Millions of Americans watched on Dec. 8, 1980 when Howard Cosell announced during a Monday Night Football game that John Lennon had been shot and killed in New York. And two former Vikings stars have a link to what unfolded that night on television.
Hall of fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton was the third announcer in the ABC booth that night, alongside Cosell and Frank Gifford. And running back Chuck Foreman, who was finishing his career that season with the New England Patriots after seven years with the Vikings, ran the ball for the final two times in his NFL career leading into Cosell’s epic announcement.
“That is something, that’s for sure,” Foreman said as the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s death approaches Tuesday. “I’m on the field and Fran is in the booth. We accomplished a lot together, that’s for sure. That would be a trivia question that not many people would be able to answer.”
Tarkenton played for the Vikings from 1961-66 and 1972-78 and was a fill-in analyst that night for Don Meredith. Foreman played for the Vikings from 1973-79, spending six seasons as Tarkenton’s teammate and going to three Super Bowls with him.
The Patriots were playing the Miami Dolphins at the Orange Bowl in the third-to-last week of the NFL season when ABC news officials learned that Lennon, the legendary former star with the Beatles, had died after being shot outside his New York apartment. The score was tied 13-13 in the final minute of regulation, and the Patriots were running the clock down for a John Smith field-goal attempt on the last play.
In an era well before social media, ABC decided the bombastic Cosell, then the nation’s most well-known sportscaster, would be the one to announce Lennon’s death. After a 3-yard run by Foreman to the Miami 20, Cosell told viewers with 30 seconds left and the clock moving that things had “suddenly been placed in total perspective,” adding, “I’ll finish this. They’re in a hurry-up offense.”
Facing third-and-4, the Patriots gave the ball to Foreman again, and he gained two yards up the middle. Gifford, the play-by-play announcer, called the action on the play.
“Foreman,” Gifford said. “It’ll be fourth down. (Quarterback Matt) Cavanaugh will let it run down for one final attempt. He’ll let the seconds tick off and give Miami no opportunity whatsoever. Time is called. Three seconds remaining. John Smith is on the line, and I don’t care what’s on the line, Howard, you have got to say what we know in the booth.”
That’s when Cosell announced the news of Lennon’s death at age 40.
“Yes, we have to say it,” he said. “Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. 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, which in duty bound, we have to take, Frank.”
Soon after, Smith’s 35-yard field-goal attempt was blocked, and Miami won 16-13 in overtime. But the outcome of the game had become inconsequential to many after Cosell’s announcement.
“It was really just a crazy, crazy thing, and that’s what I remember about it,” Foreman said of Lennon’s death. “Shocking, to be quite honest with you, because he was such a man for the people.”
Cosell died in 1995 and Gifford in 2015, making Tarkenton, 80, the only surviving member of the announcing team. Efforts to reach Tarkenton for this story were unsuccessful.
“Today is John Lennon’s birthday — he would have turned 73 today,” Tarkenton wrote on Facebook on Oct. 9, 2013, including a video from the 1980 game. “I still remember sitting next to Howard Cosell on #MNF when he made the announcement.”
In a 2010 ESPN “Outside the Lines” segment, Gifford said Tarkenton also had heard in the booth on his headset the news about Lennon’s death before it was broadcast by Cosell.
“They’re trying to reach (producer) Roone Arledge,” Gifford said in 2010. “Howard Cosell says, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’ And, of course, Fran and I look at each other in trying to keep track of a very important football game.”
Until he was sent a video of the game by a reporter, Foreman did not realize he had been the ball carrier on the plays leading up to Cosell’s announcement. They were his only two rushes of the game.
“It’s kind of weird,” he said after watching it. “That was really a sad day. I don’t know if I want to be remembered as the guy (running the ball) before Howard Cosell making a comment, but I guess that’s a part of that history now, I suppose.”
Lennon was shot by Mark David Chapman, who remains in prison. Foreman heard about his death shortly after the game.
“We’d been through the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and all that (in the 1960s), and then years later you’re going through it with John Lennon,” said Foreman, 70, who lives in Eden Prairie.
Foreman was a star with the Vikings, making five Pro Bowls and rushing for 1,000 yards in three seasons. But after having knee issues and rushing for just 223 yards in 1979, he was traded to New England in 1980.
Foreman was an afterthought in his final NFL season, rushing for just 63 yards. He played in the final two games of the season for the Patriots, who did not make the playoffs, but didn’t run or catch the ball.
“It was pretty frustrating,” Foreman said. “That year, I pretty much blanked out.”
But after watching video from the 1980 game, Foreman can profess to one memory from that season.
“Now, I can say that when John Lennon got killed, this is what I was doing,” he said.