Howard Cosell always viewed himself as a serious journalist somewhat miscast in the role of television commentator for mere athletic competitions.
But on the night of Dec. 8, 1980, he reluctantly was thrust into the center of one of the era’s biggest news stories — the murder of former Beatle John Lennon.
The first many Americans heard of Lennon being shot outside his Upper West Side apartment building came in the final seconds of regulation time of a "Monday Night Football" game between the Patriots and Dolphins that was tied at 13.
And Cosell was not merely relaying news that had been reported elsewhere. This was an ABC News scoop, one generated by happenstance.
A young WABC-TV producer named Alan Weiss had gotten into a motorcycle accident on Central Park West that night and found himself at Roosevelt Hospital shortly before Lennon was taken there.
Weiss overheard policemen talking about an incoming patient being Lennon, and later he saw and heard Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono, react to doctors’ confirmation of his death.
In a recent interview with Newsday to promote a new ABC7 documentary about that night, Weiss recounted how he observed the indelible scene, then found a phone and called in the news despite his serious injuries.
But even after ABC News had confirmed what occurred, the "Monday Night Football" crew had to decide what to do with the information.
Producer Bob Goodrich spoke to Roone Arledge, president of both ABC News and Sports, then informed Cosell, who expressed reservations about making the announcement on the air during a close, important game.
His play-by-play partner, Frank Gifford, convinced him to do it.
In a remarkable exchange during a commercial break in the final minute of regulation time, the former athlete convinced the seasoned journalist that he had to go with the story.
In a 2010 "Outside the Lines" segment that recalled that night, ESPN shared audio of the off-air conversation, in which Cosell informs Gifford and analyst Fran Tarkenton of the Lennon news, then says this:
"Fellas, I just don’t know. I’d like your opinion. I can’t see this game situation allowing for that news flash. Can you?"
Gifford responds, "Absolutely, I can see it."
Cosell: "You can?"
Gifford: "You betcha. You’ve got to. If we know it, we’ve got to do it . . . Don’t hang on it. It’s a tragic moment, and this is going to shake up the entire world."
Cosell: "All right. I’ll get it in."
The score was tied at the Orange Bowl as the Patriots twice ran Chuck Foreman up the middle to wind down the clock and give kicker John Smith a shot at a winning field goal with three seconds remaining.
(Smith is British, and when his Patriots teammates forced the rookie to sing during training camp in 1973, he always chose Beatles songs. "My high school period was the middle ‘60s, and the Beatles were the No. 1 group in Europe, and they were the love of England," he told ESPN in 2010. "Everybody had Beatles records. We all grew the Beatles haircuts.")
As Smith prepared for his 35-yard attempt, Gifford said, "I don’t care what’s on the line. Howard, you have got to say what we know in the booth."
Said Cosell, using sparse language in vintage, news-bulletin style, "Yes, we have got to say it. Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses.
"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 Hospital. Dead on arrival.
"Hard to go back to the game after that news flash, which in duty bound we had to tell you. Frank?"
Said Gifford, "Indeed it is."
Smith’s field-goal attempt was blocked, sending the game to overtime, during which Cosell repeated the news for viewers who might have missed it. The Dolphins won, 16-13, on a 23-yard field goal by Uwe von Schamann.
By then the news was spreading around the world. But Cosell’s announcement was how a significant chunk of the American public first heard about Lennon’s death.
That television season, "Monday Night Football" was only the 20th-highest-rated program in the United States, but its average rating was around double what the top shows of 2020 draw as a percentage of homes.
Goodrich said in the 2010 "Outside the Lines" story that he knew Cosell would be upset by the news because Lennon was a friend. (Cosell had interviewed him during a Monday night game six years earlier.)
In 2010, Gifford, who died in 2015, said, "Howard, I think, probably would have just liked to cancel the telecast at that point."
“An unspeakable tragedy, confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City . . . “
— Howard Cosell