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GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Today happens to mark a significant turning point in sports history, and it happened in 1968 with help from a little blonde girl.

DAVE ZIRIN: I think the modern age of football as the number one sport in the United States begins on this day.

RAZ: Dave Zirin is not that little blonde girl. He's the sports editor of The Nation, and he's talking about the Heidi Game.

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RAZ: And that game was one of the most anticipated of the season.

ZIRIN: It's the New York Jets against the Oakland Raiders.

RAZ: Two of the best teams in the old American Football League just before it merged with the NFL. The game was so important that NFL Films eventually made a documentary about it, and here's how it went down.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The lead changed back and forth six times before the score was finally tied at 29 all. Then the Jets' Jim Turner kicked a 26-yard field goal, and the Jets had the lead with one minute five seconds left.

RAZ: New York was ahead 32-29 and seemed to have the game sewn up. Jets fans watching at home were on the edges of their seats.

ZIRIN: You're excited, but you're also nervous, because the Raiders have an amazing vertical offensive game. They throw the ball deep, they throw the ball well.

RAZ: With just a minute five to go, Raiders' quarterback Daryle Lamonica hit Charlie Smith on a 20-yard pass. A penalty got the Raiders another 15 yards. And with 50 seconds to go, Oakland was within striking distance of a touchdown.

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RAZ: And then...

ZIRIN: Boom. "Heidi" begins.

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ZIRIN: A little girl with braids in the Swiss Alps starts walking down a hill.

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JENNIFER EDWARDS: (as Heidi) (Singing) When I am wishing for dreams to come true.

RAZ: "Heidi," the made-for-television children's movie NBC scheduled to air at 7 pm Eastern Time, did in fact air - as promised - right at 7 pm. And it cut off the final 50 seconds of what would become one of the greatest football games of all time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Character) I don't want you here.

EDWARDS: (as Heidi) I don't want to be here either.

ZIRIN: 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.

RAZ: NBC's phone bank was overwhelmed with angry callers. What are you doing, they asked, as the young Heidi danced across an Alpine landscape on their television screens. Meanwhile, in those final 50 seconds, the Raiders scored two thrilling touchdowns in less than a minute. And it gave Oakland one of the most unlikely come-from-behind victories in football history and most of the country missed it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Lamonica to Charlie Smith, and he scores. What a game.

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RAZ: NBC was shocked by the fan reaction. Executives there just didn't see it coming. And the Heidi Game would forever change the power dynamic between sports leagues and television networks. Again, here's Dave Zirin.

ZIRIN: The networks still saw themselves as the ultimate vehicle for this product and that the NFL would have to conform itself to the networks. But after this day, they learned it would actually be television that would have to conform to the National Football League.

RAZ: Angry fans flooded the network with hate mail that made it all the way to London where the child actress who played Heidi lived.

ZIRIN: Ten-year old Jennifer Edwards, who is somewhat Hollywood royalty - I mean, she's the daughter of Blake Edwards, the stepdaughter of Julie Andrews - and she was somebody who looked like she was going to have, really, a toboggan ride into a successful Hollywood career.

RAZ: Right. Yes, down that Swiss Alpine slope.

ZIRIN: Yes.

EDWARDS: And I remember feeling that, well, it wasn't my fault.

RAZ: That is Heidi - Jennifer Edwards. We reached her in Los Angeles.

EDWARDS: And a lot of the commentaries weren't very nice, which was a little bit heartbreaking for a 10-year-old. I remember one caption in some paper that said something about the little brat in white stockings that ruined the football game.

RAZ: Jennifer Edwards has since recovered from that traumatic experience. And she's still amazed at the lasting impact of the Heidi Game. People constantly ask her about it. And at one point, in the 1970s, the producers of "The Love Boat" wanted her to come on the show. Edwards would play herself, and she'd meet Jets quarterback Joe Namath on the boat, and they'd fall in love. Well, thankfully, that episode didn't pan out, but Edwards did finally meet Joe Namath face-to-face about five years ago.

EDWARDS: We were on the same plane together, and we were sitting, each of us in an aisle seat across from each other. And at one point, I leaned over, and I said: Do you remember the Heidi Game? And he looked at me, you know, like, well, duh. And I said: Well, I want to formally introduce myself. I'm Heidi.

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EDWARDS: I think he and I should do "Dancing with the Stars."

RAZ: Totally. I hope they're listening.

EDWARDS: I hope so too.

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RAZ: Jennifer Edwards. She starred as Heidi in the NBC made-for-television movie that was aired on this day in 1968.

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RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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