Thursday, November 17, 2005

Heidi Heidi Heidi Ho

By Mitchell

I'd be remiss if I let the day pass without mentioning the anniversary of The Heidi Game. It was on November 17, 1968 that the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets faced off in what wound up as one of the most famous football games ever played.

Most of you probably know the basics of the game. (Jets leading 32-29 with a minute to play when NBC breaks off coverage of the game for the beginning of the children's movie Heidi; Raiders score twice in that final minute to win 43-32; national furor ensues.) A number of sources, including this article and Jeff Miller's history of the AFL, Going Long, provide the rich details that prove Talleyrand's saying, "It is worse than a crime; it is a blunder."

A succession of increaingly abusrd events guaranteed the game's place in infamy. Network executives tried to reach Dick Cline, NBC's broadcast supervisor, to tell him to keep the game on the air; they weren't able to get through to him because the lines were jammed by concerned viewers themselves worried that the end of the game wouldn't be shown. After the switch was made, the network president, Julian Goodman, himself called to demand that they go back to the game, but it was impossible to reach a technician who could throw the switch. Once NBC became aware of the furor erupting, they ran a crawl on the bottom of the screen telling people the final score; the crawl ran during one of the most dramatic moments in the movie, infuriating those who actually preferred Heidi to football.

Cline's dry recitation of the facts in subsequent interviews, including his response to Goodman's demand to resume the game ("Well, I'll try."), and the equally dry coverage of the events by David Brinkley on the Huntley-Brinkley Report the next night, make anniversary recaps of the game a hoot. One of the funniest occurred in 2003, when the NFL Network commemorated the 35th anniversary by wiping out their regular schedule to show the movie Heidi, only to interrupt the conclusion to replay the final minute of the game and the two Raiders touchdowns that most of the nation had missed back in 1968.

It may be hard to believe now, but the Heidi Game proved to be not only one of the most famous games ever played, but one of the most influential as well. It made the front page of the New York Times, was featured on evening news broadcasts, and proved to television executives the appeal of pro football. Combined with the Jets' victory over Baltimore in the Super Bowl two months later, it provided a major dose of credibility for the AFL.

And it guaranteed that a very good football game, one of the best games of 1968, would live on almost forty years later; while the movie that preempted it would become a mere footnote, a word that became a synonym for a mistake, a reminder of the greatest ending to a game that you never saw.

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