11/17/1968 - The Heidi Game

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(Daryle Lamonica lines up towards the end of the game. Screenshot from NBC)

The year was 1968. A minute and five seconds remained in the fourth quarter between the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders. It was close throughout, and Jim Turner had just kicked a 26-yard field goal to give the Jets a 32-29 lead. As millions of viewers anxiously anticipated the conclusion of the two heated rivals, something unimaginable happened.

In the middle of what was Oakland's go-ahead drive, NBC suddenly switched to the television adaptation of Heidi -- the story of a young, orphaned Swiss girl. It had just turned 7 o'clock and NBC had prior arrangements to air the movie regardless of the score. Several NBC execs attempted to tell the switchboard manager to delay the start of Heidi, but the vast number of phone calls demanding that the game go on or requesting Heidi to air instead prevented them from getting through.

Dick Cline, the broadcast operator who pulled the switch on the football game, was watching the clock attentively. Thanks to the large amount of scoring, 19 penalties, and 31 incomplete passes, the game was running long and coming dangerously close to Heidi's time slot.

"As we got closer to 7, I was in touch with my boss, who was trying to get permission to keep the game on," said Cline, who was unaware that NBC had elected to delay the movie. "But he wasn't able to get back to me."

"The switchboard just blew up, so no one could call in to me, and I couldn't call out to anyone."

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And so it was with 65 seconds remaining that millions of viewers were suddenly thrust into the European Alps, where Heidi was scaling the mountainside with her grandfather. The child-friendly film was not an appropriate substitute to the beer-guzzling tailgaters now cursing at their television sets.

Meanwhile, the Raiders were busy making NBC's decision look even worse. Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica threw a 43-yard touchdown to Charlie Smith, giving Oakland the lead with still 42 seconds on the clock. The Jets fumbled the following kickoff and it was recovered by Preston Ridlehuber for the TD. The Raiders had scored two touchdowns in a quaint nine seconds to win the game 43-32, though the outcome was still unknown to the majority of the public.

After the game, Jets coach Weeb Ewbank got a congratulatory phone call from his wife, Lucy, who was unaware of the Raiders' comeback. Ewbank informed her that they had lost and angrily slammed down the phone.

NBC, feeling the need to inform the public of what happened, sheepishly aired a crawl of the final score as Heidi was airing. Laughably, it occurred during a tense part of the movie where Heidi's friend Klara was getting out of her wheelchair for the first time. "When I saw the banner, I thought it was handled very insensitively," said Delbert Mann, the film's director. "I was so upset, I gave a scream of anguish."

"In those days, they didn’t have all the highlight shows and the ESPN's. People didn’t find out till the next day," said John Madden, then the Raiders' assistant. "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."

The network, bombarded with complaints and hate mail, issued a formal apology. Many fans were so irate at the discovery of what happened that they complained to the NYPD (since the NBC switchboards were still out). The gaffe made the front page of the New York Times, where Cline was described by David Brinkley as a "faceless button pusher in the bowels of NBC"; the New York Daily News covered it with the headline, "Jets 32, Raiders 29, Heidi 14."

The "Heidi Game" (or "Heidi Bowl" as it's also known) remains one of the most notorious blunders in television history. In 1997, it was voted the most memorable regular season game in NFL history in conjunction with the league's 10,000th regular season game.

The fiasco brought many changes to football telecasts. The NFL now includes a stipulation in its television contracts stating that local games must be aired to their completion, regardless of what the score is. It's also why paid programming or filler typically follows NFL broadcasts on Sundays, so as not to repeat the same mistake. NBC installed a phone in the control room to separate calls from irate customers and network executives; to this day, the phone is referred to as the "Heidi Phone."

Oakland and New York reconvened a few weeks later at the American Football League Championship Game, where the Jets vanquished the Raiders 27-23 and advanced to Super Bowl III. Joe Namath and company then shocked the world by beating the Baltimore Colts to become world champions (the win is still considered one of the biggest upsets in sports history).

The Jets-Raiders rivalry dissolved shortly after the NFL-AFL merger; the Raiders moved to Los Angeles and began seeing the Jets less frequently. In that time, the Jets became strictly uncompetitive, meaning that when the two teams did meet each other, the games were rarely significant.

About a week after the Heidi incident, NBC took out a full-page ad in several major newspapers. In them, NBC highlighted the stellar reviews the film adaptation of Heidi had received. One of the blurbs was from Joe Namath, who quipped, "I didn't get a chance to see it, but I hear it was great!"

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