On this night, 40 years ago, the world learned of John Lennon’s death in a very unconventional way. Perhaps one of the most iconic ties to famed sports broadcaster Howard Cosell was the end of ABC’s Monday Night Football game between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots on Dec. 8, 1980.
Patriots kicker John Smith lined up for a game-tying field goal with :03 second left in regulation as Cosell was one of the first people trying to process the news he was about to break live to the world.
“Remember this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,” said Cosell. “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 newsflash”
How the news of Lennon’s death got back to the ABC Newsroom and then relayed to the broadcast booth in South Florida is a story within itself and literally came by accident. Alan Weiss, a WABC-TV producer in New York, had gotten into a motorcycle accident and was taken to Roosevelt Hospital that evening. According to The New York Post, he was waiting for treatment and another patient in the next room was given higher priority over Weiss due to multiple gunshot wounds.
“A curious Weiss peeked into the next room as the commotion and frenzy were almost too much to resist. When he looked into the room, Weiss claimed to see several doctors working in a fevered panic. One, in fact, had his hands inside the victim’s chest cavity. As he learned from their whispers, the patient was John Lennon.”
As hard as it is to believe, Lennon, who was 40 when he was murdered by Mark David Chapman, has been gone the same amount of time he was alive. A revolutionary advocate for peace and progress, the Beatles front man is remembered through his lyrics, which are still as popular today as they were back in the era of the 1960’s. Some may say he was a dreamer, but he wasn’t the only one. Lennon and his supporters imagined a world of togetherness without possessions, greed, or hunger. A vision he called “A brotherhood of man” with people “Sharing all the world.”
Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, called for an end to gun violence on the 40th anniversary of her late husband’s assassination. She was one of the only witnesses to the killing. Chapman was sentenced to 20 years to life for Lennon’s murder. At a parole hearing several years ago, he apologized for the killing saying, “I am sorry for being such an idiot and choosing the wrong way for glory.” Chapman remains in prison to this day.
According to New York rock station WNEW-FM 102.7, they immediately suspended all programming and opened its lines to calls from listeners. Other stations throughout the country, regardless of format, switched to special programming devoted to Lennon and/or Beatles music. At the same time millions of people across the world gathered together to mourn the loss of the generational icon.
The news traveled a lot differently in that era and would be dramatically different if the same events happened today. “Just like Kennedy’s assassination, history now remembers that as being announced by Walter Cronkite,” Syracuse Professor Robert Thompson recalled on WBT’s Bo Thompson Morning Show Tuesday.
“He took off his glasses. He fought back a tear. We think of that news in the voice of Walter Cronkite. I think that’s true of Howard Cosell and John Lennon, because so many people were watching Monday Night Football.”
Lennon’s legacy lives on. The Beatles haven’t released a studio album in 50 years, but are still the best selling music act of all time, with estimated sales of 600 million units worldwide.
Listen to the entire interview with Dr. Robert Thompson on WBT’s Bo Thompson Morning Show below.