I feel like the most flexible, open-minded person in the world. Don’t you?
Problem is, everybody 20 years younger than us thinks we’re a bunch of mansplaining, manspreading old patriarchy-pushing micro-aggressors.
Fine. Got it. We have it coming—which is good, since it has been coming to my generation since we were about 40.
But one time—at a neutral moment, while we’re not talking about the white-hot issue of the moment—the younger set should see where we got our information. And what a tar pit of popular culture ignorance we have pulled one, two or even three of our feet out of, just to become the ignoramuses into whose faces the young occasionally hope to throw dirt.
To that end, children, I invite you to sit down with me and a bottle of bourbon to watch the full broadcast of a single professional football game—a Monday Night Football game in 1973, between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Miami Dolphins.
Have a seat.
Monday Night Football was anchored by Howard Cosell, a person who is very hard to explain to anyone who became a conscious adult after Cosell’s ubiquitous prime. If you grew up in a sports world with Howard Cosell in it, you can’t imagine any world without Cosell in it. If you grew up in a world without Cosell, and a YouTube introduction to him makes you feel you’ve met an extra terrestrial.
It’s impossible to explain what Cosell’s popularity represented, for good and for ill (and I do mean both), so we’re better off explaining his stated (and restated) philosophy as a broadcaster.
“I tell it,” he used to say, “like it is.”
That’s another way of saying, “How I tell it is how it is.”
Or, a little more to-the-point, “It is what I say it is.”
Which leads directly to one eccentric, notoriously insecure former lawyer with a shallow knowledge of sports, telling the whole country with an air of supreme reassurance, “Because I said so.”
Cosell opens the broadcast by saying the Steelers’ starting quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, and their backup quarterback, Terry Hanratty were both injured, so it was down to …
“… this young man, number 17, Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam, Tennessee State, Black quarterback! Joe Gilliam, getting his shot in the wake of all the talk through all of the years, about Black quarterbacks in the National Football League. A confident young man. A superb athlete. Millions watching tonight. I asked him about the pressures.”
Cut to interview, Cosell asks: “Do you feel an almost overwhelming pressure?” From leading a badly injured 8-3 team against a team that’s lost one game in two seasons? No, Dummy: From proving Black people are intellectually capable of playing quarterback!
Gilliam: “There’s enough rigmarole and razzmatazz with the press and the news media and the people—I kinda let them take care of all the pressure, cuz we got other things.”
On the very first Steeler drive, while Cosell is somewhat solicitously praising Gilliam’s courage in the face of enemy rushers, Gilliam throws an interception that Miami’s Dick Anderson returns for a touchdown.
Steelers have the ball again. Cosell’s broadcast colleague, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback “Dandy” Don Meredith urges Gilliam: “If he’d just settle down. Go back to your game plan, Jefferson Street!”
Two drives later, Gilliam throws his second interception of the ballgame. The Dolphins lead the Steelers, 10-0.
(Somewhere in the middle of the second quarter, ABC shows a short series of clips of fearsome Pittsburgh Steelers defenders throwing opponents around like rag dolls. Just for grins.)
Now Gilliam throws to tight end John McMakin—a perfect pass, dropped. Nobody wonders aloud whether Irish/Scots are competent to play pro football.
“Gilliam now 0 for six tonight, two interceptions,” says Frank Gifford, a former New York Giant legend and the third white man in the booth.
And Gilliam throws another interception—once again, to Dick Anderson, who returns it inside the Pittsburgh five-yard line.
“I don’t know,” says Meredith. “May not see him finish out the night. Bradshaw may have to come in.”
Cosell: “It’s too bad, you don’t like to see it happen to the young man. A lot of people have waited a long time for this kind of opportunity, for reasons that don’t have to be further amplified.”
“But he hasn’t completed one to his side yet,” Meredith points out.
Not long after, the Dolphins score a touchdown, and take a 20-0 lead. And the Steelers’ injured starting quarterback, Terry Bradshaw, does indeed take over for Gilliam.
All before the start of the second quarter.
On Bradshaw’s first drive, Dick Anderson snags his third one, and runs that in for a touchdown. No one includes Bradshaw’s race, or for that matter his “people,” in the description of the action.
On his second drive, it’s clear Bradshaw is already struggling as badly as Gilliam was. But Meredith seems more simpatico with him: “He has to feel like the only kid in the dance who knows how to two-step, and they’re playing the boogaloo all night long.”
In a commercial, a Sunoco gas station manager shares his rationale for good customer service, “Maybe if I treat you like a friend now, you’ll remember who was good to you. So come on in now. I can be very friendly.” (As with all football games of this era, all commercials are squarely and strictly aimed at men, without even the thought that a woman might enter the room for any purpose beyond getting hubby another can of Schaefer. Shaving cream and razors, tires and car batteries and spark plugs and motor oil. Cigars, and pipes. And yes, beer.)
Now, Dick Anderson intercepts his fourth pass of the night—“an NFL record,” Gifford notes.
Halftime score, 30-3.
[Here, I fell asleep in my armchair for about an hour. I wasn’t kidding about the bourbon. Or the halftime score. —ed.]
The Steelers have scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to 30-10, and just recovered a fumble.
Gifford: “I told you it’s not over.”
Cosell: “When did you say that?”
Meredith: “During the commercial break, I heard him say that.”
The sideline camera alights on Gilliam. “There’s Joe Gilliam,” Gifford says. “Rough start. He’s got a lot of confidence in himself. He’ll be around awhile.”
(Wikipedia, on Joe Gilliam:
He spent most of the 1975 season as the backup quarterback to Bradshaw but was demoted to 3rd string quarterback behind Hanratty after a poor performance at the end of the season against the Los Angeles Rams and missing some team meetings.…
Gilliam felt that his demotion was based on racial reasons. In an interview with The Tennessean a year before his death, he said “I thought if you played well, you got to play. I guess I didn’t understand the significance of being a black quarterback at the time.” Wide receiver John Stallworth recalled that Gilliam’s demotion was due to his poor on-field performance, disobeying Chuck Noll’s game plan, and substance abuse issues and there was no racial motivation whatsoever on the team’s part. He noted that Noll was “completely color-blind” as a coach and not racist in any way. Linebacker Andy Russell said that Gilliam was “immensely talented” as a quarterback, but unable to stay off of drugs. …
Gilliam returned to football in 1981, playing quarterback for the semi-pro New Orleans Blue Knights of the Dixie Football League. He played with the Blue Knights for six seasons while working the docks of New Orleans, loading and unloading barges. …
Gilliam died of a cocaine overdose on Christmas Day, 2000 shortly after watching an NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and Tennessee Titans. He was four days away from his 50th birthday. Gilliam was sober for three years prior to his death and able to attend the final Steelers game at Three Rivers Stadium.
With the game apparently out of hand, the singer Bobby Goldsboro is in the booth, doing his impression of a cricket. “Boy, we’re stretching tonight, aren’t we?” Meredith says.
But the Steelers score again, and cut the lead to 30-17. And again, to make it 30-24, with a little more than four minutes left in the game.
With two minutes left, Miami takes over the ball its own two yard-line.
In a discussion of the significance of this game in the AFC Central Division standings, Cosell quotes a Shakespeare sonnet, gratuitously. Says Meredith, “A little Shakespeare around midnight never hurt anybody.”
Now, the Dolphins appear to be going for a first down on fourth and six at their own six yard-line—a situation where conventional wisdom would clearly call for a punt. None of these masters of football, literature and the American male universe can figure out what Dolphins coach Don Shula could be thinking. “I don’t get it!” Gifford says. “I don’t get it either,” Cosell says.
Then the Dolphins’ quarterback, Bob Griese, takes the snap and calmly walks the ball out of the back of the end zone for a safety, making the score 30-26 but buying the Dolphins many yards of game-clutching field position and leaving the announcers slapping their foreheads heads in hapless embarrassment, irredeemable until next Monday night, when everyone proceeds as if it never happened.
And that, young ladies and gentlemen, is the way it was.