Friday, April 23, 2010

Telling It Like It Was

I don't know whether Howard Cosell listened to and enjoyed the music of Frank Sinatra — in hindsight, it seems odd not to know that because we knew Cosell's opinions on just about everything else.

But when considering Cosell's life, matching him with anyone else seems inappropriate.

They were contemporaries, quite close, in fact, to the same age (Sinatra was a little more than two years older). And, while Sinatra sang about "doin' it my way," that was how Cosell lived his life.

If someone ever does a film about the life of Howard Cosell, I think Sinatra's music should be the soundtrack.

Cosell certainly did things his way. Or, to paraphrase his own catchphrase, he told it like it was.

We knew that Cosell liked his ten–dollar words, which tended to make him come off as elitist, aloof. He couldn't resist the temptation. Maybe it was his legal training. Maybe he just always had a fondness for big words. But he just couldn't restrain himself, even on the most somber of occasions.

Like Dec. 8, 1980, when I and millions of people who were watching Monday Night Football learned from Cosell that John Lennon had been killed.
"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."

"Unspeakable" struck some people as a bit much, but that was just Cosell expressing himself. Besides, to those of us who were Beatles fans, the murder of John Lennon really was unspeakable.

No other word was adequate.

Cosell definitely had his own style, and he was really famous, I suppose, for two things — his longtime affiliation with Muhammad Ali and his years with Monday Night Football. The stories of each could be books in themselves.

Ali and Cosell had something of a symbiotic relationship. Cosell did the ringside duty for most of Ali's early fights, then he made a name for himself as part of the Monday Night Football broadcasting crew.

But Cosell often seemed to be on top of the American sports scene — long before ESPN.

His astonished call during the Frazier–Foreman fight — "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" — has become part of sports lexicon. He also covered the Bobby Riggs–Billie Jean King "Battle of the Sexes" and Olympics competition for ABC, including the murders of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Games.

When the subject was Cosell, you seldom found fence sitters. People either really liked him or really hated him, but it was a funny kind of hatred. People didn't hate him to the extent that they wouldn't watch Monday Night Football. Instead, they tuned in in huge numbers, hoping to witness the rare moments when he was caught unprepared. The meticulous Cosell brought the kind of in–depth reporting to sports that once was the hallmark of hard news coverage, and he was rarely unprepared. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, some enterprising bar owners sponsored contests, with winners getting the chance to throw a brick or something else that was big and heavy at Cosell's image on an old TV.

It's hard to believe it was 15 years ago today that Cosell died. In all honesty, I think his death was overshadowed by the Oklahoma City bombing four days earlier and the memorial service for the victims that was held only hours after Cosell's death.

Cosell's death may not have received the attention it deserved, but his absence has been felt.

He was one of a kind.

And he definitely did things his way.

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