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Monday Night Bloopers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost overlooked in the hoopla over the coming bowl games is the fact that “Monday Night Football” is wrapping up its 24th year on television--and apparently no more likely to be canceled than football itself.

During its reign, “Monday Night Football” has saved who-knows-how-many bars (turning that traditional slow night into a moneymaker), prompted the creation of endless “Monday Night Football” Widows Clubs and even led to occasional spin-offs. Yes, ABC has actually showed a Saturday-night edition of “Monday Night Football.”

The show has been around so long that few besides trivia fans will remember that its original trio consisted of folksy Keith Jackson, wisecracking Don Meredith and the irrepressible intellectual Howard Cosell. Several more cast members followed--surely, you remember Fred (The Hammer) Williamson?--before the current, smooth-running triumvirate of Al Michaels, Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf came to power.

“Monday Night Football” often plays highlights of past games and once staged a promotion in which viewers voted on memorable plays of the series. Unfortunately, it prefers to forget the bloopers and lowlights originating in the announcer’s booth, where some of its most unforgettable moments have occurred. Let’s hit the instant-replay button and fill that void:

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Football’s first X-rated name: There was the time a Cleveland receiver named Fair Hooker caught a pass, moving Meredith to observe: “Isn’t Fair Hooker a great name?” His colleagues dared not utter a word, so Meredith added: “Fair Hooker ... I haven’t met one yet.”

The show catches fire: During a broadcast the first year, Jackson was forced to call one series with a leg of his pants on fire. Cosell had dropped a cigarette that ignited some debris.

Before Watergate became a game plan: In the course of wondering whether the Redskins should ask President Nixon to suggest a play, Meredith referred to the then-Chief Executive on the air as “Tricky Dick.”

Hammered: Rookie announcer Fred Williamson, known as The Hammer in his playing days, angered Cosell during an exhibition season broadcast by wisecracking, “Even an old cripple like you could have made more yardage through that hole, Howard.” By the time the regular season began, The Hammer was given the ax.

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The weekly bacchanal: Fans at a “Monday Night” game in Foxboro, Mass., broke out into so many drunken brawls that local lawmakers unsuccessfully petitioned ABC to schedule games at 8 p.m., instead of 9 p.m., in the East. That way, the lawmakers reasoned, spectators would have less time to drink beforehand.

Howard vs. Juice: Cosell reacted angrily on the air the time a later colleague, O.J. Simpson, joked: “Howard, you’ve proved once again you have a tremendous grasp of the obvious--to use one of your lines.” Cosell snapped: “Fine, OK,” then avoided talking to Simpson the rest of the evening.

Giff’s Gaffes: Possibly showing the strain of working with Cosell and Meredith, Gifford drew attention to himself with bizarre mistakes in those early years. Once when Dallas’ Dennis Thurman tackled a Cleveland player, Gifford credited it to Thurman Munson, the Yankees catcher who had died in a plane crash several months earlier. Gifford also had trouble with the name of onetime Atlanta coach Leeman Bennett, sometimes referring to him as “Leeman Beeman.”

Slanderball: One evening Cosell and Gifford browbeat a Giants offensive tackle by the name of Gordon Gravelle, who had a poor game after reporting late to camp and being fined. “He may take another fine and go home now,” Cosell said. It turned out, however, that the Giants tackle they were criticizing was actually named Gus Coppens. Gravelle’s wife threatened to sue ABC before Cosell and Gifford wrote her letters.

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Elephantine error: One of Cosell’s lowest moments was the time he referred to Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett, who is black, as a “little monkey.” While some accused him of making a racial slur, Cosell said it was inadvertent and most black leaders agreed that the broadcaster had an outstanding record on civil rights. Garrett excused Cosell the next day though his initial reaction was: “I think Cosell looks like a monkey.”

Sleeping in Seattle: During a San Diego rout of the Seahawks, Meredith and Simpson pretended to be sleeping after a commercial break. According to Marc Gunther and Bill Carter, authors of “Monday Night Mayhem,” ABC Sports boss Roone Arledge phoned the control booth and screamed, “You don’t make fun of the product, especially when the product is ‘Monday Night Football.’ I don’t care how bad the game is.”

Sleeping in San Francisco: During one players’ strike, replacement players of San Francisco and the Giants met in what is remembered as the worst “Monday Night” game of all time. One Giants replacement player was caught sleeping on the bench. “That about sums this one up,” Al Michaels said. No one reprimanded Michaels this time.

Telling it like he hadn’t: In his book, “I Never Played the Game,” published after he left the show, Cosell revealed what he really thought of his on-the-air buddies, Faultless Frank and Dandy Don. Gifford was “a male mannequin (with a) voice still too weak and undramatic.” Meredith was “rarely prepared” and tried to “compensate for his lack of knowledge by singing a song.”

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Next best thing to an Emmy: Possibly the show’s best remembered moment came during a 34-0 Raiders’ rout of the Houston Oilers. The camera zoomed in on a sleeping fan, who awoke and gave viewers at home the finger. Cosell became speechless. But Meredith rose to the occasion, saying: “Howard, he means we’re No. 1.”

“Monday Night Football” airs at 6 p.m. on ABC.


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