Howard Cosell broke the news of John Lennon’s death on ‘Monday Night Football’ 40 years ago today

Don Meredith, Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford in 1980, wearing matching blazers with an ABC patch.
Commentators, from left, Don Meredith, Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford in 1980.
(Steve Fenn / Associated Press)

Howard Cosell didn’t know what to do.

He and his fellow “Monday Night Football” announcers Frank Gifford and Don Meredith were broadcasting the New England Patriots-Miami Dolphins game on Dec. 8, 1980. It was late in the fourth quarter of a tie game when the booth received a scoop from ABC News.

Former Beatle John Lennon had been shot and killed.


Cosell had interviewed Lennon twice on TV years earlier — including once on “MNF” — and, according to Rustin Dodd of the Athletic, had once tried to talk Lennon into reuniting the Beatles for a performance on a program he hosted.

In 2010, ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” made public an off-air discussion between Cosell and Gifford on what to do with news of such significance during a football telecast.

“I’d like your opinion. I can’t see this game situation allowing for that news flash, can you?” Cosell asked.

“Absolutely, I can see it,” Gifford responded.

“You can?” Cosell asked.

“You betcha. If we know it, we’ve got to do it,” Gifford replied. “Don’t hang on this. It’s a tragic moment. This is going to shake up the whole world.”

In 1974, Muhammad Ali appeared on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” with Joe Frazier to talk with Howard Cosell about their upcoming heavyweight title rematch.

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“All right. I will get it in,” Cosell said.

As Patriots kicker John Smith took the field to attempt a game-winning field goal, Gifford made sure Cosell followed through with his promise.

“Three seconds remaining, John Smith is on the line,” Gifford said on the air. “And I don’t care what’s on the line, Howard, you have got to say what we know in the booth.”

With that, Cosell informed the world of the tragic news.

“Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,” he 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.

“Hard to go back to the game after that news flash.”