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Howard Cosell took refuge in his greatness


Howard Cosell ate breakfast that morning in a big booth at The Roost at the Cross Keys Inn, sitting all by himself, which naturally caused me to declare, "Look, there's Howard Cosell, surrounded by all his friends."

It was an easy line, and a mean one. Cosell was here for the Preakness. He was at his bombastic, self-inflated, sometimes self-parodic peak back then, back in the early '80s, back when he was so much larger than life that you had to needle him to give yourself some breathing room. But now he was sitting there like some kid in the junior high school cafeteria who can't find anybody to be friends with him.

I was with Ted Venetoulis, who has a much kinder spirit than I. He wanted to say hello to Cosell. I was afraid we'd get kissed off, which is almost what happened.

"Mr. Cosell," said Venetoulis, as we stood over him, "it's a pleasure to have you in Baltimore."

Cosell never looked up from his breakfast. He sat there sallow and hunched, hands trembling, refusing to lift his eyes toward us. It didn't seem so much rudeness as self-defense, something learned by a former school kid so accustomed to being ridiculed if he lifts up his head that he's learned to keep it down, avoid all eye contact, and retreat to safe ground when he can.

Venetoulis and I stood there for a moment, looked at each other and hoped nobody was watching us in our embarrassment, and started to walk away when we heard the familiar Cosell staccato.

"No. 1 sportscaster in America," he started in the familiar delivery. In that time, everyone in America not only knew it, but did his own version of it, full of polysyllabic bravado, full of dramatic, overstated rhythms, full of itself. We turned back to him.

"No. 1 sportscaster in America," he said again, still not lifting his eyes. "New York University law school. Editor of the law review." He was giving us, uninvited, out of context, a full listing of his credits, or else reminding himself of them. He was Cosell doing the full Cosell.

We talked with him for several minutes. He'd had trouble here a few years earlier, at the '79 World Series, when some thugs attacked his limousine. Now he was calling Baltimore "the most dangerous sports town in America."

"Wait a minute," I said. "Are you saying that the worst night in Baltimore is worse than a normal night in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium?"

He backtracked to a recitation of his credits: No. 1 sportscaster in America, he said again. He seemed a man accustomed to being under attack, and suffering combat fatigue from it. When he died Sunday, at 77, he was described by those who knew him as isolated and embittered, feeling that his greatness was unappreciated.

He was, as in so many other things, right. Was he full of himself? Yes, of course. Did he overstate the case so much that sometimes overshadowed the event he was covering? Absolutely.

But he also brought an adult intelligence and a social perspective to sportscasting that had never been heard before. And he'd paid a price for it. Sometimes, he was afraid to look up and notice people who admired him. He knew that as many people hated him as loved him. Some people still haven't figured out why.

Cosell wasn't descended from the jockocracy. He wasn't one of those bland, inoffensive former jocks who know everything about cut-back blocks and isolating the wide receiver but make it a point never to express a controversial remark about someone in the jock fraternity. Thus, where did Cosell's authority come from? Who made him such an expert?

(Cosell) "usurped the territory formerly owned by the sports fans themselves," Frank DeFord wrote in Sports Illustrated years ago. "The whole point of being a sports fan is to have an opinion, and argue with other sports fans. But here came an announcer who had never split a seam in his life, and he was spewing opinions and making statements.

"Sports fans couldn't argue among themselves at the bar anymore. Instead, they had to argue with Howard Cosell. Or worse than that, the alternative: They had to agree with Howard Cosell."

Those who cheer Cosell's contributions say his intelligence, his devotion to social causes, his sense of fairness, forever changed the sound of sports broadcasting. The pity of it is this: They're wrong. Because, since his retirement, try naming someone who's taken his place.

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