Earl Hamner's NFL notoriety: How Heidi irked Jets-Raiders fans
Earl Hamner was thrilled when he was hired to adapt Johanna Spyri's children's classic, Heidi, into a television movie. Little did he know its airing would become a date that would live forever in pro football infamy.
That date is November 17, 1968 with 65 seconds left in a crucial game between bitter AFL rivals the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders.
The Jets, led by star quarterback Joe Namath, were ahead 32-29 when NBC made the fateful decision, promptly at 7pm Eastern time, to cut away from the game at a commercial and start the story of the sweet little Swiss girl, much to the delight of children across the country.
The decision meant that less-than-delighted football fans missed seeing the Raiders' score two touchdowns in quick succession and trouncing the Jets in a grand 43-32 finale to what is now called the "Heidi Game." NBC got so many irate calls that the fuses in its switchboard blew out.
NBC's Dick Cline was in charge of pulling the switch on the game. He didn't receive any orders to the contrary and aired it as scheduled. In fact, NBC president Julian Goodman tried to get through to Cline to ask him to continue the game, according to an AP account, but he couldn't because of the blown-up switchboard.
NBC ran a crawl at the bottom of the screen, and Goodman fell on his sword with an apology. But the damage was done to a game that ranks as practically everyone's list as of the most memorable in NFL history.
The problem, according to NFL.com, is that NBC sold the 7 to 9pm slot to Timex, and was contractually obligated to run Heidi at that time.
After the firestorm, networks now stay with football games till their conclusions and then begin the next scheduled programs.
Retired Raider Howie Long says the incident made quite an impression– not unlike historical disasters– on some older players in the league. "They remember where they were," says Long.
However, Long says, the Heidi Game was never discussed in the locker room during his 13-year career, which began more than a decade after the incident. "If you're not focused on football," he explains, "you get your rear end handed to you."
Earl Hamner found the whole episode both amusing and satisfying. "In a society where sports figures are glorified, for once a little girl in the Swiss Alps gets some publicity," he says.
And publicity it did receive. Delbert Mann, a noted director during television's golden age, led a critically acclaimed production. Its distinguished cast included Jean Simmons, Sir Michael Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, and, as Heidi, Jennifer Edwards, daughter of director Blake Edwards.
In the media barrage that followed its airing, television critic Harriet Van Horne wrote about a full-page ad that ran with critics' tributes to Heidi, including a wistful statement from Joe Namath: "I didn't get a chance to see it, but I hear it was great!"
Hamner also went on to adapt other classics such as Charlotte's Web and Where the Lilies Bloom, but neither became legendary in NFL history.