On September 14, the New York Giants faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first game double-header of the 2020 Monday Night Football season.
It was a big moment as Monday Night Football (or MNF) is now celebrating its 50th season.
During the pregame show, the broadcasters briefly mentioned how and when MNF got its start.
— NY Daily News Sports (@NYDNSports) September 20, 2015
On September 21, 1970 the Cleveland Browns squared off against the New York Jets.
It was a match-up of two teams that had experienced recent success.
Cleveland had wrapped up the 1969 season 10-3-1 and lost in the Championship Game to the Vikings.
The Jets finished ‘69 10-4 and lost to Kansas City in the Divisional Round.
In 1968, New York had won Super Bowl III.
The game that evening was a first for many reasons, not the least of which was the first instance of an NFL game not played on a Sunday.
The league was about to embark on a new era, one that would continue to rise in popularity over the next several decades.
Watching the game in the present day, one quickly notices that professional football was at the dawn of something great.
Everyone involved that day became trailblazers that ushered the game into the modern era.
This is the story of the first Monday Night Football game.
A Little Background
Imagine a time when your NFL football viewing consisted of one, maybe two games each week and only on Sundays.
That’s what life was like for pro football fans until 1970.
If you were fortunate to live near a large market, you could see your local team play (subject to home black-out rules) and maybe one other ‘game of the week.’
Before 1970, the only pro football played on a day other than Sunday was when the American Football League played on Fridays and Saturdays.
When the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970 football was back to Sunday only.
That didn’t last long as Commissioner Pete Rozelle was strategizing with ABC about how to grow the game.
With the new merger in place, it was time to take the league up a notch.
Pro football was gaining on baseball as America’s favorite sport, but it needed a lift.
It occurred to Rozelle and others that the NFL brand needed to grow.
Viewers had to get more opportunities to see the game and watch its colorful cast of characters.
Rozelle had experimented with MNF in the past.
In 1964, Green Bay and Detroit played a Monday night game that was not televised.
It was a sell-out and that gave Rozelle the impetus he needed to get the ball rolling.
In an effort to raise the national consciousness of the sport and put a little more money in the league’s pocket, the idea for a weekly Monday game was brainstormed.
After lukewarm negotiations with NBC and CBS, Rozelle turned to ABC.
The network was the lowest-rated of the three networks at the time, but the company was reluctant to sign off on a risky venture.
Each network had its hit lineup of televised programming that they were wary of interrupting.
The management of each company openly questioned what would happen to their rankings if MNF were to bomb.
Eventually, ABC took the risk, paying $8.5 million to televise the 1970 MNF games.
In the week leading up to the first game, the cover of TV Guide read “Pro Football tackles Doris Day.”
The @Browns hosted the @nyjets on this day in 1970 in the first game of a new show called Monday Night Football. 50 years later the @Raiders host the @saints tonight in Las Vegas. Here’s a look at the letter outlining the NFL-ABC deal pic.twitter.com/Lf1GgYOCCz
— Brian McCarthy (@NFLprguy) September 21, 2020
At 9:00 P.M. EST on September 21, 1970, a voice boomed out to the masses for the first official Monday Night Football game.
“It is a hot, sultry, almost windless night here at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, where the Browns will play host to the New York Jets … and here at midfield, on the gridiron itself, we will see two of the outstanding teams in professional football, each accorded the chance to reach the Super Bowl.”
That voice belonged to none other than sports commentator Howard Cosell.
Cosell was already famous due to his work in boxing, specifically his coverage of Muhammad Ali.
Joining Cosell was broadcasting great Keith Jackson who gave the lowdown on some of the players, including Browns rookie Jerry Sherk.
Former Dallas quarterback “Dandy” Don Meredith rounded out the cast as the “Monday evening quarterback.”
Happy anniversary, Monday Night Football. On this date in 1970, the legendary ABC Sports trio of Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson and Don Meredith called the NFL’s first game in prime time. #MNF pic.twitter.com/IF6EFh5Agn
— bill hofheimer (@bhofheimer_espn) September 21, 2018
When the camera cut to Meredith for the first time, he was seen wiping the nervous sweat from his brow.
He then proceeded to tell the world the contrasts of Jets quarterback Joe Namath and the Browns Bill Nelsen.
50 years ago today, Sept. 21st, 1970 the New York Jets who were coming off their first and only Super Bowl victory, went to Cleveland Municipal Stadium to face the Browns on the first ever Monday Night Football game. The Browns would prevail 31-21. Keith Jackson called the game. pic.twitter.com/suwjiy4b2d
— Thomas Dollinger (@fabfifilly) September 21, 2020
As he got into the groove, Meredith said to Cosell, “Howard, let’s just have some fun.”
Not long after Cosell interviewed Namath and New York linebacker Al Atkinson, the game was set to get underway.
The record crowd of 85,703 at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium was about to witness history.
(Highlights of each quarter are listed below)
- The game begins and Jackson reminds the home audience that this is the first time ever these two teams have played each other. Also highlighted is the white striping on the footballs to allow for better vision under the lights.
- Watching the game today, one quickly realizes that the only way to know how much time remains in a quarter is if Jackson shares this tidbit with the audience or when a camera occasionally shows an image of the game clock
- The Browns start with the ball and immediately drive down the field. A swing pass from Nelsen to running back Bo Scott gets Cleveland into the red zone
- A few plays later, Nelsen hits receiver Gary Collins for eight yards. 7-0 Browns
- The Jets have a difficult time getting out of neutral to start the game
- Cleveland finds holes in New York’s defense. Big plays by tight end Milt Morin and Scott get Cleveland back to the red zone near the end of the quarter
- Scott crashes into the end zone from two yards out for the touchdown. 14-0 Browns
- The Jets finally get some traction. Steady running by Matt Snell and passing from Namath drive New York down field
- A personal foul by Cleveland puts Jets deep in Browns territory
- Running back Emerson Boozer runs into the end zone a few plays later. Cleveland’s lead is cut in half, 14-7 Browns
- When New York gets the ball back a few minutes later, two huge catches by receiver George Sauer propels them down field
- Just when it looks like the Jets may tie the score, Browns defensive back Walt Sumner ends the scoring drive by intercepting a Namath pass intended for Sauer
- At one point, Meredith makes a funny quip.
- Observing Cleveland receiver Fair Hooker make a play, Meredith says, “Isn’t Fair Hooker a great name?” Cosell then deadpans, “I pass.”
Watching the first Monday Night Football game from 1970…I stumbled upon an all-time great name. He isn’t too expensive, he isn’t too cheap…he’s just a pic.twitter.com/B5Z1hXy7kT
— Scotty Millard (@scootsie34) August 13, 2019
- Browns take the ball on the ensuing drive deep into New York territory. However, the team stalls and the half ends, 14-7 Browns
- The Jets start the second half by kicking off to Cleveland. Browns receiver Homer Jones takes the kick and goes 94 yards for a touchdown, 21-7 Browns
- Despite Jones’ stunning play, New York calmly moves down field. Namath and Snell are cool and collected and get the Jets into Cleveland territory
- Running back Emerson Boozer blasts through the Browns line for a 10 yard score, 21-14 Browns
- Almost immediately on the following drive, a Jets personal foul call gets Browns in Jets territory
- A missed opportunity from Nelsen to Hooker in the end zone leads to a 27 yard field goal by Cockroft, 24-14 Browns
- After the Jets go nowhere, Cleveland gets the ball. A series of penalties backs up the Browns and Cockroft has to punt from deep in the Cleveland end zone. The result is great field position for the Jets
- With great field position, the Jets’ Snell and Boozer eat up big chunks of yardage to help New York drive deep into the Browns side of field
- After a pass interference call against the Browns puts the Jets inside the Cleveland 10 yard line, a bad handoff exchange between Namath and Snell leads to a fumble. Browns recover
- The Browns then begin a long, clock chewing drive to waste away most of the final quarter
- After getting into the red zone, the Cleveland drive stalls and Cockroft attempts a chip shot field goal from 18 yards away but misses wide right
- The Jets make the most of Cleveland’s missed opportunity and quickly drive down field. Namath hits Sauer from 33 yards out for a TD. 24-21 Cleveland
- The Browns can’t get anywhere on their next drive and punt. However, New York’s Mike Battle signals for a fair catch and, as the ball lands on the field, appears to think the punt will roll out of bounds. It doesn’t and Battle runs after the ball, picks it up, and is tackled near the Jets five yard line
- Backed up in the literal shadow of their goal posts, Namath connects with Sauer to get the ball to the New York 18 yard line
- However, on the very next play, Namath is under pressure and throws the ball into the waiting arms of Browns linebacker Billy Andrews. Andrews makes a diving pick, scrambles to his feet, and runs the ball into the end zone for a 25 yard score.
- Final score, 31-21 Browns
— Andy Clayton (@aclayton33) September 21, 2016
Although victorious, the Browns only accumulated 221 total yards to New York’s 455.
However, the Jets were undone by Namath’s three interceptions.
Both teams were heavily penalized during the game.
The Jets ended the game with no less than 13 penalties for 161 yards.
The Browns made their share of mistakes with eight penalties for 101 yards.
The Jets had a re-built secondary that contributed to numerous gaffes during the game.
Before the contest began, it was widely believed that both teams were post-season contenders in 1970.
That didn’t quite work out as the Browns finished the year 7-7 and the Jets went 4-10.
Namath would sustain a broken wrist weeks later and begin the downward slide of his career.
Browns coach Blanton Collier would coach his final season in 1970.
Due to severe hearing loss, he would not coach again after the season.
The game turned out to be a great success for ABC and the NFL.
That season, other television programs such as “Mayberry RFD” and the NBC Monday Night Movie pulled in more viewers than MNF.
However, slowly but surely the Monday night games became a ratings bonanza.
MNF contributed to the NFL’s rising popularity and continues to do so to this day.
50 years later and the one-time oddity consistently brings fans together in anticipation of gridiron glory.