Never before had a children’s story angered so many people.
What has since become known as the Heidi game took place Nov. 17, 1968--30 years ago this Tuesday. The game pitted the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Jets against the Oakland Raiders in the Oakland Coliseum.
With 65 seconds remaining in the game, the Jets kicked a field goal to take a 32-29 lead.
NBC, the television network covering the game, went to commercial after the kickoff and then switched over to the movie Heidi, a children’s show about a little girl sent to live with her grumpy grandfather in the Swiss Alps.
NBC Broadcast Operations Supervisor Dick Cline was criticized for following the network’s original game plan to cut to Heidi at 7 p.m., leaving millions of fans in the lurch about the result of the game.
“It was determined that Heidi would air at 7 p.m.,” Cline said this week. “If football wasn’t over, we would still go to Heidi. So I waited and I waited and I heard nothing. We came up to that magic hour and I thought, ‘Well, I haven’t been given any counter-order so I’ve got to do what we agreed to do.”
With seven minutes remaining in the game, executives at NBC made the decision to air the remainder of the game to the east coast and delay the start of Heidi. But with thousands of people calling the switchboard to voice their opinions whether NBC should stay with the game or change to the children’s movie, the executives couldn’t get word to Cline.
It created such an uproar that NBC President Julius Goodman released a statement 90 minutes after the game. “It was a forgivable error committed by humans who were concerned about children expecting to see Heidi at 7 p.m.,” he said.
John Madden, now a game analyst for Fox Sports, was an Oakland assistant at the time.
“In those days, they didn’t have all the highlight shows and the ESPNs. People didn’t find out till the next day,” he said. “The guys that thought the Jets won . . . they were paying off bets. The guys that got the dough the night before had to go and pay back double the next day. That was one of the biggest outcries of this thing.”
When play resumed from the 22-yard line, Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica threw a 20-yard pass to Charlie Smith. After a face-mask penalty, the ball was on the Jets’ 43-yard line.
On the next play, Lamonica passed to Smith again for a 43-yard touchdown. The extra point put the Raiders ahead 36-32 with 42 seconds remaining in the game.
It might have been enough time for Jets quarterback Joe Namath to stage a comeback, but he never got the chance. On the ensuing kickoff, Jets returner Earl Christy fumbled the ball at the two-yard line and Oakland’s Preston Ridlehuber picked it up and ran it in for a touchdown.
The Raiders had scored two touchdowns in nine seconds to win the game 43-32.
“I was surprised to hear (NBC news co-anchor) David Brinkley report on it, calling me the, ‘Faceless button pusher in the bowels of NBC,”’ Cline said. “I took exception to that because I wasn’t a button pusher.”
In fact, it didn’t take any button pushing at all to change from the football game to the showing of Heidi. Cline would have had to make an effort to stop it, and without word from his boss, he stuck to the game plan.
That one game changed the way NFL games have been broadcast ever since. In subsequent TV contracts, it was agreed that the game would never be cut short in the home market of the visiting team.
As for the Jets, they got their revenge six weeks later when they beat the Raiders 27-23 in the AFL Championship game Dec. 29 at Shea Stadium.
It wasn’t long after that revenge game that a young Namath guaranteed victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and came through on his promise, 16-7.