John Lennon was killed while returning to his New York City apartment on December 8, 1980. That evening, as Patriots kicker John Smith jogged onto the field to attempt a fourth-quarter game-winning field goal on ABC's MNF, Howard Cosell announced the news.
Cosell was friendly with Lennon. He had interviewed him for a brief MNF segment in 1974, asking in his characteristic loud, staccato style, "what's your general impression of the game, as compared with A. rugby, and B. soccer-football?" Lennon, of course, was a gracious subject. He told Cosell that American football "makes rock concerts look like tea parties," and then the odd pair sent it off to Frank Gifford together:
Six years later, Cosell and Gifford received news of Lennon's death in the booth. The Patriots and the Dolphins were tied up, 13-13, with three seconds remaining in regulation. The commentators briefly debated whether or not it was appropriate to announce the news on-air. ESPN "Outside the Lines" has that clip here.
"I just can't see this game situation allowing for that newsflash," Cosell said, "can you?" "Absolutely," Gifford told him. "It's a tragic moment and this is going to shake up the whole world."
Cosell went ahead and made the call just before the Dolphins blocked Smith's kick attempt. Miami won in overtime, 16-13.
It's difficult to imagine now, of course, that an in-game announcement would break the news to millions of viewers nationwide. A handful changes to the media circuit since then have made that more or less impossible. But for most Americans watching that game in December 1980, it likely was fresh news that Mark David Chapman had shot and killed Lennon. "Hard to go back to the game after that news flash," Cosell added as Smith prepared to kick, "which in duty bound, we have to take." And then they watched the Dolphins block Smith's attempt.
Cosell (who famously said of himself, "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am.") died in 1995.
John Lennon would have been 70 years old today.