There was no CNN, there was no FOX News. There was no MSNBC, there was no Internet. There was no ESPN. On the night of December 8, 1980, an "unspeakable tragedy" was first announced to the world by Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football.
ESPN has the full story of how the news unfolded, including off-air audio from inside the booth during which Cosell wonders whether they should interrupt the game (which was coming down to a late field goal and headed into overtime).
COSELL: "Fellas, I can't see this game situation allowing for that newsflash. Can you?"
FRANK GIFFORD: "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."
GIFFORD: "Don't hang on it. It's a tragic moment and this is going to shake up the whole world."
COSELL: "Alright. I will get it in. Let Giff call this play and then I'll get it in."
December 8 is my brother's birthday. I was in my first semester at UCSB when John Lennon was shot. I should have been studying for finals but was instead watching a Monday Night Football game featuring two teams about which I cared not a whit. When the news was delivered it was like a gut punch. It was startling, hard to fathom. I wasn't sure I'd heard it right. John Lennon got shot?? John Lennon got shot. John Lennon is dead?? John Lennon is dead.
I was never the hugest Beatles fan. I liked them well enough, appreciated their genius, but for some people they were like air. They breathed the Beatles, even in 1980. Lennon had only released his "comeback album," Double Fantasy, a couple of weeks earlier. He was upping his profile. He'd moved to New York, walked the streets seemingly with relish, joyfully opening up, embracing his legions of fans and practically shouting his love for Yoko and for life. "Starting Over" was #1 with a bullet. He was everywhere. And then he was gone. And the turning of the world seemed to stop for a moment. It was like that.
There was one kid in our dorm hall, whom we already knew was a huge Beatles fan, who had the Apple logo poster on his wall before December 8. He didn't come out of his room for what seemed like a day and a half. He wouldn't answer our knocks at the door. The RA finally called the campus police, and they used a pass key to open the door. The kid was in there lying on his bed, practically catatonic, with headphones on, listening to his Beatles records.
It was, quite simply, second perhaps only to the Challenger disaster, the most shocking event of my young adulthood. It was my generation's Kennedy moment.
RIP John Lennon.