November 17: The Heidi Bowl

Heidi_Game_programThe game between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets held on November 17, 1968 is perhaps the most famous regular season football game of all time. The game was a hard fought battle between two bitter AFC rivals, but that’s not why the game is so well remembered. What makes this match-up famous was something that happened during the final minute of the game. Namely, most Americans who were watching missed an exciting climax because at 7 PM on the dot, NBC, the network airing the game, cut away to a previously scheduled broadcast of the original television movie Heidi, a decision that did not sit well with the nation’s football fans.

Yes, it’s the 46th anniversary of the infamous “Heidi Bowl”! So, how did that whole mess happen? Well, for one thing, in the 1960s, the average football game lasted no longer than two and a half hours, and when a football game was scheduled on television it was usually given a three hour slot (enough time for the whole game and overtime). The plan was that the Jets-Raiders game would start at 4 PM and then smoothly transition into the 7 PM broadcast of Heidi.

However, this Jets-Raiders match-up was far from an average. For one thing, these two teams hated each other. When they last met up in 1967, it was a brutal affair in which both teams played dirty and Jets quarterback Joe Namath’s jaw was broken. On top of all that, because the Jets lost the match, they lost the chance to go to the the American Football League’s championship game.

Suffice to say, this bout was going to be especially uncivil because not only were the Jets out for revenge, but both teams were in playoff contention. The game lived up to expectations. The Jets were charged with a personal foul on the opening kickoff, and it was all downhill from there. There were 19 fouls, several injuries and multiple incomplete passes, all of which stopped the game clock. Plus, both teams used all six of their allotted time-outs and after every scoring play (of which there were 13 in all), NBC would cut to a commercial break. The fourth quarter didn’t get started until 6:20 EST, and NBC Sports Vice President Chet Simmons was beginning to have a bad feeling about the possibility of the game ending on time:

They kept promoting Heidi, kept promoting Heidi. I kept looking at my watch, and I said to myself, there’s no way to me that Heidi‘s going to make this at seven o’clock. Julian Goodman, the president of the company, told us going into the weekend that Heidi had to start on time …I looked at my watch, looked at another table clock, looked at the game, and thought, no way is this going to happen.

Yes, no matter what, Heidi had to start at 7 PM. So, just as 7 PM rolled around, with a minute and five seconds left in the game and the Jets leading 32 to 29, viewers in most of the country saw the Raiders’ Charlie Smith receive the kickoff from the Jets…and then the picture suddenly cut to a little Swiss girl on a mountainside.  Meanwhile, it was only 4 PM on the west coast, and viewers on the Pacific got to see the rest of the game, and what they witnessed was probably the craziest last minute of a game in football history.

After a Jets foul, Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Smith. The extra point was good, and with 42 seconds left to play, the Raiders were now up by four points, 36 to 32. The Jets still had a chance to win, as long as they didn’t screw up.

They promptly screwed up. The Jets’ Earl Christy received the Raiders’ kickoff, and fumbled the ball at the 12-yard line when Raiders linebacker Bill Budness tackled him. The ball began rolling towards the endzone, and Raiders player Preston Ridlehuber quickly scooped it up and ran into the end zone for another touchdown. With just over half a minute left in the game, the score was now 43 to 32 in favor of the Raiders and the Jets had no hope of overcoming the 11 point deficit. The next day, Oakland Tribune reporter Bob Valli wrote “Television missed one of football’s most exciting and exhausting minutes of emotion. In that minute, Oakland fans saw despair turn to delirium.”

There were many complaints about missing such an exciting ending, and from that point on tv networks ran sporting events to completion, delaying the start of regularly scheduled programming. For its part, NBC decided to have a little fun with the Heidi Bowl fiasco. The next time the Jets appeared on NBC, they ran an ad featuring Jets quarterback Joe Namath with the young actress who played Heidi. In the week after the Heidi Bowl, NBC ran a special encore presentation of Heidi and took out a newspaper ad quoting various rave reviews of the movie, the last of which was attributed to Namath, saying “I didn’t get a chance to see it, but I hear it was great.”

So, to mark the 45th anniversary of this legendary moment in sports broadcasting, let’s make a Heidi’s Comet. It’s a perfect mid-November cocktail, blending together vodka, nutty amaretto and (non-alcoholic) apple cider.

Heidi’s Comet

  • 1 ounce Vodka
  • 1 ounce Amaretto
  • 1 ounce apple cider

Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a cinnamon stick.

Tomorrow: “So long, Pop! I’m off to go check my tiger trap!”

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