November 17, 1968, a little girl changed the world of sports. It’s what’s known today as, The “Heidi” Game. As Dave Zirin, the sports editor for The Nation magazine put it, the modern age of football began that day.
The New York Jets were up against the Oakland Raiders. At the time they were two of the best teams in the American Football League, just before they merged with the National Football League.
It was a close game, with either team stealing the lead from the other six times before it was all tied up, twenty-nine to twenty-nine. Then, Jim Turner kicked a twenty-six yard field goal. The Jets took the lead with sixty five seconds left. It looked like the Jets might take the win.
America was watching the game on NBC that night. The network had scheduled to follow the game, at precisely seven o’clock, with the made for television children’s movie, “Heidi.”
With fifty seconds left in the game, Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica hit Charlie Smith on a twenty yard pass. A penalty got them another fifteen yards. The Raiders were crossing mid-field when all of the sudden, as Zirin said, “A little girl with braids in the Swiss Alps starts walking down a hill.”
The phone banks flooded with furious Jets fans. The switch boards were jammed. Zirin explained, “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.”
Viewers on the west coast, however, got to see how the game ended. The Raiders made a thrilling comeback with two touchdowns in the last fifty seconds. Most of the country, though, missed it because of “Heidi”, and they didn’t let NBC forget it.
“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 that it would actually be television that would have to conform to the National Football League,” said Zirin.
The outrage of the fans made it all the way to London, where the child actress who played Heidi lived. Jennifer Edwards was just ten years old in 1968, but she hasn’t forgotten that day, “I remember feeling that, well, it wasn’t my fault.”
Now living in Los Angeles, Edwards said that she’s recovered from the backlash, but added that a lot of the commentaries weren’t very nice, “I remember one caption in some paper that said something about ‘the little brat in white stockings that ruined the football game.”
At one point, the producers of “The Love Boat” pitched an appearance on the show. Edwards would play herself and she’d meet Jets quarterback Joe Namath on the boat, and they’d fall in love. It never happened, but Edwards did finally meet Namath face-to-face about five years ago on an airplane
“And at one point, I leaned over and I said, ‘Do you remember The Heidi Game?’ and he looked at me, like, ‘Well, duh!’ and I said, ‘Well, I want to formally introduce myself. I’m Heidi.’”
Edwards hasn’t proposed it yet to Namath, but said she but she thinks they should take a stab at “Dancing with the Stars.”