A Nov. 27 TV Week article incorrectly said that Howard Cosell was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was born in Winston-Salem, N.C., and raised in Brooklyn. (Published 12/8/2005)
Twenty years later, the "Monday Night Football" game on Nov. 18, 1985, still ranks as one of the most gruesomely memorable evenings in the 36-year history of the longest-running and most successful football series in television history.
That was the night Joe Theismann's playing career ended, and for all intents and purposes his broadcasting career began. It was the second quarter between the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants when Washington running back John Riggins took a handoff from
Theismann, charged a few steps toward the line, then wheeled and pitched the ball back to his quarterback for a classic flea-flicker.
Three Giants linebackers saw the trick play coming and headed toward Theismann at virtually the same instant. Lawrence Taylor slammed the quarterback, and Theismann's right leg -- which was planted at a bad angle -- snapped.
There is some irony that the injury occurred on "Monday Night Football," because next fall, Theismann will move into the "Monday Night" booth when the series switches over from ABC to the network's corporate cousin, ESPN. He'll be in a two-person booth with Al Michaels, replacing Michaels's current partner, John Madden, who will move to NBC to broadcast football on Sunday nights.
"It's extremely special for me to do Monday nights," Theismann said in a recent interview. "I'd like to think it will be just as successful on ESPN as it has been on ABC."
"Monday Night Football" might be a success now, but back when the idea of the show was first introduced, it was met with harsh skepticism in the television and football industries -- the very concept of airing a sports event in prime time went against all the conventional thinking of the day.
But Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, the NFL's longtime television committee chairman, and ABC Sports impresario Roone Arledge finally were able to persuade ABC, then dead last in the network ratings, to take a chance and air the games in prime time. The Browns, in fact, appeared in the first "Monday Night" game against the New York Jets on Sept. 21, 1970.
Arledge, arguably the greatest sports producer in the history of television, also knew it would not be enough simply to air the game. He purposely placed controversial broadcaster Howard Cosell in the first three-man booth in football history that year, with play-by-play man Keith Jackson and former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Don Meredith.
Jackson left the booth to do college football the next year and was succeeded by former New York Giant Frank Gifford on play-by-play. Gifford had the longest run of any "Monday Night" broadcaster, with 28 years in the booth. The play-by-play between the Brooklyn-born Cosell and the folksy Meredith, as well as Cosell's brilliant and often seat-of-the-pants commentary on halftime highlights, also made "Monday Night Football" compelling television.
When the series first went on the air, there were only three major networks, and "Monday Night Football" more than held its own in the ratings and audience share. Now, ABC estimates that as many as 50 million viewers watch, and the show has remained a fixture in Nielsen's Top 10 for the past 15 years.
Theismann joins a long list of what the late, loquacious Cosell once described as the "jockocracy" in the broadcast booth. Former NFL players Fred "the Hammer" Williamson, Alex Karras, Fran Tarkenton, O.J. Simpson, Joe Namath, Dan Dierdorf, Boomer Esiason, Dan Fouts, Gifford and Meredith all took turns in the booth -- as did comedian Dennis Miller for two years.
Michaels, himself a 20-year veteran of the "Monday Night" booth, is perhaps the finest play-by-play broadcaster of his or any other generation, and Theismann has proved to be an extremely capable analyst for many years on ESPN's Sunday night broadcasts. "Some of the greatest events in sports have been on 'Monday Night Football,' " Theismann said. "The players love being in the game. The fact that you're playing on a national stage, and all your peers and all of America is watching you perform, makes it even more exciting for everyone, including the announcers. For me, it's going to be really special."