November 17, 2009

1968: Raiders Stun Jets in the “Heidi Game”

The November 17, 1968 contest at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum between the host Raiders and visiting New York Jets (both with 7-2 records) was a key showdown between two of the strongest contenders for the AFL title. The game was televised nationally by NBC, with a starting time on the East Coast of 4 o’clock, and it certainly lived up to expectations as it was an exciting contest that was decided in the final seconds. However, the decision by the network to cut away to scheduled programming before the completion of the game is what gave it a special distinction in pro football history.

Oakland, in a battle for control of the Western Division with Kansas City, scored the first two touchdowns on passes from gunslinging QB Daryle Lamonica of 9 yards to split end Warren Wells and 48 yards to TE Billy Cannon. The Jets, in control of the Eastern Division, scored on two field goals by Jim Turner and a one-yard run by QB Joe Namath; the extra point attempt failed and Oakland held a 14-12 halftime lead.

New York pulled in front in the third quarter on a four-yard run by FB Bill Mathis, but the Raiders came back with a three-yard rushing TD by HB Charlie Smith. With a successful two-point conversion, the Raiders led 22-19 at the end of the third quarter.

Oakland was three yards away from another score as the fourth quarter started, but on the first play Smith fumbled the ball away to the Jets, who took full advantage. Namath hit flanker Don Maynard on a 47-yard pass play to midfield, and then passed to Maynard again for a 50-yard touchdown that put New York back in front, 26-22. When the Jets next got the ball back, they scored again, this time on a 12-yard field goal by Turner for a 29-22 advantage.

The Raiders were hardly done, though, and the “Mad Bomber” Lamonica passed for a 22-yard TD to flanker Fred Biletnikoff that tied the score at 29-29. In this back-and-forth struggle, the Jets responded with Jim Turner’s fourth field goal of the game, from 26 yards out, to re-take the lead at 32-29 with 1:05 remaining in the contest.

However, a behind-the-scenes drama involving NBC was about to pull the plug on the game for the fans in the Eastern time zone. The network had allotted three hours, from 4 o’clock until 7, for the game, at which point a heavily-promoted production of the children’s classic, “Heidi”, was to air. The game in Oakland was running long, however. With lots of passing and a total of 19 penalties (the Jets were called for five facemask infractions alone), it was fast approaching 7 o’clock in the East when the Raiders got the ball back.

There was plenty of head-scratching afterward as to who made the call at NBC to end game coverage and shift to “Heidi” at 7 o’clock, but what football fans in the East saw was a Lamonica to Smith pass for 20 yards, followed by a penalty on the Jets that put the ball on New York’s 43 yard line with 50 seconds to go. As the teams were about to run the next play, screens went dark and then to commercial, after which the opening to “Heidi” began to run.

There was pandemonium on the telephone lines, and even NBC President Julian Goodman’s anxious request to cut back to the game got lost as the switchboard in New York was overwhelmed by calls. While fans on the Pacific Coast were able to see the end of the game, the Eastern fans – in particular, the Jets fans in the New York City area – were left in the dark.

What did they miss? First, they missed Lamonica’s go-ahead touchdown pass to Charlie Smith (pictured) that covered 43 yards. Then, on the ensuing kickoff, the Jets fumbled and Raiders reserve running back Preston Ridlehuber grabbed it and fell into the end zone for yet another score which made the final tally 43-32 in favor of Oakland.

On the field, Lamonica had completed 21 of 34 passes for 311 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. Fred Biletnikoff was the leading receiver for the Raiders with 7 catches for 120 yards and a score. On the New York side, Namath threw 37 passes and completed 19 of them for 381 yards with a TD and no pickoffs. Don Maynard was the pass receiving star, grabbing 10 passes for a club-record 228 yards and a touchdown.

Off the field, over an hour after the end of the game, NBC twice scrolled the score across the screen, which only angered the football fans all the more knowing that they had missed something significant, and, when the second crawl occurred during an especially dramatic moment during the program, managed to alienate the “Heidi” fans, too.

NBC President Goodman offered an apology the next day, and a new pro football/tv network policy took hold - while pulling away from games in progress had occurred previously, henceforth games would be shown until their completion.

The Oakland Raiders won the remainder of their games and finished the season at 12-2, tied for first in the Western Division with Kansas City. They defeated the Chiefs in the resulting playoff and faced the Jets, who also won the rest of their games while remaining easily in first place in the weaker Eastern Division with an 11-3 record, for the AFL championship. The Jets got their revenge for the loss in the “Heidi game”, winning 27-23 at Shea Stadium, and went on to face the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in a fateful Super Bowl encounter.