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Heidi turns 40

The schedule-makers screwed this one up big-time.  With a chance to play up the 40th anniversary of the “Heidi Game”, we get the Browns versus the Bills tonight instead.  Nice.


For those of you who slept through Raider history class, the “Heidi Game” featured Oakland versus the New York Jets, American Football League powerhouses in 1968, and bitter rivals.  Then again, the Raiders were bitter rivals to everyone in those days.


The AFL was still considered a Mickey Mouse outfit compared to the sexier NFL (it would be two seasons before the leagues merged), but thanks to teams like Oakland and New York, the gap was surely closing.  The defending AFL champion Raiders, and the Jets- the league’s soon-to-be first Super Bowl winner- entered their contest on November 17, 1968 with identical 7-2 records.


Charlie_Smith Heidi
What Oakland witnessed...and what nearly everyone else saw.


Game time at the Coliseum was set for 1:00 pm (4:00 pm on the east coast).  NBC scheduled to air Heidi, a made-for-TV film based on a classic children’s book, at 7PM eastern time. The network had already set the tone for the day by switching from the San Diego-Buffalo game early to catch the start of this highly anticipated meeting.  Which, by the way, did nothing to disappoint.


The Jets jumped in front 6-0 on a pair of field-goals by Jim Turner, but the Raiders took a 7-6 lead on Daryle Lamonica’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Warren Wells.  The “Mad Bomber” struck again, this time for 48 yards to Billy Cannon to make it 14-6.  New York narrowed the gap to 14-12 on a Joe Namath 1-yard touchdown run, then forged ahead in the third quarter 19-14 on a four-yard scoring dash by Bill Mathis.


Now it was Oakland’s turn as Charlie Smith hit paydirt from three yards out, and the Raiders made good on a two-point conversion to regain the lead, 22-19.  As exciting as the first forty-five minutes had been, they merely set the stage for what was to transpire in the fourth quarter.  A 50-yard pass from Namath to Don Maynard, and another field-goal by Turner made it 29-22 in favor of New York, but Lamonica found Fred Biletnikoff from 22 yards to tie the game at 29-all.


Meanwhile back at NBC headquarters, TV executives began to shift nervously in their seats.  The regularly-scheduled Heidi was fast-approaching but the highly entertaining football game was running long, thanks in part to the usual array of penalties (19 total) and fisticuffs that arose whenever these teams met.


With a minute and five seconds left in the contest, Jim Turner booted his fourth field-goal of the afternoon to give the Jets a 32-29 lead.  The ensuing kickoff was returned by the Raiders to their own 23-yard line, and NBC cut to a commercial break.


The network’s dilemma was intensified (or perhaps solved) by its contractual obligation to Timex, the movie’s sponsor.  Because of this, NBC’s Operations Supervisor Dick Cline was told to cut to Heidi at 7:00 pm, regardless of whether the game in Oakland had reached its conclusion.  As the fateful hour neared, the station begin receiving calls from football and movie fans alike, the former asking NBC not to cut from the game, the latter seeking reassurance that Heidi would indeed start on time.  Ironically, NBC execs had decided to let the last sixty-five seconds tick away before switching over to the movie, but could not get their order through because of the influx of calls coming into the station.


And so when the commercial break ended, Heidi, the little Swiss girl portrayed by Jennifer Edwards, appeared on every TV screen east of the Rockies.  Back at the Coliseum, Lamonica completed two passes to Charlie Smith.  The first netted 20 yards, and- following a 15-yard facemask penalty- the second went for 43 yards, and the go-ahead touchdown.  While Raider fans celebrated, New York’s Earl Christy fumbled the kickoff, and Preston Ridlehuber jumped on it and took it in for another touchdown- Oakland’s second in thirty-two exhilarating seconds.


If NBC thought it had phone coverage issues during the commercial break leading up to Heidi, it was about to experience a tsunami of calls.  I doubt any of them were pleasant. Irate football fanatics didn’t stop with NBC; calls were also made to newspapers, radio stations, and even to the NYPD.


In the aftermath, a new rule was born (as is the case with many famous Raider games): NFL contracts now require games to be shown in a team's market area to the conclusion, regardless of the score.


The top quote from the Heidi madness came from the losing quarterback, who said of the movie,

“I didn’t get a chance to see it but I heard it was great.”


Such a shame that the Raiders and New York Jets aren’t playing tonight, rather than October 19, when they actually did meet.  This is an event worth reliving with greater detail, and in grander style. Oh well.  Enjoy the Browns and Bills, folks.  Hell, maybe the networks can interrupt the game with this Heidi.