Column: Top 10 media moments in NFL’s first 100 years, from Howard Cosell to Janet Jackson

ABC's "Monday Night Football" crew of Don Meredith, Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford.
ABC’s “Monday Night Football” crew reached an iconic level with Don Meredith, left, Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford.
(Steve Fenn / Associated Press)

To acknowledge the launch of the NFL 100 celebration, we offer our own run-play option of the media’s 10 most memorable moments, magical marriages and malevolent malfunctions from the last century:

NFL Films’ 1967 documentary “They Call It Pro Football”

The so-called “Citizen Kane” of sports movies begins with John Facenda’s narration: “It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.” The 24-minute piece written and produced by Steve Sabol, son of the NFL Films creator Ed Sabol, initially became a popular piece of entertainment — propaganda? — loaned free to service organizations just to get some traction. It worked. In 2013, the U.S. Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry to join projects deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” As Rich Cohen of the Atlantic wrote: “It taught America how to watch football.”


Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford are united for ABC’s “Monday Night Football

The prime-time series concocted by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and sold to ABC’s Roone Arledge launched in 1970 with Keith Jackson on play-by-play. By Year 2, Gifford tapped in as the new wrangler for the caustic Cosell and mercurial Meredith. As mapped out in the 1988 book “Monday Night Mayhem,” which became a squishy TNT film in 2002, this trio elevated the broadcast from a game to an entertainment circus reflective of the time.

The creation of “NFL Sunday Ticket

DirecTV jumped on this exclusive deal in 1994, loading up on subscribers who wanted access to out-of-market games. The package includes the coveted Red Zone Channel (a version now replicated by the NFL for other cable systems). But the future value lies in whether the league can get a streaming service (Amazon, ESPN+ or DAZN are in the conversation) to pony up the reported $1.5 billion asking price. DirecTV now charges “max” subscribers $395 a season.

The yellow first-and-10 graphic

We could have sworn on a stack of Rupert Murdoch-printed Bibles that this came into being when Fox got the NFL rights 25 years ago and immediately changed the viewing experience with the constant score-and-time graphic. The FoxTrax system for the controversial glowing NHL hockey puck in ’94 actually pushed this into action, but the technology by SportsVision to show where the ball needed to go for a first down wasn’t ready to debut until ESPN did it for a 1998 Cincinnati-Baltimore game.

“Brian’s Song” made-for-TV movie

An ABC Movie of the Week in 1971 dramatized the relationship of Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) just a year after Piccolo’s cancer death. Aside from Emmy Awards, a 32.9 Nielsen rating and a brief theatrical release, many of us still hear the Grammy-winning musical score and tear up.

The “Heidi” Game

The 1968 New York Jets lost only three games on their magical Super Bowl run, and one was Nov. 17 at Oakland. Or so they tell us. NBC cut away from the contest at 7 p.m. Eastern time with 1:05 remaining and the Jets ahead 32-29, because the family movie “Heidi” was programmed. Before the Raiders scored two touchdowns in nine seconds to pull off a 43-32 win, all TV heck broke loose. Fear not: All these years later, YouTube clips preserved the telecast’s ending with Curt Gowdy’s call.

Phyllis George joins the CBS pregame show

Four years after winning the 1971 Miss America contest, George was added to the wildly popular “The NFL Today” series, the first woman to have a nationally prominent role in TV sports. Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder (and Jayne Kennedy) came three years later, but this touchstone goes far outside the box before the term was invented. It led to creative thinking such as hiring Will McDonough away from the Boston Globe to be a CBS “Insider,” and taking Mike Pereira and creating the role of a rules analyst from the Fox studio.

George Plimpton’s 1966 book “Paper Lion”

Before Dan Jenkins’ “Semi-Tough” in 1972 or Peter Gent’s “North Dallas Forty” in 1973 could be converted to movies, the gonzo-based participatory journalism genre saw Plimpton convey what he went through as a backup quarterback invited to the Detroit Lions’ 1963 camp. The first insider? Only by the right writer. It became a 1968 movie starring Alan Alda, which begat the film career of then-player Alex Karras, which begat the character Mongo in the 1974 movie “Blazing Saddles.” You’re welcome.

The 2004 Super Bowl halftime show

A Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake moment that magnified the warped escalation and importance of all that happens between the first and second half of an NFL championship game drew CBS a $550,000 fine by the FCC (later appealed and dropped) and more due diligence for future invitations. Anyone recall who actually played in that Super Bowl XXXVIII contest in Houston? Didn’t think so.

Other famous firsts (tied for 10th)

  • NBC had the inaugural NFL telecast on Oct. 22, 1939, between the Philadelphia Eagles and Brooklyn Dodgers from Ebbets Field with Allen “Skip” Waltz on the call.
  • The first color TV broadcast is CBS’ Detroit-Baltimore Thanksgiving game in 1965.
  • CBS and NBC simultaneously carry the first NFL-AFL championship from the L.A. Coliseum on Jan. 15, 1967, later called the first Super Bowl, between Green Bay and Kansas City.
  • ESPN covers the NFL draft shortly after the network’s launch in 1980, agreeing to cover it with an 8 a.m. start on a Tuesday.
  • HBO launches “Hard Knocks” in 2001.
  • The NFL Network launches in 2003 with headquarters in Culver City.