How John Lennon's death was announced to America during a live NFL game

·6 min read

This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

The Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots were tied with seconds remaining on the night of 8 December 1980.

As the clock stopped at three seconds, Patriots placekicker John Smith went through his warm-up routine before a field goal attempt that could win the game at Miami’s Orange Bowl Field, in front of a TV audience of millions on NFL’s Monday Night Football, live on ABC.

But as he did so, 41 years ago today, the world outside the game changed.

While Smith, who was born in Oxfordshire, got ready to kick, high above him in the commentary booth, legendary US broadcaster Howard Cosell delivered news about another Englishman that shocked the world.

NEW YORK - 6th DECEMBER: John Lennon (1940-1980) from The Beatles posed with his wife Yoko Ono at the Hit Factory recording studio in New York on 6th December 1980. Lennon was shot dead two days after this photograph was taken. (Photo by Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)
John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono in a recording studio in New York on 6 December 1980, just two days before he was killed. (Getty)
Monday Night Footbal commetaors Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford 
(Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives) 
ALEX KARRAS;HOWARD COSELL;FRANK GIFFORD
Monday Night Football commentators Howard Cosell, left, and Frank Gifford, right, broke the news that John Lennon was dead. (Getty)

His co-commentator Frank Gifford paved the way, saying on air: “Timeout is called with 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.”

What they knew in the booth was this: John Lennon had been shot dead.

“Yes, we have to say it,” began Cosell. “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.

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“Hard to go back to the game after that newsflash, which, in duty bound, we have to take.”

This was how millions of Americans learned the former Beatle had been murdered.

The breaking news had been passed to Cosell and Gifford as a result of an unlikely coincidence. An ABC news producer, Alan Weiss, happened to be in the emergency room of Roosevelt Hospital in New York after a motorcycle crash that evening, and had seen Lennon being rushed in.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono photographed on November 2, 1980 - the first time in five years that Lennon had been photographed professionally and the last comprehensive photo shoot of his life. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)
Yoko Ono and John Lennon photographed on 2 November 1980, a month before his death. (Getty)

Weiss called in the news, which eventually found its way to ABC News president Rooney Arledge, who told Cosell and Gifford in the commentary box.

Initially, Cosell was reluctant to break the news to the nation, but Gifford made a convincing argument, telling his colleague: “You’ve got to.

Read more: ’The Beatles: Get Back’ trip down memory lane is an absolute treat

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

Cosell had interviewed Lennon on two occasions, once in October 1974 on his radio show, Speaking of Everything, and again two months later, on 9 December, during half-time of a Monday Night Football game featuring the Washington Redskins and the Los Angeles Rams.

(YouTube/ABC)
Howard Cosell interviewing John Lennon during a Monday Night Football game in December 1974. (YouTube/ABC)
(Original Caption) 1982- Close-up of Television sports announcer Howard Cosell, standing alone and smiling. Photo filed 11/2/1982.
US sports broadcaster Howard Cosell informed millions of Americans of John Lennon's death. (Getty)

He could hardly have believed he would interrupt another Monday Night Football match almost six years to the day later to tell the nation Lennon was gone.

But there was one person who didn’t want the world to know. Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono, had asked the hospital not to report the news to the media until she told their five-year-old son, Sean, who was back at the family’s apartment at The Dakota building. In the end, she was able to tell him herself.

Lennon was shot outside that building by former security guard Mark David Chapman, a Beatles fan angry at the musician’s lavish lifestyle and inspired by the fictional character Holden Caulfield from the 1951 JD Salinger novel, The Catcher in the Rye.

Earlier that evening, Chapman had waited outside The Dakota for Lennon, who signed his killer’s copy of the album Double Fantasy. The brief exchange was captured in a photograph by a Lennon fan.

A mug-shot of Mark David Chapman, who shot and killed John Lennon, is displayed on the 25th anniversary of Lennon's death at the NYPD in New York December 8, 2005. Chapman is currently imprisoned at Attica State Prison in New York, serving a 20-year-to-life sentence after pleading guilty to 2nd degree murder.
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A mugshot of Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon and is still in prison. (Getty)
(Original Caption) New York: Distraught fans of ex-Beatle John Lennon gather outside his apartment building (the Dakota on CPW), late December 8, after he was gunned down by a man identified as Mark David Chapman, 25, of Hawaii.
Distraught fans of John Lennon gather outside The Dakota building in New York after his death. (Getty)

Chapman said later: “He was very kind to me. Ironically, very kind and was very patient with me.

“The limousine was waiting… and he took his time with me and he got the pen going and he signed my album. He asked me if I needed anything else. I said, 'No. No sir.' And he walked away. Very cordial and decent man.”

Later in the evening, when Lennon and Ono returned from a recording session, Chapman fired five hollow-point bullets from a .38 special revolver, four of which hit Lennon in the back - not two as Cosell had said in his broadcast.

Chapman stayed at the scene, and was found reading his copy of The Catcher in the Rye when he was arrested by police. Lennon was rushed in a police car to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

He was cremated the next day and Ono asked that, instead of a funeral, 10 minutes of silence be held around the world on 14 December.

People gathered around Strawberry Field Imagine mosaic in Central Park in New Yokr on december 8, 2020 to remember John Lennon 40 years after his death. John Lennon was killed 40 years on this day of December 8. (Photo by Lev Radin/Sipa USA)
People lay tributes to John Lennon at the Imagine mosaic in Strawberry Fields, Central Park, New York, on the 40th anniversary of his death last year. (PA)

Chapman, who pleaded guilty to murder, was given a sentence of 20 years-to-life in prison. He has been eligible for parole since 2000, but has been denied 11 times.

Music fans still flock to the area of Central Park where Lennon used to walk, which was named Strawberry Fields by the city of New York five years after his death.

Read more: John Lennon’s killer apologises to Yoko Ono for his ‘despicable act’

In the seconds after his death was announced to millions watching an NFL game, New England Patriots kicker John Smith, who grew up a Beatles fan, missed the field goal that would have given his side victory.

The players didn’t find out about his death until journalists told them in the locker room afterwards.

PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 26: Kicker John Smith #1 of the New England Patriots on the sideline during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium on September 26, 1976 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
New England Patriots placekicker John Smith was about to attempt a field goal when Americans were told that John Lennon had died. (Getty Images)

"I was upset and mad because we didn't make the kick,” Smith told ESPN in 2010.

"The press was talking about two things: the fact that we'd lost the game and we had a lead in the fourth quarter, and then it changed to John Lennon.

“It put things in perspective."

Watch: The Beatles family members attend Get Back documentary premiere

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