The Raiders and the New York Jets occupy opposite coasts, but they used to hate each other just the same.
Geography didn’t foster this rivalry in the 1960s AFL. Nasty, dramatic, entertaining affairs characterized the teams' regular meetings, often twice per year with plenty at stake.
Their first clash of the 1968 season might have been the best. Star-studded teams exchanged blows most of the day, before the Raiders did something spectacular. The Silver and Black scored two touchdowns just nine seconds apart in the game’s final minute to complete an epic comeback and secure a 43-32 Oakland victory.
Not that many saw the final stretch.
A Jets field goal tied the score at 29 with 65 seconds left. NBC aired the ensuing kickoff, went to commercial and never came back to Oakland Coliseum.
Instead, the made-for-TV children’s movie “Heidi” started in the Eastern and Central time zones, exactly as slotted at 7 p.m. ET and 6 p.m. CT. Millions of viewers saw a little girl and her grumpy grandfather living in the Swiss Alps over one of the greatest endings in AFL history.
"The Heidi Game" was played 50 years ago Saturday, and it still stands as a reminder to never, ever leave an NFL game early. Broadcast networks took it to heart, and haven’t done so since. It also showed the AFL’s growing power in pro sports, thanks to an ability to play fun, entertaining football.
NBC pre-empting the end of a huge sporting event will live in infamy, mostly because of that awesome, unaired finish.
[MORE RAIDERS: Derek Carr appreciates Mark Davis' vote of confidence]
“It was amazing,” legendary Raiders defensive back George Atkinson said. “It has been 50 years, and is still considered one of the great games of all time. Playing in it, I can agree with that. It was as exciting as anything. For it to stay in people’s minds this long, it must have been one of the best ever.”
That Raiders comeback was the stuff of legend, sparked by Daryle Lamonica’s 43-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Smith with 42 seconds left. Then the Jets fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, and Preston Ridlehuber scooped up the loose ball and returned it 2 yards for an Oakland touchdown that iced this classic.
There were eight lead changes or ties in a game featuring 10 Hall of Fame players in a heated rivalry involved big-market teams on both coasts, the reigning AFL champion Raiders and a captivating New York Jets team led by superstar quarterback Joe Namath.
That’s why people were so pissed when "Heidi" overtook the airwaves. Out East, anyway.
Nothing changed in Raiders country. Don’t forget there was a local TV in the Bay Area -- even in a sellout, by antiquated rule -- and the rest of the West Coast got to see the game's finish, with “Heidi” set to start at 7 p.m. Pacific.
New Yorkers, however, were up in arms. They started calling NBC in droves, demanding the game be put back on their TVs.
The network wanted the same thing. While the pregame plan was to air Heidi at exactly 7 p.m. ET regardless of game status, NBC higher-ups changed that thinking as the game neared its dramatic conclusion.
They wanted the game left on.
[MORE RAIDERS: Why rookie CB Nick Nelson could have a bright future]
Packed switchboards prevented NBC executives from quickly communicating, with top brass unable to pass along new marching orders. That’s why, at 7 p.m. ET that fateful day, Dick Cline cut the game feed from Oakland.
“I’m sitting in a little control room in Manhattan and everything was swirling around me, but my phones weren’t ringing,” Cline said. “I didn’t know why at the time, and it was astonishing how much publicity it got.”
Cline, then NBC’s broadcast operational supervisor for sporting events, describes the situation as a perfect storm. “Heidi” was heavily promoted, with Timex a sole sponsor that owned the entire two-hour block of family programming. A football game intriguing to both coasts went far longer than normal thanks to 31 incomplete passes, 19 penalties and a few injured players. And it was high scoring and extremely close, leaving NBC execs pondering a new course of action with a scheduling conflict looming.
NBC switchboards flooded with folks wondering when “Heidi” would start and others demanding the game stay on hindered communication, creating a blameless situation the network instantly regretted. NBC issued an apology later that night, and parodied the gaffe in future AFL promotions, but it couldn’t go back and make it right.
“You can appreciate the fact that there were no satellites, no cell phones, both of which would’ve solved any problems we had,” Cline said. “The plan, based on our meetings earlier in the week, were to go to “Heidi” at 7 o’clock.”
The event was a big deal in the Big Apple.
“Without question, it made a difference that it was the Jets and Oakland,” Cline said. “There were a lot of things in play there. … The Jets were a big part of it, because the New York newspapers and TV stations went nuts.”
That also showed the growing interest in professional football and the dynamic draw of the AFL’s new-school style.
“It showed we had a huge fan following,” Atkinson said. “The AFL was still fairly young at the time, but the fan base developed quickly. As that game displayed, there were a number of people really upset about turning that (game) off.
“It came from the fact that we played an exciting brand of football that was different from the old NFL. It was all about speed. We played man coverage, and there were a lot of deep plays stretching the field. There was a lot of excitement and a little bit different than the old conventional style of football.”