NBC/NBC via Getty Images
The 1968 film Heidi, starring Jennifer Edwards, was based on a best-selling children's book about an 8-year-old Swiss orphan.
The 1968 film Heidi, starring Jennifer Edwards, was based on a best-selling children's book about an 8-year-old Swiss orphan. NBC/NBC via Getty Images
Forty-four years ago, a little girl changed the world of sports in an incident known today as "The Heidi Game."
That day — Nov. 17, 1968 — is when the modern age of football began, Dave Zirin, the sports editor for The Nation magazine, says.
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": New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath sweeps around the right side past Oakland defenders Ralph Oliver and Dan Conners to score from the one-yard line during the second quarter against the Oakland Raiders in Oakland on Nov. 17, 1968.
"The Heidi Game": New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath sweeps around the right side past Oakland defenders Ralph Oliver and Dan Conners to score from the one-yard line during the second quarter against the Oakland Raiders in Oakland on Nov. 17, 1968. AP
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. The Jets took 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 all of the sudden, Zirin says, fans watching NBC saw "a little girl with braids in the Swiss Alps starts walking down a hill."
The phone banks at the network flooded with furious Jets fans; the switchboards were jammed. "It was the sort of thing that was so shocking that, as Art Buchwald put it — the great humorist — he said: 'Men who would not get out of their armchairs for earthquakes made their way to the phone to call in to NBC,' " Zirin says.
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 at precisely 7 p.m.
Fans didn't let NBC forget it.
"The networks still saw themselves as the ultimate vehicle for this product and that the NFL would have to conform itself to the networks," Zirin says. "But after this day, they learned that it would actually be television that would have to conform to the National Football League."
The outrage made it all the way to London, where the child actress who played Heidi lived. Jennifer Edwards was just 10 years old in 1968, but she hasn't forgotten that day.
"I remember feeling that, well, it wasn't my fault," she tells NPR's Guy Raz.
Now living in Los Angeles, Edwards says she has recovered from the backlash. A lot of the commentaries weren't very nice. "I remember one caption in some paper that said something about 'the little brat in white stockings that ruined the football game,' " she says.
At one point, the producers of The Love Boat 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. It 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.' "
Edwards hasn't proposed it yet to Namath, but she says she thinks they should take a stab at Dancing With the Stars.