Blame Heidi!

With football season just around the corner, I thought you might get a kick out of this story. Many older sports fans are intimately familiar with the story of the “Heidi Game”. People my age have heard about it for years, but weren’t around when it happened and don’t know all the details. Younger fans might never have heard this tale at all… and it’s a good one!

On November 17, 1968, at approximately 6:58pm Eastern US time, Jim Turner of the New York Jets kicked a field goal to take a 32-29 lead over the Oakland Raiders. With only 65 seconds left in the contest, Turner’s field goal normally would have been enough to seal the game for the Jets. But this wasn’t a normal game.

Oakland returned the Jets kickoff to their own 23 yard line. On the first play from scrimmage, Oakland quarterback Daryle Lamonica threw a 20 yard pass to receiver Charlie Smith, and a 15-yard facemask penalty on the Jets Mike D’Amato put the ball on the Jets’ 43 yard line. On the next play, Lamonica hit Smith again on a short pass, which Smith then ran in 43 yards for a touchdown. The Raiders now led 36-32. On the ensuing kickoff, Jets kick returner Earl Christy muffed the catch at his own 10 yard line. The ball rolled to the Jets 2, where Oakland’s Preston Ridlehuber recovered it and ran it in for the game’s last score with 33 seconds left.

Oakland scored 14 points in 32 seconds, and ended up winning the game 43-32. The only problem was that no one east of the Rocky Mountains actually saw the end of game. And for that you can blame Heidi.

You see, NBC had a contract with Timex where the watch company would sponsor a made-for-TV movie based on the story of a young girl who lived with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps. The contract stated that the movie would air on November 17, 1968 between the hours of 7pm and 9pm in each market.

Because of this contract, NBC executives ordered Dick Cline, the network’s Broadcast Operations Supervisor, to switch over to Heidi at 7pm whether the game had completed or not. The executives ended up changing their minds, and decided to let the game finish before airing Heidi. The only problem was that the NBC switchboard was overwhelmed by viewers calling in to either a) beg NBC to keep the game on the air or b) beg NBC to stop showing the same and run Heidi instead. The network executives simply could not get through to Cline.

Undaunted, the NBC executives then tried calling the mobile unit in Oakland, to have them call Broadcast Operations in Burbank. The executives got through to Oakland, but when the guys in Oakland called Broadcast Operations, the people in Burbank (perhaps rightly) told Oakland that they could only do that under direct orders of the executives in Burbank… the same people who were frantically trying to do just that. Cline followed his “last valid order”, and started Heidi promptly at 7pm.

Millions of football fans stared at their TVs dumbfounded. The game went to a commercial break just after the Jets field goal, and when the network came back from commercials, Heidi started. There was no warning or notice, not even a crawler on the bottom of the screen. NBC Sports announcer Curt Gowdy had said “We’ll be right back after this commercial break”, there were commercials… and then Heidi. While all this was going on, the NBC executives were still frantically trying to get Cline on the phone. However, by this point the video link for the east coast feed (which was sent over phone lines instead of satellite) had been broken, and AT&T would not have been able to reconnect all the switching stations before the game ended.

Football fans were outraged. The AFL was outraged. In fact, outrage was the order of the day for the following week. So many fans called NBC to complain that the network’s switchboard completely broke down that night with 25 blown circuits. Millions of fans also called their local NBC affiliates, radio stations, newspapers, AT&T, and even their local police departments. The furor was such that NBC issued a public apology at 8:30pm that night (in the middle of Heidi no less!) and bought full-page ads apologizing for the incident in the New York Times, which ran the “Heidi Story” on the front page the next day. But football fans still weren’t satisfied. Over the following weeks, they sent thousands of Heidi related items to NBC, some of them lighthearted (hand drawn cartoons of Heidi carrying a football), others more sinister (Heidi dolls with knives in their backs).

In fact, outrage over Heidi was such that several permanent changes took place. The AFL and NFL (and most other sports leagues) changed their contracts so that television networks could not cut away from games for any reason, except for perhaps a national emergency (Futurama fans, this is why Fox will continue to show a game after 7pm, even if the score is 45-3). NBC (and other networks) installed special phones in their network control rooms; these phones were wired to a separate telephone exchange, so that network executives could get through no matter how many people were calling the main switchboard. To this day, such phones are known as “Heidi phones”. Both the AFL and the NFL also instituted several measures to speed up the game.

Neither the Jets nor the Raiders would lose again during the regular season. The two teams would meet again six weeks later in the AFL Championship Game, which the Jets would come from behind to win 27-23. Two weeks later, football history was made again as the Jets upset the Baltimore Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III – Joe Namath’s “Guarantee Game”.

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