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The Heidi Game 50 years later; Those who remember the end won’t forget it, those who don’t, won’t believe it

NBC's play-by-play voice Curt Gowdy: "The Heidi Game was the greatest promotion the AFL ever had."

Howard Katz, NFL broadcast head: “That couldn’t and wouldn’t happen today. And yes, social media would certainly erupt.”

The Heidi Game could never happen now but it did then, fifty years ago this Saturday, November 17, 1968. It’s  been talked about since.

NBC’s national telecast of the Oakland Raiders-New York Jets game turned into a fiasco. Football fans who witnessed a dominant network break away from a meaningful and tight game in the final minute will never forget it. In fact, in 1997, the game was listed as the most memorable NFL regular season matchup ever.

Leading up to it that fall, sports on television were being upstaged by exogenous forces. Just a few weeks earlier, there were political statements made on two center stages of sports. A huge American constituency considered both of them blasphemous; disrespectful of our great nation.

At World Series game # 5 on October 7th, Jose Feliciano strummed the traditional national anthem in tinkered fashion. While the words he sang were verbatim, his subdued version of the time-honored melody was almost unrecognizable. The NBC switchboard lit up.

The following week on October 16th at the triumphant medal ceremony at the Mexico City Olympics, two African-American athletes, raised a black-gloved fist during the traditional playing of the national anthem. The two, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were demonized by many. ABC, running the games, heard about it in droves from viewers across the country.

Weeks later, on that unforgettable football Sunday in November, it wasn’t a political undertone that rattled viewers; rather an intersection of television, entertainment and sports, exacerbated by an inability of executives to communicate in a still analog world.

By 1968, the Raiders and Jets had a heated history.

In 1963, Weeb Ewbank, the Jets coach and general manager felt hoodwinked by the Raiders savvy and shrewd general manager Al Davis. Oakland  had traded Dan Ficca to the Jets during training camp but Davis didn’t forewarn Ewbank that Ficca wouldn’t be released from military duty for weeks.  Ewbank never trusted Davis afterward and it was the beginning of bad blood between the teams. In fact, it was said that when Ewbank saw a low-flying plane over the Jets practice field the week before an Oakland game, he pointed to it and said that’s Davis spying on us.

By late in the 1968 season, the two teams had grown into bitter rivals and were contending for the league championship. Joe Namath gave the brash, younger American Football League needed glitz. It already had the brawn with brutes like the Raiders’ Ben Davidson.

A year earlier,  Davidson broke Namath’s cheekbone and told a reporter he didn’t care. Now, both teams were 7-2 and had their ultimate sights on the Super Bowl to prove the AFL’s worth. Namath said that “the Raiders were a mean group. In the NFL back then, the name of the game was ‘Kill the Quarterback’ and the MVP was the ‘Most Valuable Physician.’”

To that backdrop, it’s important to also note that in New York, where the Giants reigned supreme for decades, the Jets were trying to steal some thunder. Memories of the Giants’ winning years of the early ‘60s were fading. The team had gone 1-12-1 in 1966 and in that ’68 season the Giants were about to finish 7-7 for a second straight season. The Jets were making some noise and garnering headlines. For the first time, they were part of the regular subject of football conversation.

The rise of the Jets stuck to the ribs of Giants owner Wel Mara. In a controversial call at a time when the the New York rivals were playing at overlapping times, the Giants’ iconic radio announcer, Marty Glickman, used his radio pulpit to urge Jets fans at Shea Stadium to chant, “Go, Giants Go.” In the Bay Area at the time, the Niners were so-so. They finished 7-6-1, and didn’t have the brawn or luster of their competitors across the bay.

Earlier, in 1964, when both the Yankees and Giants played at Yankee Stadium, Jets’ owner Sonny Werblin took out an ad on the subway platform leading to the ballpark. It wished the Yankees well in their World Series against the Cardinals. He was sticking it in the Giants’ face.

Media consumption then might have been a planet apart from where it is today. Cable programming wasn’t born yet. There were three networks in virtually all markets and local independents in larger ones. That was it. At that point, in their wildest imaginations, great innovators like Steve Jobs, Paul Allen and Bill Gates hadn’t fantasized about the internet or Smartphones. Compared to today, it was a primitive world.

Visionary Charles Dolan was beginning to put up wiring in Manhattan buildings to give New York its first CATV (Community Antenna Television), the prelude to cable. The monolithic networks, CBS, NBC and ABC, were essentially unchallengeable. They were the first and last stops for viewers. CNN and ESPN were still a decade away and it would be longer than that before Fox was born.

In 1968, NBC, under Julian Goodman, was looking for a big ratings number against a younger demographic. The night of the Jets-Raiders telecast which was scheduled to begin at 4pm, the network scheduled Heidi, a made for television movie, directed by Delbert Mann. The network’s ad sellers nailed down a big order. Timex made a huge monetary commitment to sponsor the show in its entirety, buying the full three hour time-slot.

Pro football games in those days had never gone more than three hours so NBC didn’t envision a conflict issue, time wise.  Headline quarterbacks at the time, Namath and the Raiders’ Daryle Lamonica would face one another.

As the game evolved, there were incomplete passes, penalties, a fight and an ejection. It caused a longer contest than NBC management anticipated and it was getting dangerously close to 7pm Eastern when Heidi was scheduled.

Making programming changes on the fly in those days was not the instantaneous and seamless process that it is today, when video is delivered by satellite. The use of coaxial cable then to transmit video to NBC affiliates required a number of steps at different parts of the country. It also involved AT&T which was engaged in some of the line switching.

With big money at stake from Timex  and an opportunity to cultivate a younger audience, NBC made it clear to its head of broadcast operations, Dick Cline, to switch to the movie at 7pm, come hell or high water. Ironically, Timex, the watch company, used what can be considered a football twist for its sales slogan, “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”

As the game lagged, Julian Goodman, NBC’s president and his network’s sports executives were all at home getting antsy. Neither is alive today, not Goodman nor then NBC Sports president Carl Lindemann and his retinue of lieutenants, Chet Simmons and Scotty Connol. Each had only one landline which if in use, rendered them inaccessible. Remember the old busy signal. This is fifty years ago, not today. Cell phones wouldn’t be used conventionally for some thirty years.

As it appeared that the game would extend beyond 7pm (albeit no overtime in regular season those years), the sports execs got Goodman to agree to wait for the game to finish before starting Heidi.

In the half hour leading to 7pm, heterogeneous viewers began flooding the NBC telephone exchange restlessly. Some wanted to know whether Heidi would start on time and others wanted to make sure that the game wouldn’t be cut. It wound up jamming all NBC’s telephone circuits just while Goodman was desperately trying to reach Cline in the control room to change his original marching orders. No one could reach Cline and they felt helpless.

Meanwhile, as the clock ticked down inexorably, the Jets had just scored on a Jim Turner field goal to go up 32-29 with 1:05 to go. I imagine that NBC’s brass at that point had this last-gasp feeling, at least figuratively, of a state governor commuting a death sentence at the last second. There was a sense of despair.

So Cline had no choice. Because he hadn’t heard otherwise from his superiors, he followed his last set of instructions and switched to Heidi with some 50 seconds to go in the game, just as Lamonica was leading the Raiders down the field for an eventual go-ahead touchdown.

When the switch was made by Cline, many viewers thought the game was over. Others with a little money on the Raiders were irate. The Jets were given 7 ½ points and bettors were sure that they lost their wager. It would take the absolute implausible for the Raiders to cover.

John Madden, then a Raiders assistant, joked later: “In those days, they didn’t have all the highlight shows and the ESPNs. People didn’t find out till the next day. The guys who thought the Jets won, they were paying off bets.”

But the game wasn’t over. Lamonica engineered a 43 yard pass play to Charlie Smith to give the Raiders a 4 point lead. It still left Namath some time to execute a final minute drill. But on the ensuing kickoff, Earl Christie of the Jets special teams fumbled the kickoff return near the Jets goal line and the Raiders ran it in for their second touchdown in nine seconds. Oakland won, 43-32.

Meanwhile, in New York and anywhere east of Denver where NBC switched to Heidi, all hell broke loose. Viewers protested uproariously. The flooding of calls to NBC blew out over twenty fuses. There were even calls to the NYC Police Department. NBC had to issue an apology and one columnist wrote, “It went from the unforeseen to not seen.”

Bob Costas remembers the day well. He was 16 and his father John was an inveterate gambler. “My dad had the Raiders. So his annoyance at the game being cut off was tempered by the fact that he won a grand!”

Savvy New Yorkers including Costas ran to the radio and listened to Merle Harmon’s call on WABC. (“Joe Willie looking, Joe Willie throwing.”) Television wasn’t a factor in the Bay Ara because the  blackout rules then prevented home television, sellout or not. Raiders fans there were likely listening to the popular Bill King on radio.

The next day Cline was brought into an executive meeting and told that he did the right thing. Had he not switched, he could have been fired.

Mann, the Heidi director, said in a later interview, “Tough! That’s the way the ball bounces. The game running long would have been a disaster. I breathed a sigh of relief when they cut from the game.” Later, when NBC ran a crawl in the movie, providing the final score, Mann said he screamed, because NBC did so just as the crippled girl in the story, Karla, began trying to take her first steps out of a wheelchair. “It was a critical development in the film,” he said.

David Brinkley on the NBC Nightly News the next day said, “Fans who missed it could not be consoled.” And political humorist Art Buchwald chimed in, “Men who wouldn’t get out of their chairs in an earthquake rushed to the phone to scream obscenities [at NBC].”

The game of course caused a hubbub at the NFL offices, resulting in a clause being included in all future television contracts. Games must run through their conclusions. Howard Katz, a five-decade television executive who now runs the broadcast department at the NFL said, “I remember watching the game at my fraternity house (at Colgate). That couldn’t and wouldn’t happen today. And yes, social media would certainly erupt.”

Immediately, NBC also installed a ‘Heidi phone,’ one not tied to the main network switchboard, so that in a similar future emergency,  Cline or whoever is in charge at the control center could get updated instructions.

When announcer Curt Gowdy came down to the truck after the game, he was told that half the country didn’t see the finish and Curt was asked to go back to the booth to recreate the last minute over taped film. From his recreated commentary it’s obvious that he knew the result, “The Jets will never lose a more heartbreaking game,” Gowdy said in his recreation of the final minute. In New York, the end of the game was shown on WNBC-TV at 11:20pm that night.

Lots has happened since 1968 when cigarette ads still ran on television and commercial lengths were sixty seconds, not thirties as they are today.

The Raiders and Jets met for the AFL title at Shea Stadium in December and the Jets won on a windy day, 27-23.  Of course, a week or so later, Namath was sitting poolside in Miami where he guaranteed to reporters that the Jets would win the Super bowl. They did, 16-7.

Years after, actress Jennifer Edwards who played Heidi in the made for television movie was on a flight when she saw Joe Namath boarding  the plane. Of all things, Joe took a seat across from her. Edwards recounts: “After we took off I leaned in and I said, ‘Um, do you remember the Heidi Game?’ And he said, ‘Of course I do.’ And I said, ‘I was Heidi.’ He just beamed. We ended up having a conversation for almost the full flight. It was great. I said, ‘You had a lot of good conversations with Johnny Carson about me!'”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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Barry Kipnis
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Remember it well. Happened to have my radio nearby having listened to the Giants game earlier and immediately switched on WABC with Merle Harmon as soon as the mountain appeared on the TV screen (after incredulous yelling, of course). I recall that prior to the game being abruptly cut-off, there was background music from Heidi that was audible. The back of the NY Post the next day had a full page picture of Heidi. I do recall Marty Glickman urging Giant fans to chant “Go Giants Go” (not his finest hour) at a game I believe in 1967 but I… Read more »

Steve
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Steve

I’ll never forget it. The next day, the New York Daily News back page headline read as follows:

JETS 32
RAIDERS 29
HEIDI 14