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MNF at 50: How Rozelle, Cosell and the Urge to Sell Changed Pro Sports Forever

By: Steve Hirdt

It’s Monday night, January 3, 1983.

The Vikings are hosting the Cowboys at the Metrodome in Minneapolis in the final game of a tumultuous 1982 NFL regular season. Just two weeks into the season, a players strike, the first during the regular season in the league’s 63-year history, had shut down the sport for eight weeks. The league did append an extra week’s worth of games at the end of the schedule, extending the regular season into January for the first time in history, but even with that, each team would finish the season playing just nine games.

Trailing, 24-13, after a Minnesota field goal early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys’ Tim Newsome fumbled a kickoff out of bounds and his team found itself starting a drive just inches in front of its own goal line. That’s when it happened. As Vikings defenders shuttled back and forth in evident confusion (for good reason, it turned out: Dallas had only 10 offensive players on the field), Tony Dorsett took a handoff and started up the middle, slipped a tackle at his 15, then angled to the right sideline as he gobbled up ground. Running free across midfield, he picked up a block from Drew Pearson near the Vikings’ 20, then stiff-armed Willie Teal, the last defender in his way, and scampered into the end zone. History was made in just under 13 seconds.

Downstairs in the ABC production truck, I knew two things. First, that Dorsett had just completed the longest run from scrimmage in NFL history. Second, that I had to convey that information to the broadcast booth as quickly as possible. But how to do that? I was in my first season, just my ninth game, as Monday Night Football’s director of information. I did not yet have the kind of communication setup that would allow me to whisper into an announcer’s ear, “Longest run in NFL history.” But I knew that I had to get the information on the air, right then, to put the moment into the immediate historical perspective that it deserved. So I started a relay, not unlike a children’s game of telephone, by saying to the director, Chet Forte, “Tell Cosell: That’s the longest run in the history of the league.” Forte forwarded the message to the announcers, “That’s the longest run in the history of the league.” And Howard Cosell, the legendary Monday Night broadcaster interrupted his own line of thought to tell the audience of tens of millions that it was, he thought, the longest run in the history of the league. Gifford confirmed that for him, and by that time we had constructed an on-screen graphic to reiterate the point.

Tony Dorsett had the longest run in league history on MNF.

It was a moment of triumph for Dorsett, and not bad for me, either. I had met the big play with an immediate authoritative declaration that could not possibly be misunderstood. Two announcers and a graphic had driven the information home. But then through my headset, the producer’s voice, at a decibel level usually reserved for talking to your friend at a rock concert, screamed the question he needed answered into my never-again-to-be-the-same right ear, “BUT IS IT A MONDAY NIGHT RECORD?!?!?!?”

And there it was. Without a doubt, Monday Night Football was different, and in its own way, special. I was fortunate enough to continue in my position on the show through the 2016 season, the longest tenure of anyone who worked on what Gifford and his colleague Don Meredith loved to call Mother Love’s Traveling Freak Show. Thirty-five years that seemed to go by in 35 minutes. But think of that producer’s question. He had just witnessed something that we had now emphasized three times was the longest run in the history of the league. But all he wanted to know was whether it was a Monday Night record!

Fifty years ago tonight, ABC’s Monday Night Football came on the air, presenting the New York Jets, led by pro football’s biggest star, quarterback Joe Namath, playing the Browns in Cleveland. In 1970, the merger between the NFL and its one-time rival, the American Football League, went into full effect, with three old-school NFL teams – the Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Colts – joining the 10 legacy AFL teams to form the 13-team AFC; the remaining 13 NFL teams made up the NFC. There was also a new television contract for the league. Fulfilling a plan years in the making, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle saw his dream of prime-time football become a reality when ABC Sports chief Roone Arledge sold the idea of a package of Monday Night pro football games to his network superiors, then mired in third place in network ratings. The show debuted on Sept. 21, 1970, at 9 p.m. Eastern time, up against “Mayberry R.F.D.,” “The Doris Day Show,” and “The Carol Burnett Show” on CBS, and the movie “Boom” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on NBC. (Both CBS and NBC had turned down Rozelle in his efforts to place a slate of NFL games on Monday nights, in deference to the strong schedule of shows or movies that each network ran on Mondays.)

In retrospect, it seems easy to say, “of course, Monday Night Football worked.” Rozelle knew exactly how to package the games; Arledge was a creative genius who revolutionized the way football looked on TV, and the after-dark setting enhanced, rather than detracted from, the drama. Cosell. Meredith and, starting in 1971, Gifford knew which keys to hit. And getting what was then a male-centric audience in front of the set in the months leading up to the holidays was great for selling high-end products (such as cars with red ribbons tied around them) in addition to such staples as beer and soda. But, at the time, the reticence shown by CBS and NBC still left some doubt.

The Browns won that first game, 31-21, and people talked about it. Ratings weren’t spectacular – the show didn’t rank among the top 30 network shows for the 1970-71 television season – but they were good enough, and they improved over the next couple of years. And more than that, there were stories aplenty about the show in newspapers and magazines, and cultural mores began to change. Fewer folks attended movies on Monday nights, and social clubs re-jiggered their meetings and schedules. The by-play among the announcers – Cosell, a big-city lawyer turned broadcaster; Meredith, a former Cowboys quarterback whose aw-shucks manner played off Cosell’s city-slicker verbosity; and play-by-player Keith Jackson, who was replaced by Frank Gifford in 1971 – was different than what was heard on other games of that era. Cosell, in particular, did not shy from expressing his opinions, a trait that resulted in his topping the annual announcer rankings in both the “most liked” and “most disliked” categories – in the same year! From there, the program grew in renown, and 50 years later, its place in the history of both sports television and television, period, is secure.

Jerry Rice’s 36 TDs are the most in the history of MNF.

With due deference to the early announcers, however, it’s clear in retrospect that the primary appeal in establishing the show during the early years of Monday Night Football can be simply expressed: The realization that (a) it’s dark outside; and (b) hey, there’s a football game on TV! In the 1960s, professional team sports were just not televised at night on a network level. Sure, if you lived in a large enough city, you might occasionally see a locally-televised Pirates-Phillies, Bruins-Rangers, or Bulls-Pistons game after dinner time. Not so, though for national telecasts, especially in pro football, where the restrictions were especially tight. (Absolutely no games, regular season, playoffs or Super Bowls, were shown on television within 75 miles of the stadium in which they were played.) The NFL and AFL Championship Games were always day games, on Sundays or holidays. When the Super Bowl began following the 1966 season, it too was a day game. (Indeed, it wasn’t until Super Bowl XII, following the 1977 season, that the Big Game kickoff took place at 6 p.m. Eastern Time or later.) Baseball’s World Series and playoffs were all day games as well. The first World Series night game was played the year after Monday Night Football came on the air, all midweek games were scheduled for prime time starting in 1972, and the entire Series first was played at night in 1985. The NBA and the NHL didn’t regularly make it to prime time, either. Monday Night Football opened the door for all of those events.

And Dorsett was not the only star to play like a star on Monday Night. Jerry Rice’s total of 36 touchdowns was by far the highest in the history of the series. (Emmitt Smith, with 24, and Terrell Owens, 20, were the only other players with as many as 20 touchdowns.) Of course, Rice also had the opportunity to play more games (45) than any player over Monday Night’s first 50 years, and he had the most receptions (254) and receiving yards (4,029), more than doubling his nearest rival in both of those categories.

Dan Marino paced all players in touchdown passes (74) and passing yards (9,654), while Smith led in rushing yards (2,434, which was a bit over 500 yards more than his nearest competitor, Dorsett).

The longest stretch of broadcast-booth stability extended from 1987 to 1997, when Gifford, Al Michaels and Dan Dierdorf held sway. Over Monday Night’s first 50 years, Gifford worked the longest in the booth, with 27 years (15 doing play-by-play and 12 as an analyst). Michaels had the longest run in the play-by-play chair (20 years), while Gifford and Dierdorf had the longest tenures as an analyst (12 years apiece). After 36 years on ABC, the series moved to ESPN starting in 2006.

So it always comes down to the lists. The greatest, the best, the most exciting, the biggest, the youngest. I got to ride along for 35 of Monday Night’s 50 years, working with every announcer group from Gifford- Meredith-Cosell to Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden. But even over the 15 years during which I was not on the show, rare has been a Monday night when I did not watch.

Still, doing a list of the “greatest” Monday Night games introduces too many undefined variables. So I’m going to create four top-five lists of the most memorable games or performances on Monday Night, to better reflect the varying types of excitement that the show has produced, both for the fan at home and for me working on the telecasts, over 50 years.

The categories are these:

  • The most memorable individual performances within a single game in Monday Night Football history;
  • The most memorable games in the Monday Night series, with particular emphasis on spectacular comebacks, endings or historical import.
  • The most memorable telecasts in terms of witnessing an impactful performance that drew upon events that took place beyond the football field;
  • The most memorable games, telecasts or moments to me personally, based on some individual involvement on my part or an appeal to my particular sensitivities.

The lists are ordered chronologically. (In some cases, a game or player might reasonably qualify under multiple categories, but no entry is listed more than once.)

MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

MOST MEMORABLE INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCES

JOE WASHINGTON, Baltimore Colts at New England, Sept. 18, 1978. The Colts had obtained the second-year running back in an August trade with the Chargers for the popular Lydell Mitchell, but they started the season losing to Dallas and Miami by a combined score of 80-0. In their third game, on Monday Night, Washington took a star turn. Playing on an artificial-turf field slickened by a harsh rain, he led the Colts to a 34-27 win with a tour-de-force fourth quarter that included a 54-yard touchdown pass, a 23-yard TD reception and, with the score tied in the final two minutes, a 90-yard kickoff-return TD. The coda was supplied by Cosell, who earlier had disparaged the game as a less-than-stellar attraction: “What a football game this turned out to be!”

EARL CAMPBELL, Houston Oilers vs. Miami, Nov. 20, 1978. The robust, square-shouldered rookie had run for 100-plus yards in half of his first 10 NFL games, but he saved his best for the Astrodome crowd in game number 11. Campbell ran 28 times for 199 yards and four touchdowns, sealing a back-and-forth game with an 81-yard touchdown scamper down the sideline that displayed his trademark combination of power and speed. The Oilers won, 35-30. Cosell: “What you’ve seen tonight, ladies and gentlemen, is a truly great football player, in the late moments, take total personal command of a game!”

Bo Jackson stretches for yardage against the Chiefs in 1988.

BO JACKSON, Los Angeles Raiders at Seattle, Nov. 30, 1987. The two-sport star had been drafted first overall in 1986 by Tampa Bay but instead signed a three-year deal with baseball’s Kansas City Royals. Raiders owner Al Davis gained his NFL rights by drafting him in the seventh round the next year; Davis signed him to a huge contract that allowed him to join the Raiders after the Royals season was over. So about a month after finishing his baseball rookie season with 22 homers, he played his first NFL game on November 1. But heading into the game at the Kingdome, the Raiders had lost seven straight games, the team’s worst losing streak in 25 years. In the first quarter, Bo lost a fumble and dropped a pass; then things picked up. He caught a 14-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and followed that with the signature play of his NFL career: a 91-yard touchdown run (at the time, the longest run in Raiders history), in which he followed a block by Marcus Allen, turned the corner and pulled away with ease and elegance from Seattle defenders. After running through the end zone, he disappeared into the tunnel leading to the locker room, and Raiders teammates followed him to celebrate. Michaels: “There goes Bo and nobody catches Bo. Touchdown!” Dierdorf: “He may not stop til Tacoma!” Michaels: “Portland!” Gifford: “He just went by Spokane!” Dierdorf commented, while viewing the replay, “It’s like little kids chasing a grown man!” Later in the game, Bo added a third touchdown, running over Seattle’s loquacious linebacker Brian Bosworth, in the process. His total of 221 rushing yards still ranks as tops in any game in Monday Night history.

RANDY MOSS, Minnesota at Green Bay, Oct. 5, 1998. Like Campbell and Jackson, Moss was a rookie (like Bo, he was playing in his fifth NFL game and his first on Monday Night). The Vikings entered the game at 4-0, but no team defended its home turf like the Packers (25 straight regular-season wins, plus four in the playoffs, at Lambeau Field). Something had to give, and Moss was the X-factor. An early 75-yard touchdown pass from Randall Cunningham to Moss was negated by a penalty, but by game’s end, that was just an afterthought. Moss finished with five catches for 190 yards, including scoring plays of 52 and 44 yards and other receptions gaining 46 and 41 yards. The Vikings ran out to a 37-7 lead and won, 37-24. Dierdorf: “Randy Moss is the best young receiver that I have seen, maybe ever… Randy, you have arrived!”

MICHAEL VICK, Philadelphia at Washington, Nov. 15, 2010. Vick played six often-sensational seasons with the Falcons, a stretch that ended abruptly with his guilty plea in August 2007 to federal charges relating to dog-fighting. He was suspended by the NFL, spent the better part of two years in prison, and saw financial losses well into eight figures. But after being released by the Falcons and from prison, and after getting guidance from Tony Dungy, Vick signed with the Eagles. He was a backup in 2009, but earned the starting job early in the 2010 season. On the first play of the game against the Redskins (who were quarterbacked that night by former Eagles QB Donovan McNabb, who had been traded to Washington in April), Vick connected with DeSean Jackson in stride for an 88-yard touchdown (60-plus yards in the air), and he didn’t stop there. Vick threw for 333 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 80 yards and two touchdowns to propel his team to a 59-28 victory, as the Eagles set a still-standing Monday Night record for points in one game. No other player in NFL history, before Vick or since, has had a game in which he passed for 300+ yards and 4+ TDs, and ran for 50+ yards and 2+ TDs. Gruden: “I don’t know how you stop this guy!”

MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

MOST MEMORABLE GAMES

Bears quarterback Jim McMahon during the 1985 season.

Bears at Dolphins, Dec. 2, 1985. The path that Mike Ditka’s team took to a 12-0 record included 44-0 and 36-0 wins over Dallas and Atlanta, respectively, in the two weeks leading into what is still the highest-viewed game in the 50-year history of Monday Night Football. And with talk about completing an undefeated and untied championship season rampant, who would stand in their way but the only coach in NFL history ever to direct such a team – the Dolphins’ Don Shula, who in 1972 led his team to a 14-0 regular season and subsequent Super Bowl win. And Shula was not shy about defending his, and his 1972 team’s, unique standing in NFL history. He invited several stars of that 1972 team to watch the Bears game from the sideline. They saw Miami’s Dan Marino throw three touchdown passes to outduel Bears backup QB Steve Fuller in a game in which the Bears never led. The same defense that had blanked the Cowboys and Falcons was torched for 31 first-half points by Marino and Co. Down, 38-24, early in the fourth quarter, Fuller limped to the sidelines and was replaced by the regular starter, Jim McMahon, who had missed the last three games with a shoulder injury. But for once, McMahon could provide no magic. Walter Payton, the Bears’ most dominant offensive force, had entered the game with a streak of seven consecutive games rushing for 100-or-more yards, tying the league’s single-season record shared by Earl Campbell and O.J. Simpson (who was announcing the game for ABC). But he was underused by the Bears; he didn’t get a single carry over the game’s first nine minutes. He climbed up to 80 yards when the Bears got the ball back, down by 14 points, with 2:27 left in the fourth quarter. But what happened next was odd: the Bears came out running. Payton carried on three of the Bears’ next four plays, gaining 18 yards but consuming time and then losing a fumble that sealed the result. When the Bears got the ball back after a punt in the closing seconds, they ran two plays, both runs by Payton, to put him over 100 yards and break the record. Simpson jocularly bemoaned losing a share of the record by commenting, “Another one bites the dust.” (Barry Sanders currently holds that record, with 14 consecutive 100-yard games in 1997.) Miami’s 38-24 victory remained the only blemish on Chicago’s record, as the team finished 15-1 and rolled past three postseason opponents to win Super Bowl XX.

Dolphins at Jets, Oct. 23, 2000. There was a carnival atmosphere at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, even beyond the usual Monday Night circus. The AFC East battle of 5-1 teams took place on an off-day during the Yankees-Mets World Series, and there was pre-game commotion when fans spotted Roger Clemens, the Yankees pitcher who the previous night had tossed a broken bat in the direction of Mike Piazza, the Mets catcher who had taken a Clemens pitch to the head that July. When the game began, it looked to be a TKO: Miami led, 23-7, at the half. Early in the third quarter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, two years away from the California governor’s mansion, showed up in the ABC booth. Then came a couple of outrageous predictions. First, announcer Dennis Miller gently poked him, “Arnold, I’m just buddying up to you, babe, because I know you’re gonna be the governor of California someday. Take care of me. We’re gettin’ killed with the state taxes out there.” Schwarzenegger responded that “it would be taken care of,” said he was a Jets fan, and though a comeback was far from the most ardent fan’s mind, he offered, “Wayne Chrebet is gonna pull it off. I think that as usual the Jets are going to come from behind, you will see… I think the Dolphins have to be terminated.” Miami scored again and led, 30-7, heading into the fourth quarter. Then Vinny Testaverde threw two touchdown passes in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter, followed by a field goal and another TD pass to create a 30-30 tie with just under four minutes left. But 22 seconds later, Miami’s Jay Fielder responded with a touchdown pass to create a 37-30 lead. Testaverde drove the Jets downfield and with 42 seconds to play, tossed his fourth TD pass of the quarter, this one to unlikeliest of receivers: longtime offensive tackle Jumbo Elliott. Listen to Al Michaels: “Out of the tight formation. Fake to Martin. And it is juggled and caught – BY JUMBO ELLIOTT! The tackle lines up as an eligible receiver at the end of the line. He’s open, he’s juggling, he’s falling down…” Then, after Michaels noted, “It’s the first catch of his career! He’s played 173 games!” his colleague Dennis Miller responded, with classic understatement, “Well, you can’t shut him down forever, Al!” Testaverde had become only the second player in NFL history to throw TD passes to four different teammates in the fourth quarter, joining Joe Montana. The game went to overtime, and John Hall’s 40-yard field goal gave the Jets a 40-37 win that lasted more than four hours. And The Terminator called it!

Colts at Buccaneers, Oct. 6, 2003. On his 48th birthday, former Bucs coach Tony Dungy brought his 4-0 Colts into Tampa to challenge the reigning Super Bowl champions, led by Dungy’s successor, Jon Gruden. But over the game’s first 56 minutes, Tampa Bay led, 35-14, with Brad Johnson outdueling Peyton Manning. Keenan McCardell had scored three touchdowns and Ronde Barber added another on a pick-six. But a 90-yard kickoff return by Brad Pyatt set Manning up deep in Tampa Bay territory, and the master went to work. First, James Mungro scored a touchdown on fourth-and-1 from the three, with 3:37 remaining. Next, Mike Vanderjagt’s popped-up onside kick was recovered by the Colts’ Idrees Bashir. Manning then threw six passes, completing five with the payoff being a 28-yard touchdown to Marvin Harrison, with 2:29 left. Vanderjagt tried another onside kick, this time unsuccessful, but the Bucs were forced to punt and Manning got the ball back at 1:41. A few plays into the drive, a 52-yard gain on a pass to Harrison moved the ball to the 6-yard line. From there, Ricky Williams carried twice and scored, and the score was 35-35. Announcer John Madden: “I think this is very, very close to ‘Do you believe in miracles?’ I’m not saying we’re there, but this is amazing.” On the last play of the quarter, the Bucs’ Martin Grammatica’s 62-yard field-goal attempt was blocked. Tampa Bay won the overtime toss, made two first downs, and punted. Manning took over at his 13, and 14 plays later, Vanderjagt, with the highest career success rate in NFL history to that point, and 12-for-12 for the season, lined up for a 40-yard field-goal attempt. His kick was no good, but Simeon Rice was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, for leaping – there’s something you don’t want in an athletic contest! Vanderjagt tried again, from 29 yards. The kick doinked the right upright… and caromed through! Michaels: “How crazy is this? How crazy?” Madden: “If you’re going to doink the pipe, you want it to go inside after the doink.” It was the first time in NFL history that a team won after having trailed by as many as 21 points with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

Packers fan Laurie Larson holds up a sign in reference to a call made by replacement referees that decided a Monday night game between the Packers and the Seahawks.

Packers at Seahawks, Sept. 24, 2012. It was three weeks into the NFL season – three weeks filled with arguments, controversial calls and odd rulings caused by the absence of the NFL’s regular game officials, who were being locked out by the league during a labor dispute. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson had trouble getting things going: Rodgers was sacked eight times, while Wilson had completed only nine of his first 20 passes. Green Bay led, 12-7, with 8 seconds remaining in the game, and Seattle faced a fourth-and-10 at the Packers’ 24-yard line. Gruden knew what the next play would be: “Flood a section of the end zone with as many Seahawks as you can and give someone a chance.” Mike Tirico handled the play-by-play: “Wilson scrambles to keep it alive. The game’s final play is a Wilson loft to the end zone, which is… fought for by Tate, with Jennings, simultaneous, who has it? Who’d they give it to? Touchdown!!! One guy goes up ‘touchdown,’ the other said ‘no time.’ Has to be looked at because it’s a score… We must have a definitive call, there was one touchdown signal… The Seahawks have won!” Wow. The replacement officials working the game had some sorting out to do – and some explaining. The usual cohort of receivers and defenders had gathered in the end zone as Wilson’s pass arced downward. The first noticeable action was Seattle’s Golden Tate giving a two-hands-in-the-back push to get Green Bay’s Sam Shields out of the way. (There was no flag for offensive pass interference.) Then Tate and Green Bay’s M.D. Jennings leaped, with four hands stretching upward toward the ball. Jennings was the first to get both hands on it and pulled it into his chest, as he fell to the ground, partially atop Tate, who did not get his second hand onto the ball until it was in the grasp of Jennings. That fact made it seem like an interception to television viewers, and subsequent replays confirmed that observation. On the field, the back judge, Derrick Rhone-Dunn, and the side judge, Lance Easley, made conflicting signals. Rhone-Dunn raised his arms and crossed them, back and forth, over his head. That signal most normally conveys a clock stoppage due to a turnover (in this case, it would also be a touchback). As he was doing that, Easley raised his arms straight for a touchdown. The play was ruled a touchdown by the field officials, and it was not changed upon a replay review. Gruden was dissatisfied: “How does M.D. Jennings not get credit for the interception? I have no idea!… Golden Tate gets away with one of the most blatant offensive pass-interference calls I’ve ever seen; M.D. Jennings intercepts the pass; and Tate’s walking out of here as the player of the game!… They should give Green Bay the game is what they should do… This is what instant replay is for…This is wrong, I don’t feel good about this.” Tirico’s words, upon hearing that the play would not be changed via replay, were the night’s most definitive: “Seahawks win, in the most bizarre finish you’ll ever see!”

Chiefs at Rams, Nov. 19, 2018. This game was originally slated to be played in Mexico City, but at the last minute it was transferred to Los Angeles because the NFL decided that the playing surface in Mexico was not up to league standards. One hundred five points later, NFL fans were grateful for the prescience of that decision. It would have been a shame if anything had caused these teams to slow down their pace of 1.75 points per minute. The Rams took the decision, 54-51. The first Monday Night Football game since 1985 to originate at the Los Angeles Coliseum turned out to be the first game in NFL history in which each team topped 50 points, to produce the third-highest points total in NFL history, and to rank as the highest-scoring game in Monday Night Football history. Patrick Mahomes passed for 478 yards and a Monday Night-record six touchdowns; Jared Goff threw for 413 and four. The game was tied, 23-23, at halftime, and the Rams led, 40-30, entering the final quarter. There were five touchdowns in the fourth quarter, with each of the last four resulting in a lead change. The final touchdown was a 40-yard Goff-to-Gerald Everett pass with just under two minutes remaining. Thereafter, the Chiefs had two more possessions, but Marcus Peters and Lamarcus Joyner ended them with interceptions.

MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

MOST IMPACTFUL TELECASTS

Jack Gregory (81) and Ron Snidow (88) blast through the Jets protection to pressure Joe Namath in Cleveland.

Jets at Browns, Sept. 21, 1970. As mentioned earlier, this game was the foundation of the longest-running sports series in the history of prime-time network television. As such, some trivia is interesting. The first voice on the air belonged to Jackson, the original play-by-play caller, as he delivered the overview and opening billboards. The first named sponsors were Marlboro Cigarettes, the Ford Motor Company and Goodyear Tires. (That 1970 season was the only one in which Monday Night had a cigarette sponsor. A federal law banning cigarette ads on TV went into effect on Jan. 2, 1971, the day after the big bowl games.) But the first in-game commercial was for Gillette, as the previous year’s Super Bowl quarterbacks, Len Dawson and Joe Kapp, hawked the efficiency of Platinum Plus blades. The first player interviews were conducted pre-game, on the field, by Cosell – linebacker Al Atkinson and Joe Namath. Atkinson, who was the first player to speak on Monday Night Football (now there’s a trivia question), had suddenly announced his retirement from the sport in early August, citing Namath’s behavior and its impact on “team unity” as the chief factor. Atkinson later returned, and in his interview with Cosell, mouthed the usual sentiments about the team pulling together to win. Namath spoke next, saying that this 1970 team would have to prove itself as the 1968 Super Bowl team had done.

Patriots at Dolphins, Dec. 8, 1980. As the game was reaching its climax, news reached ABC that John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his apartment building in New York. With three seconds to play in the fourth quarter, as New England’s John Smith prepared to attempt a potential game-winning field goal, Cosell intoned, “We have to say it. Remember this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy, confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the west side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all of the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that news flash, which in duty bound, we had to tell you.” Smith’s kick was blocked and the game went to overtime, where Miami won, 16-13. Lennon had once appeared on Monday Night Football, in an interview with Cosell in 1974. Asked what he thought about the spectacle of American pro football, Lennon famously said that “it makes rock concerts look like tea parties.” The backstory of Cosell’s announcement, in an audiotape that came to light a few years ago, reveals that Cosell was uncharacteristically reticent to make the announcement, given the game situation at the time. But during a commercial break, Gifford convinced him that he had to say what he knew. In an era without internet or cell phones, Cosell had delivered the stunning information to millions of Americans.

Giants at Redskins, Nov. 18, 1985. What was a truly interesting game in its own right is best remembered for the gruesome injury to Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, then 36 years old, whose leg was broken when he was sacked from behind by Lawrence Taylor. Theismann’s 12-year career in the NFL, which followed four years playing in Canada, came to an end; he was never able to play again. While there have been other serious and important injuries that have happened on Monday Night – Steve Young’s career also ended after he was concussed when sacked by Aeneas Williams in a game in 1999 – it is Theismann’s that is best recalled and which came to symbolize how a pro football player’s career can end suddenly. After Theismann’s injury, he was replaced by Jay Schroeder, and the Redskins went on to defeat the Giants, 23-21. Coach Joe Gibbs went all out, as Washington attempted and recovered a pair of onside kicks and also earned a first down on a fake punt.

Brett Favre is escorted off the field with his wife, Deanna, after the Packers defeated the Raiders 41-7 on Monday, Dec. 22, 2003 in Oakland.

Packers at Oakland Raiders, Dec. 22, 2003. The news came in on Sunday evening: Brett Favre’s 58-year-old father Irv had died suddenly in Mississippi. Brett was with the team, which was already in Oakland for the next night’s game. There was some early question about whether Favre would play in the game, and if so, how well. When the first question was answered in the affirmative as he was introduced the next evening, the notoriously partisan fans in the Oakland Coliseum gave him a rousing ovation. The second question was also answered affirmatively. His performance, in his 188th consecutive start, was one for the ages. Starting with nine consecutive completions, Number Four threw four touchdown passes on the way to a 31-7 halftime lead. Even though he slowed down the pace with a large second-half lead, Favre threw 30 passes for 399 yards, three yards shy of what was then his career high. Seven of his completions gained 25-or-more yards, a career high that would stand for the rest of his career; and his single-game passer rating of 154.9 was also a career high that would remain unequaled. Late in the game, Favre was replaced by his backup, friend and future Super Bowl-winning coach Doug Pederson. Favre later said that he knew that the night would be different when he heard the ovation from Oakland fans. “It was the most nervous I’ve ever been in a game,” and he marveled at how, even “under perfect circumstances, I’ve never been able to do what I (did) in that game. If there was ever divine intervention, he was there that night.”

Falcons at Saints, Sept. 25, 2006. Thirteen months after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city of New Orleans and the surrounding region, the Saints were back at the Superdome, hosting their long time divisional and regional rivals. Due to damage wrought by the storm, the Saints had been unable to play in their beloved dome during the 2005 season, playing most of their home games in San Antonio or Baton Rouge. But behold the changes a year had brought: The Saints had won their first two games, both on the road, they had a new head coach in Sean Payton and a new quarterback in Drew Brees, the Superdome was filled and rocking and the party was on. Atlanta received the opening kickoff, failed to make a first down, and then Michael Koenen’s punt was blocked by Steve Gleason and recovered for a touchdown by Curtis DeLoatch. The defense sacked Vick five times and held the Falcons to 229 yards and 10 first downs, and the Saints won, 19-3. Tirico, in the closing moments: “People are going to enjoy, they’re going to celebrate, they’re going to have a good time. Tomorrow morning’s going to come and all the problems that people have in New Orleans are still going to be here. But for tonight, they were given a chance to step away and enjoy a moment in this dome that some never thought they would see again.”

MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

MOST PERSONALLY MEMORABLE MOMENTS

Vikings at Lions, Dec. 5, 1983. This one actually happened prior to the game. I was grabbing some dinner in the press dining area sitting with Cosell, who had gone through a tumultuous season, his 14th on Monday Night Football. In Monday Night’s season premiere, he had referred rather casually to Washington’s elusive receiver Alvin Garrett as a “little monkey,” causing calls of protest. Cosell, who had championed the rights of black athletes throughout his career, was shocked at the protests and what he viewed as his vilification by media colleagues and people who should respect his career of defending the rights of Muhammad Ali and Curt Flood, among others. I knew that he was tired of traveling and had heard him threaten “to stay home in Westhampton Beach” more than a dozen times. So when he told me over dinner that this would be his last month on Monday Night, I responded, “Come on, Howard. You’ve been saying this for years. You’re not going to leave now, not with ABC finally getting its first Super Bowl after next season.” Usually such a remark would cause Cosell to fold. This time, he shot back. “I know I’ve said it before. But now I mean it. You just watch me, Steverino.” It happened exactly as he said it. The next week’s game in Tampa was his final Monday Night in a football booth (he did a Friday game later that week) and, upcoming Super Bowl or not, he left the series after that season.

49ers-Giants, Oct. 8, 1984. This was my first close-up view of the genius of 49ers coach Bill Walsh. At a production meeting the day before the game, Walsh was previewing for the ABC production crew how he would script the opening drives of the game. He said that after running on the first few plays, he thought that he would catch the Giants in a blitz that would leave Renaldo Nehemiah in one-on-one coverage. “And Joe (Montana) will hit him and that will be a touchdown,” Walsh almost parenthetically noted, without any excitement at all. Flip ahead to the first quarter. Running plays; blitz; Montana to Nehemiah, one-on-one with Mark Haynes, 59 yards, touchdown. The 49ers led, 21-0, less than eight minutes into the game and won, 31-10. Genius appreciated.

Eddie George runs past Derek Smith in the Titans’ 27-21 win on Monday, Oct. 30, 2000, at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

Titans at Redskins, Oct. 30, 2000. Eight days before the presidential election, Monday Night visited the nation’s capital. After our Monday morning production meeting, I went back to my hotel room and while casually flipping through Washington’s media guide, came upon a section of the year-by-year scores of games. I thought, maybe there’s some cute relationship between pre-Election Day results and the result of the election. Well, the relationship was real, and it was spectacular. Since the franchise moved from Boston to Washington in 1937, whenever it had won its last home game prior to a presidential election, the incumbent party would retain the White House; whenever it had lost its last home game prior to such an election, the out-of-power party would win the White House. Fifteen presidential elections, and in all 15 cases, the results of the election adhered to the precepts of the rule. I explained it to Michaels, who was all in, and we convinced our producer to use it on that night’s game. Al sold it really well on the air. And so when the Titans (representing Vice President Al Gore’s native state of Tennessee, no less) won, 27-21, the results of the election were clear: There would be a change of party in the White House, and Gore was destined to lose to Texas Governor George W. Bush. Starting the next morning, phone calls came fast and furious, and they have recurred in every presidential-election year since then. Others dubbed it the “Redskins Rule” and I enjoyed seeing a particularly clever reference to it during the first season of the retro series “Mad Men.” But during the 37 days of alleged uncertainty about the results of the 2000 election, with batteries of lawyers contesting it, my position was simply, “This has been asked and answered.” Thirty-seven days after the game, the Supreme Court finally agreed. I’m now removing my tongue from my cheek.

Broncos at Ravens, Sept. 30, 2002. On the last play of the first half, Denver’s Jason Elam attempted a 57-yard field goal but the kick was short and wide. The Ravens had dropped safety Chris McAlister deep and he caught the ball in the end zone, stutter-stepped near the goal line to try to rope-a-dope the Broncos into thinking he would run it out, and then set sail. Picking up a block from Ray Lewis, McAlister raced downfield and scored the longest touchdown on a return of a missed field goal in NFL history. But how long was it? The official scorer called it 108 yards, but I was skeptical. We showed a really good view from a camera shooting across the end line, and McAlister was clearly closer to the middle of the 10-yard end zone than to the end line. While the end zone is unmarked by individual yard marks, it was easy to see where McAlister had caught the ball based on where his feet were aligned on the Ravens logo painted on the grass. As halftime had hit, I borrowed a ruler from a colleague and took a short walk out to the end zone. I could see the fresh cleat marks in the grass, exactly aligned on the logo with my observations from the replay. I measured it off and no way it was 108 yards. Maybe 107 (the position of the ball would govern). The next day, it was officially changed to 107. It was still a record (since surpassed three times, including a legit 109-yard return by Antonio Cromartie in 2007), but at least the yardage was correct!

Patriots at Broncos, Nov. 3, 2003. The Patriots trailed in Denver, 24-23, and had the ball at their own one-yard line with about three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Tom Brady threw three incompletions, bringing up 4th-and-10 and a decision for Bill Belichick. He had all three timeouts remaining plus the two-minute warning. Should he go for it on fourth down, punt from short formation with his punter’s back at the end line, or… should he concede a safety, fall behind by 26-23, and execute a free kick, unimpeded, from the 20-yard line? Yes, there occasionally are times when taking a safety is an obvious tactic, but in my mind, I never recall seeing a team take an intentional safety while behind so late in a game, and live to tell about it (translation: come back to win the game). All this ran through my head after Brady’s third-down pass fell incomplete, and, from my position in the truck, I could see on my announcer monitor that Michaels seemed to be thinking about something, maybe along these same lines. As the punter came on and prepared to take the snap, I said into my microphone to Al, “Intentional safety?” All he needed was a nudge. I saw him nod to me, and right before the snap, he mentioned that this might be a time to concede a safety and gain more than 20 yards of field with no chance of a block. That’s exactly what happened. The Patriots fumbled the ball out of the end zone, Ken Walter boomed a 64-yard free kick with negative return yardage, Denver went three and out, the Patriots got the ball back with 2:15 remaining and one timeout left, Brady was Brady (just a younger version) and he hit David Givens for the go-ahead touchdown. Asante Samuel intercepted Danny Kanell and New England won 30-26.

 

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