Heads turned when CBS anchorwoman Katie Couric, Orioles owner Peter Angelos and network sportscasters Bob Costas and Jim Nantz walked to their seats yesterday at the funeral service for Jim McKay.

Also there, melting into a back pew, was Jeff Jerome.

Who?

"I'm nobody. I just wanted to pay my respects," said Jerome, of Annapolis, as he left the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. "There are a lot of big names here; I'm just part of the common folk who never met Jim McKay but who grew up watching him on TV.

"I always felt like he was talking to me. He was a friend, and I wanted to be part of his going away."

Nearly 600 people gathered at the cathedral on North Charles Street to pay homage to McKay, the longtime anchor for Olympics coverage and the host of television's long-running Wide World of Sports. He was remembered as a man who connected with his audience as if he were sitting with them in their living room.

McKay, born James McManus, died Saturday at age 86 at his horse farm in Monkton.

"Arriving in Baltimore, I met a cabdriver who said, 'We lost Jim McKay today,'" said his son, Sean McManus. "He didn't say, 'Jim McKay died today.' That speaks volumes about what my dad meant to people."

McKay proved a master at using words as his brush and television pictures as his tableau, said Monsignor Nicholas P. Amato, his parish priest at Our Lady of Grace in Parkton.

"I could show you a picture of roses, but Jim could make you smell them," Amato said.

"Jim could say a thousand things in just a few words," said Doug Wilson, an ABC-TV sports producer. "The rest of us would work all week on Wide World of Sports. Then Jim would put his verbal frosting on our cake."

Nantz, the main voice of CBS Sports, grew up glued to the television on Saturday afternoons as McKay led America on Magellan-like sports travels in search of "the human drama of athletic competition."

"He was a poet, a storyteller, a modern-day explorer who took us around the world with breathless enthusiasm," Nantz said.

"Jim McKay taught us how to enjoy sports that we didn't even know existed," said Jo Trueschler of Cedarcroft. "And with all of that, you could tell that he loved his family. Once, while describing the Olympics parade, he said, 'If Margaret [McKay's wife] could see this pattern, she could make a sweater of it.'"

That familiarity comforted viewers, said Bob Bailey of Sparks. He remembers McKay for "his gentling influence on a nation in really tumultuous times," referring to the sportscaster's marathon on-air stint during the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972.

"Jim displayed journalistic qualities that are in short supply now" among his ilk, said Costas, the NBC sportscaster. "He didn't yell or scream. He knew he could do a good job and still be a gentleman.

"He was a gracious and courtly man."

But McKay had a competitive side as well, said Wilson. Once, while driving his producer to the airport in Paris, McKay became obsessed with passing a black Mercedes that had cut them off earlier.

As the cars raced through the French countryside, "it was like Snoopy had come down from the top of his doghouse to take on the Red Baron," Wilson said. "Finally, Jim floored it and passed the Mercedes.

"When we reached the airport, this great commentator got out of the car, looked at me and said, 'Don't tell Margaret.'"

Globehopping aside, McKay held an unabashed love for horse racing and Maryland, his adopted home, according to those who knew him. It was no coincidence that yesterday's service ended with the playing of "Maryland, My Maryland."

Phil Simms, a CBS football analyst and former Giants quarterback, recalled how McKay cornered him in the broadcast booth before a Ravens game in Baltimore in 2000.

"He spent an hour telling us about his team," Simms said. "When he finished, I turned to my partner and said, 'Jim did all of our homework for us.'"

McKay was also a minority partner in Angelos' ownership group of the Orioles. Leaving yesterday's service, Angelos said McKay was "very likely the finest person I've ever known."

But nothing meant more to McKay than family.

"Each morning, my father would come into the kitchen, toast an English muffin, cover it with butter and jam ... and offer it to my mom for the first bite," McManus said. "And Mom would always say, 'Mmmm, tastes good.'"

Sometimes, while finishing the muffin, McKay would turn to his wife and say:

"You know, Margaret, in this light, your skin looks as beautiful as it did 68 years ago when we met at The Evening Sun."

"That wasn't a line, either," McManus said. "My father would say that to her all the time."

With the affection shown yesterday in their farewells to him, colleagues and friends were glad that McKay's family had shared him with the world.

Standing on the steps of the cathedral as the bell tolled after Mass, Armen Keteyian looked out across the group of mourners and said, "It's like a head of state has died.

"He [McKay] was the head of our state - the state of sports and broadcast journalism," said Keteyian, an eight-time Emmy award-winner for his work in network sports journalism. " I mean, it is really something to be thought of as the poet laureate of sports broadcasting - and that's what he is."

Jackie Stewart, the former Formula 1 race car driver and television commentator, shared many a broadcast and a deep friendship with McKay. And as he noted yesterday, the two men also shared a certain stature.

"We formed a 'Guild of Average Height,'" Stewart said. "When Jim interviewed me, there were no complications at all.

"But Jim McKay was no man of average height. He was a giant."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Sun television critic David Zurawik contributed to this article.

ONLINE
See video from the funeral service for Jim McKay at baltimoresun.com/mckay