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One Patriots Monday night in December we'd all like to forget

Posted by Obnoxious Boston Fan  December 9, 2012 10:51 PM

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Monday nights used to be horrible for the New England Patriots back in the day. The "Boomtown Rats" didn't have Patriots in mind when they sang "Tell my why I don't like Mondays," it just seemed that way. By the end of the 1980s, the Patriots were a combined 4-14 on "Monday Night Football."

But one night 32 years ago, the Patriots were verge of a rare Monday Night victory on the second Monday in December and an end to the Orange Bowl losing streak that had dogged the team since the Lyndon Johnson administration.

John Smith, no doubt fueled by his Weetabix, jogged onto the well-trod turf in Miami with the score 13-13 and just three seconds left in the game on Dec. 8, 1980, to attempt a field goal from the 18-yard line. Smith was – at the time – a rarity in the NFL - a soccer-style, left-footed kicker who for some strange reason approached the ball from an angle before attempting to boot it through the uprights.

Back in the day, “Monday Night Football” was appointment television. Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and – at for a few years – Don Meredith. (Fran Tarkenton was in the booth with Coselll in Gifford that night in 1980). When Cosell, Gifford and Meredith were calling the action, Monday Night Football was as good as we remember and your parents tell you it was. As parochial as Boston sports fans are – even for those us who live in places like Florida the pro sports world ends at the intersection of I-495 and I-95 in Foxborough – "Monday Night Football" was worth watching no matter what teams were playing.

Most of us at the time in Boston Suburbia had three regular channels – 4, 5 and 7 – plus PBS on Channel 2, and the classics like “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Three Stooges” airing on Channel 38 the “Brady Bunch” and “Creature Double Feature” on Channel 56. Once in a while, depending on where you lived and how you turned the roof-top antenna, you could get Channels 6, 10 or 12 from Providence, Channel 27 from Worcester or Channel 9 from New Hampshire.

During the NFL season if the Patriots had won or lost a notable game, Monday night viewers might get a highlight from the previous day’s Patriots’ game or mention during Cosell’s half-time recap. In 1980, ESPN was all of one year old and cable TV was nonexistent in my hometown and only just being introduced to most folks. “Live streaming” meant that it had rained and that brook in the woods near your house was still running and hadn’t frozen over.

Kids, you truly are spoiled when it comes the Patriots. Back in the Dark Ages (see the years before Brady/Belichick and Parcells/Bledsoe), the Patriots were routinely blacked out when they played a home and hardly ever on “national TV” – which meant being on Monday night. Patriots' fans had hit Monday night paydirt in 1980, being on three times. The Pats beat the Broncos at Schaefer Stadium on Sept. 29 before losing to the Oilers in the Astrodome 38-34 in epic Patriot fashion on Nov. 10. This was a world where you’d be lucky to see eight or nine Patriots games on TV each year and highlights were limited to what you’d get from the likes of sports anchors like Bob Lobel, Len Berman or Don Gillis during their nightly reports.

That 25-inch color TV your dad bought at Lechmere or Zayre was pretty cutting edge, as was the suitcase sized VCR that perpetually blinked 12:00 A.M. and taped “MASH” while you were watching "Monday Night Football" or “Three’s Company” when you could not be home on Tuesday nights.

While Super Bowls were drawing millions of viewers and sporting events from around the world had been brought into our homes “live via satellite” for more than 15 years, 1980 was still a year that brought us the United States’ victory over the Soviet Union in the Winter Olympics semifinal game on a tape-delayed broadcast. (I guess some things never change.) Someday the Olympics might actually return to live television. Do you believe in miracles?

Back to the Orange Bowl that Monday night in December of 1980. As Smith prepared to boot the Patriots to victory, Gifford and Cosell learned from Roone Arledge via ABC News that Lennon had been killed. Cosell and Gifford discussed during a commercial break whether or not to inform the viewing audience about what happened. "I can't see this game situation allowing for that newsflash. Can you?" Cosell asked. "Absolutely. I can see it...If we know it, we've got to do it..It's a tragic moment and it's going to shake up the whole world," Gifford replied.

With that, the decision to announce history during the Patriots-Dolphins game, was made.

Back on the air, Gifford resumed the broadcast:

"...John Smith is on the line. And I don't care what's on the line, Howard, you have got to say what we know in the booth," Gifford said.

Then Cosell took over:

"Yes, we have to say it. Remember this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City. The most famous perhaps, of all of The Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead on arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that news flash, which, in duty bound, we have to take. Frank?" And Gifford's response: "...Indeed, it is."

Those words hit my 15-year-old ears with all the impact of a Terry O'Reilly left-cross.

“Dammit.”

Watching on TV, no one had any idea if the players or fans in Miami knew what had happened (they did not). Again, this was pre-cellphone, text message, stadium JumboTron, Twitter, Facebook or commercial internet. And no public announcement concerning Lennon had been made since the news had just broken.

Smith's kick was blocked and it was overtime at the Orange Bowl.

To no one’s surprise – at least in New England – the Dolphins scored on their first possession in overtime on Uwe von Schamann's 23-yard field goal.

Dolphins 16, Patriots 13.

“Dammit.”

Lennon was dead and the Patriots had lost. No perspective needed, even for a young, obnoxious Boston fan. The Patriots losing big games late in the season was nothing new. From 1976 to 1980 - the Patriots under Chuck Fairbanks and Ron Erhardt went 50-26 but never won a playoff game. Watching that Monday night game from Miami there was no doubt in many minds they were going to somehow lose, it although there was hope as Smith warmed up and ABC went to commercial break with three seconds left and the game on the line.

It was only when ABC came back after commercial that all hell broke loose upon anyone who loved the Beatles, Lennon, or his music. No one's nightmare could conjure up what Cosell was going to say when he and Gifford interrupted the Patriots game to bring us the real world.

The kick, block and Patriots' loss were numbed by Cosell's announcement. As time passed, that Patriots’ game became the backdrop to the nation’s recollection of Lennon’s death. A historic footnote in so many ways. Smith was the lone Englishman in the NFL in 1980 and, like so many of his generation, grew up idolizing Lennon in the Beatles. Lennon's death forever intertwined with his missed kick last seen heading into the Dolphins' line.

It wasn't the first time - even in 1980 - that the game became secondary to the circumstances that surrounded it. Team USA's victory over the Soviets at Lake Placid -and the ensuing gold medal over Finland - was the cosmic opposite of Lennon's death in terms of emotion and positive impact. Cosell's announcement and its unavoidable timing was something unique to those watching live on TV, as opposed to the people in the stadium or even listening to the game on the radio (some with the TV volume turned down to mute Cosell whenever he was calling their local team's game.) Even the fans who watched the Americans beat the Soviets in person had more than enough time to head back to their hotels or the nearest bar to watch the tape-delayed broadcast. Both of those events in the same year were all the learning curve required to allow fans of my generation to grow up knowing that the games never matter as much as we think they do, win or lose.

Cosell, who loved taking the spotlight during the biggest athletic events to tell us how we should not worship those in the spotlight during big athletic events, appeared with Lennon on "Monday Night Football" on Dec. 9, 1974 - almost exactly six years earlier to the day of his death. In the clip, Lennon says the spectacle of the NFL "makes rock concerts look like tea parties," makes a detailed comparison between football and rugby and, when Cosell asks about a Beatles reunion answers with simply: "You never know."

A good chunk of the rest of America learned about Lennon's death when NBC interrupted Johnny Carson's monologue on "The Tonight Show" with the breaking news of the shooting outside The Dakota on Manhattan.

Lennon's music is as popular with my 19-year-old son (today is his birthday, by the way) as it was with his 15-year-old dad back in 1980 or any teen-ager who was listening to WRKO-AM or WBCN-FM when "Monday Night Football" debuted back in 1970. Lennon's impact on society and lives of people depends much on one's perspective, politics and, for some, even religious beliefs. Lennon's death was an undisputed tragedy that came to so many of us at the tail end of what would become just another football game.

New England's stumble in Miami on that second Monday night in 1980 eventually cost the 10-6 Patriots a shot at the AFC East title and a playoff spot. The loss to Dolphins was another in a long line of Monday night debacles that dogged the Patriots for years. Things have been much better for the Patriots on Monday nights, as they have been every other day of the week, since the arrival of Tom Brady, who is 12-4 in his 16 Monday night starts winning his last four. He’s averaged 276.2 passing yards per game with 37 TDs and 14 INTs. Overall, the Patriots are 10-1 in their last 11 Monday night games. Bill Belichick is 44-7 (.863) in December with New England, the best record in December among head coaches with one team in NFL history (min. 25 games).

Last season, the Patriots won their two Monday night games by a combined score of 73-27 and Vivian's dad threw for 5,324,554,767,438 (or maybe it was only 517) yards against the Dolphins in the 2011 MNF season opener.

Tonight, the Patriots will face the Texans in the toughest test of the season for both teams. With a win tonight, the Patriots will amazingly even their all-time Monday night record at 22-22. And it's everyone's hope that this Patriots game on the second Monday night of 2012 lives on for what happens on the field and nothing else.

As always, let us know what you think. Join our in-game Patriots-Texans fan chat on Monday at 8:15 p.m. Post your thoughts here, on our Obnoxious Boston Fan Facebook page or e-mail me obnoxiousbostonfan@hotmail.com. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter @realOBF.

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Obnoxious Boston Fan offers a fun, unique and biting perspective on the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, Patriots and whatever else people are talking about in the world of sports. We More »
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