My heart was in my throat. The television screen revealed the all-time leading scorer George Blanda knocking the dirt out of his cleats.
The Raiders lined up in field goal formation. Ken Stabler held out his hand to call for the ball from the center. The center hiked it backwards to Stabler, who put the ball down for Blanda, who booted it through the uprights.
The three points were welcome but my team, the Oakland Raiders, not only trailed by a score of 16-10, but they only had twelve seconds left IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME AGAINST THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS!
I sat there, mesmerized. In my mind, I began to play out scenarios in which the Raiders could prevail. Then the teams returned to the field for the kickoff.
Raider Ray Guy kicked the ball end over end across the frozen field at Steeler Reggie Garrett ten yards away. Garrett held out his hand but the ball struck him on the shin and rebounded toward Raider Dave Casper. As soon as I saw the Steeler defenders like Jack Lambert come on to the field, I knew the referees had declared that the Raiders had possession of the ball.
After talking with Raider coach John Madden, Stabler threw the ball forty yards down the left sideline to wide receiver Cliff Branch, who caught the ball simultaneous to being tackled by defensive back Mel Blount. From the television angle, I could not see past the wall of players and fans who perched themselves right next to the field. Had Branch gotten out of bounds? If so, had he done so before the time clock went to zero?
After the announcers, whose view was no better than mine, gave conflicting accounts of the end to the play, the referees signaled that Branch had not gotten out of bounds. That was the game. But what a game!
Even to this day, I think of ways the Raiders could have advanced the last fifty-six yards in just seven seconds and with no time-outs. It has become clear to me that, like Stabler and Madden, I engage in a "chess match" with two opponents, the Steelers and the time clock. The ending to this game was football at its very best!
This era of professional football, the mid-1970s, represented the peak of what the sport has to offer. What made this game great is exactly what is missing from today's professional football:
A classic rivalry that fans could follow. Players rarely changed teams because there was no free agency then and trades did not happen too often. As a result, one could identify the best teams easily because they kept the same players and because they consistently made the playoffs.
A focus on the game instead of hype. There was no ESPN or sports radio then. Now many fans get tired of all of the pre-game shows and just want to see the game.
It was all about the teams rather than the players. Back then, I participated in a pool in which we chose the team winners of the games. Now fans follow fantasy football players and care more about individual performances than what should matter most, team performances.
Does a 500 yard passing performance by Tom Brady keep you on the edge of your seat? I doubt it.
Fans who watched the Pittsburgh-Oakland game knew they had seen two heavyweights go at it and that they had gotten their money (or time)'s worth. The last-minute Raider surge kept the fans watching and when the game ended, fans of both teams waited for a rematch.
We are still waiting thanks to team expansion, free agency and the focus on individual performances which have detracted from the team sport that football really is.