Sports Nut

Let Us Now Praise Preston Ridlehuber 

Because of technical problems, Tuesday Morning Quarterback did not post on Tuesday morning. For the remainder of the NFL season, however, Tuesday Morning Quarterback will appear every—well, if you can’t figure it out,we’re not going to tell you. 

The NFL begins anew on Sunday: The fumbles, hype, folly, repetitious eight-yard outs, and lethargic three-yard plunges will fill the airwaves once again. I don’t know about you, but I can’t get enough. Personally I am glad the NFL is not on year-round, because I would never do anything but watch. I’m so hooked I would even watch the Cincinnati Bengals. Of course, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

This new column will be dedicated to the addicting inanities of the NFL, including 20/20 hindsight on the tactical blunders in each week’s games. (Click here for the official Tuesday Morning Quarterback NFL season preview, full of statistical minutiae and sweeping generalizations.) But since the fun does not start till this weekend, we don’t yet have anything to second-guess. Therefore, to inaugurate the column, let us pause a moment to honor the most important player in NFL history: Preston Ridlehuber.

Ah, Preston. Man among men, bravest of the brave, fleetest of the fleet, we intone onto you tribute. We adulate you. We salaam to you, every NFL-hooked one of us. Preston, you may not make it into Canton, but someday you will ascend to the halls of Asgard, where great warriors will celebrate your arrival with song and feasting and the recounting of your noble deeds. Or deed, in this case.

Preston Ridlehuber was the hero of the greatest single NFL play of all time, at least from the standpoint of the modern fan. The day was Nov. 17, 1968. It was the nationally televised game, pitting the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders, in the year that the Jets and Joe Namath were the talk of football and, ultimately, this upstart American Football League team would win the third Super Bowl, knocking off the old-line National Football League to everyone’s shock, and beginning modern (or is it postmodern?) fascination with pro football as the nation’s sport. It was also in that time, so dimly remembered, when nationally televised NFL football games were rationed to one per week.

The Jets had just kicked a field goal to take a 32-29 lead with 50 seconds left. Oakland had the ball, but the situation looked hopeless. The clock ticked to 7 p.m. ET, the old, highly formalized starting moment for prime time. Without comment, the football scene dissolved, to be replaced by a gauzy image of ein kleinesMädchen collecting flowers and skipping through the Swiss Alps as someone yodeled.

Yes, it was the Heidi Game. Millions of viewers were outraged by the unexplained substitution of wholesome family entertainment for the crunching, mindless violence they had been enjoying. They raced to call local TV stations to get the final result—this was in that primordial epoch before cable, sports radio, and the Web, when ringing up the local affiliate was the way all right-thinking people checked out-of-town scores. The callers were stunned to learn that Oakland put up two touchdowns in the final 49 seconds to win 43-32. The decisive moment? A wild fumble that was kicked, booted, muffed, and scrummed by countless gentlemen until fallen upon in the end zone for six by the most important player in NFL history, Raiders third-string halfback Preston Ridlehuber.

Ridlehuber’s subsequent accomplishments may have lacked distinction—his total career stats show 22 games, 12 rushes for 55 yards, four receptions, and a punt return. But learning of the Oakland comeback and knowing they had missed the good part drove millions of viewers into mass frenzy. Station switchboards were inundated. The networks were stunned by the intensity of the reaction—hard as it seems to believe today, at that point, programming executives did not seem fully aware that Americans were just plain nuts about football. A few hours after the Heidi Game, NBC announced that henceforth it would never cut away from a game, no matter what. CBS, the other football network of the time, quickly matched. This established a national consensus on an essential precedent: Nothing is more important than football.

No cutting away, no matter what! It can be Green Bay 48-Cincinnati 3 late in the fourth quarter of a lightning-delayed game that’s running toward bedtime with a reserve punter in to kneel on snaps and grind the clock, yet we will see every tedious tick, even if the pope is at that moment reading a homily pronouncing mandatory homosexuality, even if Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat are at that moment appearing at the White House to announce a joint nuclear strike on Belgium. After the Heidi Game, no one dares question that in TV terms, nothing comes before NFL football.

Of course, not all is perfect in this realm. Networks continue to waste valuable time on the meaningless—to say nothing of poorly played—NFL preseason. Not even sports nuts should watch NFL preseason games, which are ugly, ugly, ugly, in addition to being no more than rehearsals conducted before a paid audience. Let’s put it this way: You don’t want to watch Cindy Crawford shaving her legs: You want to watch her modeling the lingerie. This should be our attitude about the NFL preseason too.

Last weekend, in the final preseason games, most coaches held out their starters to avoid injuries and played only those whom the teams fully intended to cut the following day anyway. In the Baltimore Ravens’ concluding preseason game, a gentleman named Germany Johnson caught five passes for 82 yards and a touchdown. Anyone unfortunate enough to have watched the game would have sworn the whole Ravens strategy for 2000 was going to be to work the ball to Germany Johnson. The following morning, Johnson was released.

What, I ask, is the point of all this, especially before paid audiences and on television? Rehearse in private, I say. The NFL preseason should be reduced to two games, or even eliminated. There’s no Lyric Opera preseason, no American Ballet Theatre preseason, no Stratford Upon Avon preseason, certainly no rehearsal columns of Tuesday Morning Quarterback! (Although Al Gore does seem to be perpetually in preseason.) Cutting back or eliminating the preseason would mean the real nonsense could start sooner, and we could all park ourselves on the recliner to dial in real games and wallow in the pleasantly addled stupor the NFL induces.

For we live today in the world Preston Ridlehuber made: Monday, Sunday, and Thursday night games. Weekly national double-headers and regional cards. Saturday double-headers in December. This year, a Saturday night game the night before Christmas Eve. Endlessly repeated, interminable highlight reels on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Coke Classic, CNN, Fox, and PBS for all I know. Every game played everywhere, if you’re in the elect that has DirecTV. When the season kicks off on Sunday, pause and utter a word of thanks to Preston Ridlehuber, who made all this possible. But don’t bow your head. You might miss a three-yard plunge.

Weekly Tuesday Morning Quarterback Features:

  • There will be a weekly item ridiculing incorrect predictions about games from the Big Media. Since the incorrect predictions don’t start till this weekend, the item cannot start till next Tuesday.

  • There will be a weekly item noting the most embarrassing Dennis Miller moment from each Monday Night Football broadcast. TMQ feels certain that future historians will study this item, attempting to discern the true cause of the downfall of Western civilization. This cannot be guaranteed to be a permanent running item, however, because TMQ does not expect Miller to last out the season.

  • There will be a weekly trivia question, to which readers are invited to submit responses via “The Fray.” The prize for the best response each week: a Tuesday Morning Quarterback cap, as soon as Microsoft marketing finishes copyrighting the word “morning” and Slate lawyers approve the disclaimer. The lawyers are insisting the caps come shrink-wrapped with a 60,000-word disclaimer that says anyone who opens the wrapping consents to having his or her DNA sequence copyrighted by Microsoft. Otherwise, it’s a cool cap. This week’s trivia question: Which is not the actual name of an actual former NFL player—Fair Hooker, Wonderful Monds, Earthwind Moreland, Sheepy Redeen, or Vitamin Smith?