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Doug's Diggings: The day the NFL became ‘all powerful’

I’m excited, as are most football fans, that another National Football league season opens this week. I’m looking forward to pulling for the Packers and hopefully get to another Super Bowl; but I have a few observations.

First and foremost, the NFL is “king of the country” – many claim that a day in 1968 started the NFL mega-machine that we have today. The league has become so powerful, it can pretty much get anything it wants – be it television contracts/priorities, charge whatever they would like for tickets/souvenirs, blackmail cities into providing unbelievable funds for new stadiums, not allowing the media to use the word “Super Bowl” in advertising (that’s why you’ll hear it referred as “the big game,” or some other generic term when a business wants to sell chips in an ad for Super Bowl Sunday; on and on it goes.

We build shrines in our homes to pay homage to our favorite team and play fantasy football to make sure we know about every other team!

And, we fans love it! When the NFL says jump – our first response is “how high!”

Because of the NFL’s power and popularity, we fans wouldn’t think of challenging the “supreme being” that we worship on Sunday afternoons – and now, Thursday nights, Sunday nights, Monday nights and a few Saturdays thrown in for good measure!

I’m sure professional baseball, basketball and hockey can only dream about having a bit of the power owned by the NFL.

Believe it or not, there was a day when baseball was the supreme sports beast. That was definitely true in the “Babe Ruth” days and continued into the 1950s and early 1960s.

A pivotal moment for the NFL came on Nov. 17, 1968. Some say that is when the modern age of football began. What happened on the day? It is an incident known today as "The Heidi Game." The New York Jets were up against the Oakland Raiders. At the time they were two of the best teams in the American Football League, just before it merged with the National Football League.

"The Heidi Game" was played in New York on Nov. 17, 1968.

It was a close game, with each team stealing the lead from the other six times before it was all tied up, 29 to 29. Then, Jim Turner kicked a 26-yard field goal giving the Jets the lead with 50 seconds left in the game.

Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica hit Charlie Smith on a 20-yard pass. A penalty got them another 15 yards. The Raiders were crossing midfield when suddenly, fans watching the game on NBC saw "a little girl with braids in the Swiss Alps walking down a hill."

It was a day when the network didn’t realize that football was rapidly rising to its “ruling” status. Instead of showing the end of the game, the network switched to the “Heidi” movie – foolishly thinking viewers would be more upset by a delay in the movie than missing the final seconds of the football game.

Suddenly the NBC phone banks were flooded with calls from furious Jets fans; the switchboards were jammed. Viewers on the West Coast, however, got to see how the game ended. The Raiders made a thrilling comeback with two touchdowns in the last 50 seconds. Most of the country, though, missed it because the network had scheduled the made-for-television children's movie “Heidi” to begin precisely at 7 p.m. (Eastern Time).

It changed the way the media treated the game.

"The networks still saw themselves as the ultimate vehicle for this product and that the NFL would have to conform itself to the networks," said analyst Dave Zirin. "But after this day, they (networks) learned that it would actually be television that would have to conform to the National Football League."

An interesting sidelight: The little girl who played Heidi was Jennifer Edwards, 10 years old and living in London in 1968. In a recent interview she said it was a day she never forgot.

“I remember feeling that, well, it wasn't my fault,” she told NPR reporter Guy Raz.

Now living in Los Angeles, Edwards says she has recovered from the backlash.

“I remember one caption in some paper that said something about ‘the little brat in white stockings that ruined the football game,’” she said.

At one point, the producers of “The Love Boat” (A TV series) pitched an appearance on the show. Edwards would play herself and she'd meet Jets quarterback Joe Namath on the boat, and they'd fall in love. The show never happened, but Edwards did finally meet Namath about five years ago on an airplane.

“At one point, I leaned over and I said, ‘Do you remember The Heidi Game?’ And he looked at me, like, ‘Well, duh!’ and I said, ‘Well, I want to formally introduce myself. I'm Heidi.’”


All that aside, the big question on football fans minds is how the Packers and Vikings will perform this season?

First the Packers. With the new rules for defensive backs, a football team better have a very good pass rush. If pre-season means anything, the quarterbacks who get time to throw the football will likely complete between 70 and 80 percent of their passes. My big concern regarding the Packers is that, last year, they had a terrible pass rush; likewise they had a sub-par offensive line.

Packer opponents should have time to throw the ball – bad news for the Green and Gold. Maybe Julius Peppers can add some punch to the pass rush, but that’s expecting a lot from a 34-year-old lineman. And, if the offensive line doesn’t step it up, Aaron Rogers may be scrambling for his life -- another tough scenario.

On the positive side, as long as Aaron Rogers is the quarterback -- even a scrambling Aaron Rogers -- every game is potentially a winnable game! I suspect the Packers will win 10 or 11 games and should make the playoffs. One of these years, however, they better surround Aaron Rogers with some stars and not waste his prime years in the NFL. The Packers, of course, begin tonight (Thursday) in Seattle against the defending Super Bowl champs. It’s quite a test coming out of the gate.

The Vikings have their own issues. Matt Cassel will be the starter at quarterback, but faces a grueling schedule to start the season. The Vikings first five games are the Rams, Patriots, Saints, Falcons and Packers. In that stretch, Cassel is likely to falter and the fans will immediately be clamoring for rookie Teddy Bridgewater -- nothing like a good early-season quarterback controversy to mess up a team’s season.

Like the Packers, the Vikings may have some defensive line issues, with Jared Allen going to the Bears in the off-season. The Vikings defensive backs were questionable last year even when the team had a pass rush. Adrian Peterson will again be required to carry much of the offensive load.

The Viking appear to be an 8-8 type of team, but that could vary a game or two either direction. The Vikings’ first game is in St. Louis Sunday afternoon.

Doug Stohlberg

Doug Stohlberg has been part of the Hudson Star-Observer since 1973 and has been editor since 1987. He worked at the New Richmond News from 1971 to 1973. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota.

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