This upcoming Sunday marks the much-anticipated return of professional football in America, as the Minnesota Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers square off in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, the annual kick-off for the NFL’s preseason since 1970. For the prior eight years, it had actually served as the finale to the preseason. It’ll be a special treat for Gamecock fans, as Captain Munnerlyn of the Vikings will, in a way, square off against Clifton Geathers of the Steelers. Basically, if you’re looking for a reason to trick yourself into caring about a preseason game, there ya go. You’re welcome.
But who cares about the year 2015? I’m already living it! I want to see some football action from the years when I wasn’t alive, and I’m not talking about my three-year coma after drinking all of that nuclear waste. Joke’s on them, though, because I got to sleep right through my most awkward teenage years and I didn’t have to waste my time watching Heroes.
The year I’m talking about is 1974, and the date is Monday, October 4th. That’s right, y’all, it’s time for Monday Night Football! Headlined by Howard Cosell himself, Monday Night Football was a wonderful mashup of subcultures when the funky and chic style of the 70s club scene met the gritty sadism of the 70s NFL, particularly when the legendary Steel Curtain was involved. So without further ado, let’s get to it.
-Howard Cosell kicks things off, and refers to Fran Tarkenton as “Francis”, which is already making me giddy to see what he really brings to the presentation. Being in my mid-20s, I only have YouTube clips and that mediocre made-for-TV movie called “Monday Night Mayhem”, starring John Turturro as Cosell. They made Don Meredith look like a real dickwipe.
-The version of this broadcast that was uploaded to YouTube must have been recorded live, because this VHS is more scrambled than the radar on a Soviet sub. Cold War burn! It’s era-appropriate.
-Cosell throws it to a brief clip of Tarkenton explaining his fractured rib injury which will prevent him from starting the game. In his place is Bobby Lee, regrettably not the comedic actor from MadTV.
-What would an introduction to a Steelers game be without mentioning the defense? After all, the Steelers are still in the middle of their dynasty, having just won two Super Bowls in a row, including one over their opponent for the evening. Cosell notes, however, that the Steeler offense has committed “err-ror aftah err-ror” resulting in the defense being overtaxed. In the first three games of their 1976 campaign, the Steel Curtain gave up a total of 75 points. Compare that to the prior two championship seasons where they gave up 52 points and 36 points in 1974 and 1975, respectively.
-Cosell refers to this as a “must-win game” for both teams, which isn’t untrue since the NFL’s season is still just 14 games. Still though, it’s only the fourth game, and given that both ended up with double-digit wins at the end of the season, I think it was a bit early to worry.
-Frank Gifford introduces us to the less-than-hospitable Metropolitan Stadium located in debatably scenic Bloomington, Minnesota. The Met was an outdoor stadium, and with the harsh Minnesota winter hosting more than a few games every year, it’s easy to understand why Fran Tarkenton gave it so much credit for helping the Vikings succeed throughout the 70s. Hell, it’s why cold-weather teams with outdoor stadiums are still dominant now. New England, Green Bay, Denver, Baltimore, New York (Giants, not Jets) have all won AT LEAST two championships over the past 19 years. Pittsburgh is another cold-weather team with a title, while New Orleans St. Louis and Indianapolis played in domes and in Southern or Western divisions, meaning they got at least eight games in a warm or controlled climate. Heck, going back even further, it’s not like the 49ers were playing in the warmest place ever. Northern California can get quite chilly when there’s a breeze. It’s considering factors like this that make Tampa Bay’s championship victory such an anomaly, but even they have a reason to fit the trend: they played in the NFC North. While Detroit may have been domed, and the Vikings opened Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome six years after the Bucs’ inaugural season, Chicago and Green Bay are never hospitable environments. Cold weather aside, the Midwest plays host to millions of portly, loud fans. Not necessarily mean, just so imposing… with their girth. Basically, the Buccaneers regularly had to run the gauntlet, so for that 2002-03 team to help the franchise overcome so many years of being bad against so many good teams that they had to face on a regular basis is truly, truly remarkable.
-Jesus, I wrote almost 300 words about the supremacy of cold weather teams and proving the awesomeness of "The Mighty Mighty Buctones". Ska joke! Not era-appropriate.
-We’re introduced to the two coaches. First, Bud Grant, whom Cosell dubs “The Quiet Man.”
-Then, we get to Chuck Noll, whom Cosell adores too much to try and insult. He’s like a middle-aged white Muhammad Ali to Howard.
-I want my aesthetic to be Alex Karras right here.
-Let's take a look at the quarterback/halfback duos for each team. First, the Vikings:
-Here's the Steelers combo:
Alright enough of this, let’s get to the game. Please note that unlike modern television broadcasts, the gameclock isn’t always on display, so I’ll avoid trying to speculate on exact times, and update the time only when the clock appears.
-We get a look at Pittsburgh offensive lineup, starting with the backfield. By the way, the presentation here is sooooo boring.
-Bradshaw scrambles up the middle on first down and moves the chains. I know there’s a bit of a misconception that there’s only two types of quarterbacks: pocket passers and runners. Let's be honest, every quarterback in history has had two legs, and every single one of them knew how to run from danger. Well, most of them did, anyways. If they didn’t they learned fast, and painfully.
-Further proof that 70s football helmets were just motorcycle helmets with plastic bits and a chinstrap screwed on:
-Bradshaw wheels right on third down, and tries to put some power under his throw, but ends up short of Lynn Swann, and is picked off by Nate Wright. I’ve only seen Bradshaw this reckless when he showed up drunk for a performance of his one-man-show in Branson, Missouri.
-Ahmad Rashad gets the first touch for the Vikings. You may remember Rashad from his days with NBC Sports, particularly as the host for NBA Inside Stuff. It’s weird to see athletes from one sport who dedicate their lives to a totally different sport after they retire. I give credit to Rashad though for really having two distinct and successful careers.
-One thing to note about these older broadcasts is how dark and dim everything seems. It’s like a moldy basement out there. I guess my eyes aren’t used to seeing plain walls, with no ads or signs or flashy decals. Or maybe I just have a sense of style and pizzazz, while these cavemen worship faux wood paneling and shag carpets!
-The Vikings are forced to punt, and on the Steelers’ first play, Franco Harris both jukes and fights his way for a big gain. He’s got great moves, but also just manhandles a couple guys with one arm. Also: no gloves. That’s pure skin hanging on to that ball.
-Howard takes a moment to welcome a brilliant young journalist to ABC: Barbara Walters! Cosell beams about Walters for about a whole minute, and seems genuinely happy that she’ll be working for the same network.
-For crying out loud, they don’t even show the game clock before commercial breaks! It’s like I’m watching a game outside the concept of time, but not space. Space is still very much in play.
-Now Bobby Lee has been picked off. I know it’s still early, but boy, the sloppiness of the game is really coming into play. Of course, with two of the top defenses of the decade playing at the same time, perhaps this should’ve been expected.
-Okay, this is bizarre. Howard apparently feels it’s necessary to put to bed a rumor that the Steelers’ linebacker Jack Ham got injured after a fist fight with fellow linebacker Jack Lambert. Howard says he spoke with center Ray Mansfield, and Ray assured him that the fight never happened. Uh, alright then.
-A bit of chicanery here: Bradshaw throws a sweet pass in the endzone that’s caught past the goal line, yet the refs decide to straight up ignore the actual spot of the ball, and place the Steelers inside the one-yard line. The very next play, Harris gets stuffed big time on the halfback draw. UH OH WHAT'S GONNA HAPPEN ARE THE REFS GONNA SCREW THE STE- oh never mind, Bradshaw throws the touchdown to Bennie “AND THE JETS” Cunningham. See what I did there? I really Berman’d that up. The advertisers love that stuff.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Alright kids, we’re going to have to jump a bit in the action here, due to the fact that I didn’t bother to check if all of the parts to this game were uploaded to YouTube. So we’ve gotten through the first two parts, and now we’re heading to the fifth part. There’s 9:11 left in the first half, and the Steelers are up 6-0 after Bradshaw's TD pass. Yes, they missed the extra point.
-Gifford begins to promote ABC’s Saturday night. He says that they’re going to be talking about it, and that they’re really proud of it. He doesn’t mention what the hell is going to happen on Saturday, but set your calendars! I bet it was something big.
-I swear to god, Bob Lee drops back ten yards on every pass play. No matter how many times he gets sacked, he just keeps heading back there, like it’s going to save him.
-Nate Allen picks off Bradshaw clean, though it may be more appropriate to say Allen caught the ball that Bradshaw threw directly at him. Ol’ Terry came into the game with four picks, and from what we’ve seen, has already added on another couple.
-I could write 3,000 words on the horrendous ads shown during the game, but I’ll simply say that this copy wasn’t written by a single member of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price. This had to be written by one of their rival agencies from the early sixties. Y’know, the awful ones.
-Minnesota takes the lead on a thunderous burst from Chuck Foreman, the Vikings leading rusher. BUT NEVER MIND THAT, because Howard Cosell just said that Steve freaking Grogan had to be “considered the MVP to this point”, which is hilarious because he’s freaking Steve Grogan. Grogan, through the first four weeks of the season, had completed just 53% of his passes, and had thrown eight touchdowns to seven interceptions, including a brutal four-interception, zero-touchdown game to open the season. I presume Cosell is nearing the end of his first fifth of Stoli by this point. In Grogan’s defense, he did throw for three touchdowns and run for two against Oakland, but given where Grogan ended up in history, I’m still throwing that opinion in the trash.
-Minnesota’s Wally Hilgenberg absolutely demolishes Mike Webster and ends up tripping Franco well behind the line of scrimmage. Hilgenberg’s look is akin to Mike Brady on steroids.
-After a Bradshaw sack, we hit the two-minute warning and the Steelers are about to punt.
-A now-regrettable Exxon ad airs about all the places the oil company is going to drill in 1977, including the Arctic Circle. Wheeeee!
-The snap for the punt is thrown waaaay too high, and punter/gas station owner Bobby Walden manages to run out of the back of the end zone all the way to the 15, but it’s nowhere near the first down line. Minnesota ball, less than twenty yards to the end zone.
-Cosell mentions that “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson will be in the booth for the American League Conference Finals on ABC this upcoming Saturday. He outright calls him “good ol’ controversial Reggie”, which even for Cosell, is incredibly unsubtle.
-The Vikings do less than nothing with their excellent field position, going all the way back to the 34, and they miss a field goal attempt with 32 seconds to go in the half, but the Steelers run it out as we head into halftime.
-Before ABC had TGIF, they had, uh, Garry Marshall Tuesdays! EYYYYYYYY!
-Cosell calls this a “thrilling ball game”, in a deliberate attempt to trick the late viewers into giving this game a chance. There’s only four channels anyways, Howard. Chances are people will still watch this game even though it’s a defensive slugfest.
-Brent McClanahan is very suspicious of the camera. Or maybe it’s just windy and bright, I dunno.
-The Vikings decide to go for it on fourth down, and Foreman leaps a good three, almost four yards in a single bound to get the first, only for Bobby Lee to bobble the handoff and give it up to the Steelers the very next play. GOT DANG IT BOBBEH!
-We get the video intro to the Vikings defensive line, and they are some of the least-personable people I’ve ever met, and they don’t even try to hide it. This is a real group of tough guys, the kind of guys who will destroy anybody and anything that annoys them, and go about their lives without a single care. You don’t mess with these guys, even though their nickname is the Purple People Eaters. That’s a damn children’s song, and you know it!
-Blocked field goal alert! Audrey Beamon (no relation to Willie) catches it in the air and gets possession for the Vikings.
-Oh wait, Foreman just fumbled it away on the first play, and it’s Steelers ball once again, at almost exactly the same spot where the field goal was originally kicked from. To borrow a phrase from Jim Ross, this game is bowling shoe ugly.
-Christ, a third-down pass from Bradshaw is tipped up, and picked off by a diving Jeff Siemens in mid-air. This is getting stupid. This is not the game the gods imagined when inventing the wonderful sport of gridiron football.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) we’re forced to move forward once again. We’re now left with 8:30 to go in the second half.
-The Vikings can’t convert on third down, and Bud Grant spits a LOT.
-Frank Gifford tries to kill time by asking Cosell about whether or not Muhammad Ali will fight again. Cosell makes mention of the tug-of-war going on amongst the Nation of Islam on Ali’s future, which is pretty weird to imagine. How many millions of people watching this game had never heard of the Nation of Islam before? Or could even understand Ali’s religious beliefs and and practices? A strange thing to hear in 1976 for most Americans, no doubt.
-The Vikings convert a field goal to make it 17-6 with 4:47 left to go in the game.
-Wow, 25 inches?! Talk about a big-screen TV! You can’t beat that picture quality… in 1976.
-Hey, you know what happened a lot in this game? A great play by either offense only to be followed by a terrible play. It’s happened once again, as Terry Bradshaw, following an awesome 15-yard scramble, throws an interception with two minutes remaining. To add insult to injury, the air gets knocked out of him on a big hit. I think that's my cue
Here's all the clips from the game. Enjoy if you can!
Part One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gx4nhZcR51Q
Part Two: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7_RXXnBkh4
Part Five: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MrTkf9Geho
Part Six: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVkxPTAiSTA
Part Eight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EmdyOV-lwc