Dick Cline had a long, successful career in sports television, so it is understandable if he has wearied of being known primarily for one strange, memorable night on the job.
“Maybe now that it’s past 20 years, people will stop asking me about it,” he said.
That was in 1989.
In 2018, someone else called to ask him about it. He answered the phone, as he always has, even though he admitted he is surprised this still is going on.
“I am,” he said from his home in Cary, North Carolina, “in that I assume everybody who was watching is dead now.”
Not quite. But eventually the “Heidi Game” will fade from living memory, with Saturday marking 50 years since one of the most infamous moments in sports media history, one made possible by Cline doing his job as instructed.
It remains a cautionary tale that has shaped sports television procedures and contracts ever since.
Rule No. 1: Do not leave a pro football game in a participating team’s market until the clock hits zero – no matter how many prepubescents and their parents are anticipating a movie about a girl with braided pigtails in the Swiss Alps.
The particulars of what occurred on Nov. 17, 1968, are complicated, including the details of how the ancient technology of the era left the system vulnerable.
But to make a very long story very short: The Jets were in Oakland to play the Raiders in a battle of two AFL powers. The Jets took a 32-29 lead with 1:05 left.
It was a game overloaded with scoring, incompletions and penalties, and it ran past the allotted three hours, a rarity for that era. NBC had heavily promoted the film “Heidi” for a 7 p.m. start and had sold its entire time slot to Timex.
The plan going into the weekend was for the movie to start on time, no matter what. But as the game ran long, high-ranking NBC executives made an 11th hour decision to stick with the game.
Trouble was, they were unable to get through to Cline, supervisor at Broadcast Operations Control in New York, because NBC’s switchboard was overwhelmed with parents concerned “Heidi” would not start on time.
At 7 p.m. Cline, then 32, did his job, ditching football in favor of “Heidi.”
“As a football fan I would have of course preferred to see the game continue,” he said, “although again, I thought the Jets had won the game.”
Most people did. Then the Raiders took the lead on a 43-yard pass from Daryle Lamonica to Charlie Smith with 42 seconds left. Nine seconds later, Preston Ridlehuber recovered Earl Christy’s fumbled kickoff in the end zone. Final score: 43-32.
Now the switchboard was flooded with calls from angry football fans.
“There were equal numbers of people calling in to find out if ‘Heidi’ was going to be on on time as there were football fans who wanted to know if we were going to see the end of the game,” Cline said. “They collided on a switchboard that blew up.”
Joe Iaricci, who headed NBC’s sports sales, left an account of the episode with his colleague Jean Dietze, now NBC’s president of affiliate relations, before he died in 2007.
He wrote that Timex had paid a hefty $700,000 for its sponsorship, and that he had emphasized to all concerned the film must start on time. At halftime, it still seemed on pace to do so.
Iaricci was confused when he walked into Madison Square Garden around 7 for a Canadiens-Rangers game and saw people huddling around portable radios listening to a sports event.
“I couldn’t imagine what they were listening to, because the Jets-Oakland game was obviously over,” he recalled. Oops.
In a 1997 media survey, it was named the most memorable of the NFL’s first 10,000 regular-season games. A 1999 fan poll named it the 10th most-memorable game of the 20th century.
The loss was the last for the ’68 Jets. They won six in a row en route to winning Super Bowl III, including a rematch with the Raiders in the AFL Championship Game at Shea Stadium, which they won, 27-23.
Cline did not suffer professionally from the incident. He figured he would not be punished when Goodman told him that night to leave a copy of the plans for the telecast on his desk before he left for the night.
“I thought, well OK, if he’s going to look at that, I should be home free,” Cline said.
But in the initial aftermath, there was plenty of gallows humor.
“The boys in the tape department, they sent me an interoffice memo and I opened it up and there were broken pieces of a Timex watch,” Cline said. “No note. They didn’t say anything, but obviously I could tell where it came from. It was all in good fun.”
Soon he was being promoted, and worked as a sports and news director before retiring after the last of his 28 Wimbledons in 2001.
Cline said the frequency of media inquiries has slowed in recent years, but he understands that 50 is a nice, round number.
In that aforementioned interview with the author Stephen Hanks in 1989 contemplating whether 20 years of looking back finally was enough, Cline said, “I wonder if this ‘Heidi’ thing will ever die.”