Okay, we’re fudging a bit here.
“The Heidi Bowl” as it’s become known, took place on Nov. 17, 1968. Technically, that falls under last week.
But given that I just finished reading a book about the history of the NFL, which detailed the league’s struggles to become seen as a legitimate entertainment option in the first 50 or so years of its existence, I’m going with it.
For those who may not remember, in 1968 the NFL did not have lucrative television contracts and had tightly constructed — albeit sometimes still nonsensical — televised game schedules.
It was essentially a free-for-all. Instead of a Thursday night game, two early Sunday games and a late one (or vice-versa), a Sunday night and Monday night game, professional football viewers for the most part got one nationally televised game a week on Sunday. Monday Night Football was not even a thing yet.
Listening on the radio or attending the game live was still the most common way to take in your favorite team’s performance.
On Nov. 17, 1968 the Oakland Raiders hosted their AFL rivals, the New York Jets, in what turned out to be a shootout, even by today’s standards.
NBC had the broadcast that day. And I’m sure they ended up kicking themselves mightily as they had a classic regular season game — the type which could have propelled the popularity of the sport and made televising NFL games an uber-rich investment for the networks much more quickly.
Instead, as the game was going on, while Daryl Lamonica was completing a 20-yard pass to halfback Charlie Smith, NBC switched its broadcast (except on the west coast) to Heidi, a made-for-TV film based on the 1880 novel of the same title.
Nov. 17 was the film’s big debut. Labeled as a family-friendly drama, Heidi was very much what you’d expect from a 1968 made-for-TV film. The only problem was the drama on the field at the Oakland Alameda Coliseum that day was so much more intriguing.
Back and forth the Jets and Raiders went. In all, the game featured seven lead changes.
The Raiders led 14-12 at half. Understandably, NBC executives probably didn’t expect this to turn into one of its marquee blunders when the two teams hit the locker rooms.
But the foes put on a show in the second half. They split goal-to-go rushing touchdowns in the third quarter by Bill Mathis and the aforementioned Charlie Smith, respectively. The Raiders converted a two-point pass to gain a three-point advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
To start the fourth quarter, “Broadway” Joe Namath connected with Don Maynard on a 50-yard touchdown pass. Then Jim Turner made a field goal to put the Jets up 29-22.
That’s when things really got batty. Lamonica tied the game with a 22-yard strike to Fred Biletnikoff — he the bearer of the award recognizing college football’s best receiver.
Another Jim Turner field goal would allow the Jets to retake the lead at 32-29 with just 1:05 to go in the game. It was nearly 7 p.m. on the east coast, the exact time Heidi was scheduled to come on the air.
NBC executives knew they had a good thing going and scrambled to keep the game on the air while delaying the made-for-TV movie.
On the ensuing Raiders drive, though, things got crazier for everyone involved. Lamonica dropped back to pass and....
Here comes Heidi. Except on the west coast.
As already mentioned, Lamonica found Smith on a screen out of the backfield, which the running back turned into a 20-yard gain. Shortly thereafter, Lamonica again found Smith, this time on a deeper route out of the backfield.
Here is the end of the game in its totality.
The pass was caught by Smith in stride near the sideline as he turned up field and eluded a Jets defender to tip-toe into the end zone for a 43-yard scoring play.
The Raiders would then kick off to the Jets, only for New York to mishandle the kick and have it fall into the arms of Raiders special teamer Preston Ridlehuber, who would give the Raiders an insurance touchdown that pushed the score to 43-32.
The Raiders scored two touchdowns in nine seconds. This was the 1968 version of Chiefs-Rams from last year’s Monday night game. Only, instead of the entire nation possessing the ability to watch its conclusion, most were subjected to a young girl named Heidi hugging mountain goats.
Monday Night Football was started up two seasons later, undoubtedly spurred by this game and others like it. Namath was still a marquee name, and so many of the games he played in were must-see events.
In fact, Namath’s Jets debuted Monday Night Football on September 21, 1970. The Raiders, too, were and remain a Monday Night fixture. In fact, no other matchup has been featured more in the 50-year history of the event than Broncos-Raiders.
Networks no longer schedule anything important on a football Sunday. If they do, they always the program put on hold, not the game.
No one any longer has to wonder if their team won or lost because they were watching Heidi instead. The Raiders undoubtedly played a key role in making sure football became a first-place priority for television networks.
The entertainment value of football is indeed one of Al Davis’ greatest legacies among the league et al.
A healthy portion of that can be tied to a great gaffe involving his beloved Raiders.