Few people remember who won Dec. 8, 1980’s Monday Night Football game between the Patriots and Dolphins. The game isn’t famous for any particular play or moment on the field. It’s most remembered because it was how the world learned that John Lennon was dead.
Mark David Chapman shot Lennon four times outside of his New York apartment earlier that night. He died en route to the hospital. Shortly thereafter, legendary sports broadcaster Howard Cosell broke the tragic news to the world.
“Remember: This is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,” Cosell said. “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.”
It was the first major announcement of his death. And it’s still likely the most memorable.
Death of John Lennon Split ‘MNF’ Booth Over What to Do
What people didn’t hear, was the behind-the-scenes back and forth between the Cosell and Frank Gifford. ESPN’s Outside the Lines released audio of the incident on the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death. The two Monday Night Football hosts were at odds over what to do. Cosell didn’t want to break the news.
For one, he and Lennon were friends. Cosell had interviewed him several times over the years. He also felt with a few seconds left in a tie football game, that perhaps it would be better to let the ABC News program Nightline handle it. Gifford told him the obvious. This was too big to ignore, regardless of the game.
“You’ve got to. If we know it, we’ve got to do it … Don’t hang on it,” the former NFL quarterback told him. “It’s a tragic moment and this is going to shake-up the whole world.”
With only three seconds left in the game and the Patriots preparing for the potential game-winning field goal, Cosell broke the hearts of millions of people around the world.
The Dolphins blocked the kick and would go on to win in overtime. But few people were paying attention by that point.
“I thought (Cosell) handled it extraordinarily well,” Gifford recalled in the Outside the Lines story. “… You look back and it was almost primitive in the way it was handled. We informed millions and millions of people that one of the great people in showbiz had been assassinated.”