Starr Gazing

Dr. Dan Starr
Retired Director of Athletics and Professor Emeritus of American History at Canisius College.


The Famous – Infamous Heidi Game

It’s that time of the year when the pundits, and others who know even more, discuss quarterbacks and try to determine who was the greatest of all time. Actually, it appears the contest for title of the greatest has been settled. Rarely does anyone argue against Mr. Brady of Belichick fame as number one. Indeed the top five candidates are largely agreed upon by most football “experts.” In no particular order, they are Johnny Unitas, Peyton Manning, maybe John Elway, Joe Montana, and Otto Graham. Our Jim Kelly is somewhere in the top 25.

At my age, I categorize quarterbacks a bit differently. Okay, Brady is at the top. Who would dare disagree? Then, I emphasize the best of a given era. No doubt about it, Otto Graham was the best of the late 40s/early 50s. The greatest of the 60s was Johnny Unitas and of the 70s/80s, Joe Montana. There is a bit of an argument about the turn of the century, pre-Brady years. Was it Peyton Manning or Bret Favre?

Where will Josh Allen go? That brings up our Bills. We also have a top five category. In the 40s, tricky George Ratterman led us to our first playoff victory over Baltimore. An even greater feat was his leading the Bills to tie the seemingly invincible Cleveland Browns on two occasions. Yes, the Browns were one of the greatest teams ever. Ratterman was slated to take over for the super Otto Graham in the mid-50s. He was featured in a new magazine at the time, Sports Illustrated. Alas, he suffered a career-ending injury in one of his very first games so he became a sheriff of Campbell county in Kentucky.

Number 2 in Buffalo quarterbacks is Jack Kemp. No argument there. He had a little help from the colorful “Bomb Thrower,” Darryl LaMonica. In the 70s/80s, Joe Ferguson was the star. Then, of course, Jim Kelly was at the very top of the group in the 90s. Who was number five? Maybe Doug Flutie. Many fans believed the Bills goofed by not holding on to him.

However, let’s go back to the monumental figures in the game. But what about Joe Namath? Joe, always one of my heroes, was a genuine legend.

I did a column on Namath a few years ago. I maintained that Joe Namath, while not in the upper echelon of the “greatest” category, was the most influential quarterback of all time. I cited Webster’s dictionary, noting that influential meant “power to affect others – having impact on the sport and on society in general.”

Namath has some good stats. For example, he was the first QB to throw for 4000 yards in a season. But his stats, or metrics (today’s hot term), certainly do not measure up to the top five.

His influence is a whole other story.

Namath’s contract with the NY Jets for a salary of over $400,000 in and of itself influenced how the league would evolve. It showed the old guard NFL owners that the upstart AFL meant business.

Every red-blooded American football fan back in the late 60s remembers the famous Namath guarantee of victory in Super Bowl III. An unprecedented guarantee of victory (and fulfilled) over the overwhelmingly favored Baltimore Colts in 1969 ranks as one of the greatest upsets in NFL history. After the game, and this I love, Joe was asked if Baltimore had the best defense he faced. He answered, “No, that would be the Buffalo Bills defense.” Yes, Joe stuck it to the old NFL big wigs (and even gave Buffalo a plug).

There was much more to the Namath influence. The 60s were tumultuous years in American history. Namath symbolized the times with his iconoclasm and fashion sense. Sporting the mod hairstyle (no jock style crew cut for him), wearing a fur coat on the sidelines, and playing in white sneakers, Namath became a virtual culture icon. Of course, Joe was even more influential because he played on the world’s biggest stage, the Big Apple. Part of that stage included Bachelors III, an upscale Manhattan bar of which he was briefly part owner. That enhanced the Namath legend. Indeed, “Broadway Joe” was a very appropriate moniker.

Then came Monday Night Football with Howard Cosell. It would become the longest running TV sports program in history. Namath and the Jets were a given for the inaugural Monday Night Football show. The Namath legend was further enhanced.

Much more could be added to the Namath influence and legend but the reason for resurrecting the subject now: the 50th anniversary of the Heidi game. Chuck Mancuso, a devoted fan of NY Post sports columnist, Phil Mushnick, brought the anniversary to my attention. Recently, Mushnick wrote about the 50th anniversary of what has come to be called the “Heidi Bowl.”

The Heidi game (or Heidi Bowl) in brief:

The Jets and the Oakland Raiders, vicious rivals and both in the hunt for the AFC championship, played a very important, 4pm game on November 17, 1968. NBC scheduled the popular family movie, Heidi, for 7pm that same evening. Football games did not take as long as they do today; NBC executives assumed the game would be over in plenty of time for the movie’s scheduled start. The 7pm hour came and NBC promptly switched to Heidi. There were fewer than two minutes to go in the game, but most assumed the Jets had it won.

Mushnick says this, “NBC bolted from the Jets – Raiders game, an intense and often brutal AFC rivalry for the start of the movie, Heidi. Lost (to the national television audience) were two Oakland touchdowns in the last minute that beat the Jets, 43-32, and caused such calamity that it better served the AFL in its future merger with the NFL than all the tea in…” The aftermath: all hell broke loose and switchboards lit up and were overloaded. The police were called. It was like New Year’s Eve in Times Square or the VJ Day celebration ending WWII. Mushnick said, “By 7:15, NBC was the National Broadcasting Calamity. The switchboard spit sparks, newspapers demanded answers, then summary executions, and peacocks were slaughtered.” In the aftermath, changes were made. NFL rules changed. There would be no games blacked out for another program.

NFL football had indeed become the great American obsession. That game, and Namath there in a central role, were indications of how the upstart AFC and Broadway Joe had cast their influence. The game was another indication of the ever-widening influence on the NFL and spurred its popularity to new heights. Joe was having a world-class season. New York City knew it; America knew it. In 1997, the Heidi game was voted the most memorable regular season game in professional football history – who could argue?

PS: The Jets and Raiders met a few weeks later in the championship AFC game. The Jets won 27-23, and with Broadway Joe at the helm, went on to Super Bowl victory and more legendary accolades. Incidentally, Gerry Philben of UB was an important part of the Jets team.


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