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Jim O’Brien: Recalling most famous fumble in Monday Night Football

November 15, 2012
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 Jim O’Brien: Recalling most famous fumble in Monday Night Football

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

 The Kansas City Chiefs coming here for a Monday Night Football contest with the Pittsburgh Steelers sparked a memory of the most famous fumble in that storied series.

         That occurred when Dave Smith of the Steelers decided to showboat before crossing the goal line on what would have been a 50-yard scoring pass by Terry Bradshaw and held the ball high overhead triumphantly. 

         Then Smith, to his dismay, lost control of the ball and it hit the ground and skidded through the end zone for a touchback.

         I was covering that game for The New York Post.  I recall talking to Joe Gordon, the Steelers’ publicist, in the press box, as well as members of the Pittsburgh media.  That game was played on October 18, 1971.  The Steelers lost to the Chiefs, 38-16.

         Monday Night Football was a bigger deal in those days, and the TV ratings were unreal.  Anyone who cared about football was watching.  Smith’s name would live in infamy in football annals.

         Smith may have been thinking about spiking the football, but he never got the chance.  His premature celebration caused him to simply lose his grasp on the football.  He fumbled the ball into the first paragraph of his obituary some day.

         The Steelers should get video of that event and show it on a daily basis to their three young wide receivers – Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace – in the hope it might convince them to cut back on their own showboating antics.

         It’s unlikely any of these young men know about Dave Smith, or any of the early Steelers, but they should.  Smith was good enough to lead the Steelers in receiving in one of his three seasons with the team.  He had 47 receptions in 1971, the same season in which he fumbled the ball before going into the end zone in Kansas City.   Ironically enough, he later played for the Chiefs, as well as the Houston Oilers in his four NFL seasons.  The Steelers traded him to the Oilers midway through the 1972 season.

         Smith had played football and basketball at Indiana University of Pennsylvania following a short stay at WaynesburgCollege.

         Coach Mike Tomlin has said more than once that he was going to have a talk with his three gifted receivers and get them to stop doing their victory dances and more in the end zone after they score touchdowns, or even elsewhere on the field whenever they make a catch, but I have not been convinced that Tomlin’s message is getting through to them.

         I am among the fans who hate to see players strutting about and thumping their chests whenever they do the slightest thing on the football field.  It’s become a constant “look at me” exhibition.

         Chuck Noll could not coach today because he couldn’t put up with such shenanigans and the attitude of most athletes.  I recall two things Noll often said:

         “You only get what you demand.”

         And to his players in regard to how they should conduct themselves when they accomplish something on the field:

         “Act like you’ve been there before.”

         That game in Kansas City in which Smith fumbled the ball bring backs other memories as well.

         The Municipal Stadium in Kansas City was familiar to me.  I had spent the year of 1965 in Kansas City at the U.S. Army Home Town Center.  That’s where all the stories are created that you see in local newspapers about the accomplishments and achievements of soldiers.  I was an editor at the U.S. Army Home Town News Center, located at 601 Hardesty Avenue.

         That was only a few blocks from Municipal Stadium.  My late friend and mentor Beano Cook knew the public relations man of the Chiefs, Roger Valdiserri, who had previously been the sports information director at Notre Dame.  He was from Belle Vernon.

         So I moonlighted as a spotter in the press box at Chiefs’ home games, and helped out in whatever way I could in the press box at the same stadium for Charles O. Finley’s Kansas City A’s.

         We didn’t get much money to eat in the U.S. Army and we didn’t have a dining hall in our building.  So being able to eat in the press box was a real perk. 

         I remember spotting for Charlie Jones and Paul Christman on telecasts of the Chiefs’ games.

         The Chiefs had a better football team then than they do now.  They were one of the power teams in the old American Football League.

         I recall coming home to Pittsburgh and visiting Art Rooney Sr. at the Steelers’ offices at the Roosevelt Hotel and telling him what a terrific team they had in Kansas City.

         KDKA-TV anchorman Bill Burns was in The Chief’s office one of those days and he challenged by evaluation of the Kansas City club.  “Their quarterback is Lenny Dawson and we let him go,” said Burns.

         “That proves nothing,” I said.  “The Steelers let Johnny Unitas go, and look how great he turned out to be.”

         For the record, Dawson and Unitas are both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

         Bobby Bell was on that Chiefs’ football team and he’s as good as any linebacker who ever played the game.  He’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and so is Chiefs’ defensive lineman Buck Buchanan.

         In 1969, I would be covering the Miami Dolphins for The Miami News, and I covered Super Bowl IV in New Orleans when those same Kansas City Chiefs would defeat the Minnesota Vikings at Tulane Stadium.

         The Chiefs got to the Super Bowl before the Steelers did.  The Steelers beat the Vikings in the Super Bowl that followed the 1974 season.

         I moved to New York after I covered that Super Bowl game in New Orleans involving the Vikings and Chiefs.  Monday Night Football came into being in 1970 and I was assigned to cover the beat.

         What a great assignment that turned out to be.  Each week you were writing about two different teams, and you only had to deal with writing about the star players, the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and a star defensive player or two.

         You never had to write about guards and tackles and nickel and dime defensive backs.  You had a chance to visit a new city each week.  I was 28 at the time and felt on top of the sportswriting world.

         The first game in the Monday Night Football series was played in Cleveland.  A record crowd of 85,703 showed up at Municipal Stadium to see the Browns take on Joe Namath and the New York Jets, the most popular AFL team in their NFL debut.

         Namath was outstanding and the Jets outgained the Browns 455 yards to 221 yards, yet the Browns won because the Jets had four turnovers and a team record of 161 penalty yards.

         I recall covering a game in Minnesota that season and getting a phone call from my boss, Ike Gellis, the next day.

         “What was it doing when you arrived in Minneapolis?” asked Gellis.

         “It was raining,” I reported.

         “Why didn’t you call and tell us that?” said Gellis.  “A lot of our readers want to know that information.”

         I knew that there was no way that bit of information would have made it into the late edition on Monday because the deadline had passed.  The reader who wanted to know it was raining was none other than Ike Gellis, who liked to gamble now and then, like every day of the week, on one sports event or another.

         NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was the one who pushed for Monday Night Football.

         Rozelle was a big believer that television was going to help promote and sell the National Football League.

         Many sports owners in those days were fearful that if they had too many games on television it would cut into game attendance at their stadiums and ballfields.

         Rozelle thought the time was right and he found the perfect partner in ABC Sports and a young creative producer named Roone Arledge.  Arledge had created “Wide World of Sports,” a new way to cover every conceivable sport.

         ABC Sports had a talented director in Chet Forte, a 5-foot-9 genius who had been an All-American basketball player at ColumbiaUniversity.  Forte doubled the number of TV cameras to cover a game, and got all kinds of views of the action that helped popularize the game.

         Monday Night Football became an “event,” something everyone had to watch, and it gained a great following among women fans as well as men. 

         That first Monday Night Football Game in Cleveland on September 21, 1970 drew 35 per cent of a possible national audience.  It became a cultural event.   No one wanted to have a show on TV opposite Monday Night Football.  It was a death knell.

         Keith Jackson, Don Meredith and Howard Cosell were in the telecast booth in the first year on Monday Night Football, and Jackson gave way to Frank Gifford for the second year.  The so-straight Gifford was the perfect buffer for the over-the-top offerings by Cosell and Meredith.

         I had a chance to spend time with this threesome while covering Monday Night Football and it made the beat even better. 

There were a few occasions when Cosell invited me to his apartment in Manhattan.

         Many of the sports writers in New York did not care for Cosell, so he was happy to have a new man in town that didn’t have any animosity toward him.  Cosell was an interesting guy, bright as can be.  He could scan a news story and go on the air without notes and deliver an eloquent report without missing a beat.

         At the end, however, he became a bitter man and turned on everyone in the business.  He spared no one his caustic tongue.  That was unfortunate, for everyone.

         John Madden and Al Michaels would later gain fame for their work on Monday Night Football.

                 Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien has a new book out called “Immaculate Reflections” that is available in area bookstores.  His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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