“My Bookie Godfather Lost It”: An Oral History of the NFL’s Infamous “Heidi Game”
Based on the in-game events of the Nov. 17, 1968 showdown between the Jets and Raiders alone, the match-up was already going to be long-remembered. But by cutting away from the unprecedented final minute to air Heidi, NBC made the game truly unforgettable. While many viewers might be relieved to cut away from a Raiders game this season, 1968 was a different time. The Jets and Raiders were both 7-2, and since the NFL season was then only 14 games long, the Week 11 match-up had significant postseason implications. And then: pigtails.
To commemorate the 45th anniversary of the game—as good a reason as any, right?—we dug up old newspaper clips and sound bites, and connected with some of the key people involved.
In 1967 the Jets and Raiders met twice: Once at Shea Stadium in New York, where the Jets handed the Raiders their only regular season loss, and the next time at Oakland Coliseum, where the Raiders avenged that first loss in violent fashion.
Paul (Dr. Z) Zimmerman (Then the Jets beat writer for the New York Post, recalling the game in 1972): The 1967 game was one of the most vicious in Jet history. [Jets QB Joe] Namath was hit late, punched in the groin. They aimed for his knees, tried to step on his hands. And [Raiders DE Ben] Davidson got Namath on a rollout, with a right that started somewhere before Hayward and Alameda.
Davidson (To the New York Times in Dec. 1967): I don’t think my tackle broke Namath’s cheekbone. Not that I care. … Namath says that he’s been beat up worse by girls. He’s asking for it again.
Joe Namath (To reporters in Nov. 1968): I think I like Oakland less than any other team, personally. … [The Raiders] hate me, I’m sure, but that’s because I’m the opposing quarterback. Beyond that, I don’t know.
When the teams met again on November 17, 1968 the Jets had a three-and-a-half game lead in the AFC East, and the chance to clinch an AFC title with wins at Oakland and the following week at San Diego.
Namath (present day): Going into the 1968 game, oh, there was anger! The Raiders were a mean group. In the NFL back then the name of the game was “Kill the Quarterback” and the MVP was the “Most Valuable Physician”.
The Nov. 17, 1968 Jets and Raiders game, which started at 4 p.m. ET, was predictably cutthroat, with six lead changes and ties in the first 59 minutes. NBC, meanwhile, was scheduled to air the hit movie Heidi at 7 p.m.
Curt Gowdy, Jr. (SVP of Production and Executive Producer for SNY, and son of the game’s play-by-play voice Curt Gowdy, Sr.): In those days NFL games got a three-hour time slot, and I don’t think a live pro football game had ever run long. In this game when the 4th quarter started it was filled with penalties and stoppage of play.
Dick Cline (NBC’s broadcast operations supervisor for the East Coast, in 2002): At about quarter of seven the people who wanted to see Heidi started calling in to find out if Heidi was going to air on time. … Then, as it got to seven o’clock, the football fans started calling in.
The volume of calls blew 26 fuses in the switchboard. At 7 p.m. the Jets were leading 32–29 with 65 seconds left to play. Despite having sold the film’s entire two-hour block to sponsor Timex, late into the game’s fourth quarter NBC executives began changing their minds about a hard 7 p.m. start for Heidi—but because of the broken switchboard, Cline couldn’t reach his superiors to confer on the situation. He decides to follows through with the original plan.
Jets fan Pat Marcarelli: All the guys were at my dad’s house in New Haven, including my godfather, who was a bookie. The Jets come back and look like they have the game under control with less than a minute left. And then, what the heck?
Namath: When NBC pulled the plug we were playing well enough to win. But Jim [Hudson, a Jets safety] had been ejected, and the fellow who took his place [rookie Mike D’Amato] slipped up a little bit.
As the rest of the country watches a D’Amato penalty cost the Jets 15 yards, east coasters see a scared blonde orphan alight from a carriage in Frankfurt with her aunt. When D’Amato is outpaced by running back Charlie Smith for an Oakland score, Heidi pleads with her Aunt Dete, “Please don’t make me stay here.” East coasters empathize.
Marcarelli: Every jaw dropped, and my bookie godfather lost it. Was he winning bets or was he losing them? We’re banging on the neighbors’ doors: “Can we watch the game?” “Well, Heidi’s on.” It was football and then it was a field of flowers or something, and the big letters: HEIDI.
TVs on the east coast show the Swiss Alps. The rest of the country sees the Raiders tack on another TD after the Jets fumble the kickoff.
Marcarelli: A while later the game result came across the bottom of the screen like it was a storm warning:
“Jets lose to Raiders in last seconds of the game”
Total pandemonium. Not to mention that after the late games I’d always turn to CBS for Ed Sullivan for my rock & roll fix, but there was a musicians strike that week and for the first time Ed Sullivan was a rerun. It was basically the worst night of TV ever.
Namath: We didn’t find out about what happened until we got back to New York and the airport folks were asking us about it. We were surprised, but it wasn’t too big a deal for us. We wouldn’t have seen it anyway.
Jack Gould (New York Times TV critic in 1968): NBC [ran] the streamer a second time just as Heidi’s paralytic cousin Klara summoned up courage to try walking. When it comes to doing the wrong thing at the wrong moment, NBC should receive a headless Emmy for last night’s fiasco.
Jennifer Edwards (The actress who portrayed Heidi): I was 11 when the film aired, but I was living in London so I wasn’t aware of what had happened until the next day when my dad told me. My grandfather and dad [director Blake Edwards] were huge football fans so I knew it was pretty big.
Gowdy: After the game my dad went down to the trucks and met with his producer Don Ellis, and commented on what a great game it was. Don said, “Well, Curt, half of the country never saw the finish of the game, they cut to Heidi.
Edwards: A year or so after the game my family was on a boat on vacation and my dad and the skipper were talking football when the skipper started ranting about that game like, “How could NBC do that for that little brat Heidi?” I was 12 at the time, standing right there, and I started crying. My dad was shaking his head at the skipper like, Stop talking! She was Heidi. It’s my little dark cloud. But it’s funny to me how it still resonates.
The following week NBC took out a full page ad for future airings of Heidi with a “blurb” from Joe Namath: I didn’t get a chance to see it, but I hear it was great.
Edwards: Years later I was on a plane going to New York. I was already sitting in my seat and I see Joe Namath getting on the plane. I thought, “Oh come on.” He actually sits in the seat across the aisle from me, so after we took off I leaned in and I said, “Um, do you remember the Heidi Game?” And he said, “Of course I do.” And I said, “I was Heidi.” He just beamed. We ended up having a conversation for almost the full flight. It was great. I said, “You had a lot of good conversations with Johnny Carson about me!” I wonder if he’s ever seen the film.
Namath: I still haven’t seen Heidi. But I was tickled to meet her!
Edwards: I always say my tombstone is going to read: “Jennifer Edwards: She was a great moment in sports.”