nixon, some others ... and Keith Jackson.

The words themselves weren't always so memorable. Thanks to YouTube, you can find the tremendous opening to the 2003 Ohio State-Michigan game on ABC. The transcript, when viewed in black and white, is decent but not exceptional.

"When the last glow drips away from the Big House at Michigan ..."

Now, put Keith Jackson's voice and historical significance to it. It's suddenly big.

Another: The 1975 ending to the Indy 500, which was cut short by rain that skipped a drizzling introduction and went right to downpour.

"It is a cloudburst. An old-fashioned Midwest thunderstorm that's hit with fury."

Again, quite different in his voice, and in that particular instance, it was television magic to have Keith Jackson paired with the hyper Scotsman, Jackie Stewart.

Jackie, frantically: "It's going to flood the racetrack! What are these cars going to do in this kind of rain?"

Keith, matter-of-factly: "They're gonna start slipping and sliding."

A lot of sports fans will read and listen to the remembrances this weekend. If they're, say, under 40, they'll probably think, "Keith Jackson also did racing? And baseball?" Yes, and basketball, the Olympics, boxing ... everything professional broadcasters at the highest level were asked to do.

But to the younger generations, he became absolutely synonymous with college football.

Over the past few decades, Division I college football has grown into a mammoth sports-entertainment industry. The role and overall importance of broadcasters is often overblown -- usually by other broadcasters, of course.

So it's tempting and would be easy to overstate Keith Jackson's role in the explosive growth of college football. But you gotta believe he played a part in it.

Reach Ken Willis at ken.willis@news-jrnl.com.

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