Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A case of the Mondays

It was a little much, this "Monday Night Football" farewell. After all, it's only a farewell to the shrinking percentage of Americans who don't subscribe to basic cable - "MNF" is shifting from ABC, its home of 36 years, to ESPN next season. Last night's tribute/going-away party, which relegated the Pats' 31-21 victory over the Jets to subplot status, was little more than a maudlin exercise in self-congratulations by the network.

But damned if we didn't enjoy it anyway. TATB is nothing if not nostalgic, and the clips featuring great games and great personalities were . . . well, great fun. The highlights and hijinks from Monday nights past reminded us of the time when the presence and chemistry of Cosell, Dandy Don and Mr. Kathy Lee ensured that each week's game would be appointment television no matter who was playing. I couldn't help but think how much more worthwhile ESPN Classic would be if it re-ran games from "MNF"'s '70s heyday rather than reheated re-runs of crap like Arli$$. Until then, I'll have to settle for these lasting memories from three decades of watching "MNF":

Bo knows prime time, 1987: If you are a sports fan of a certain generation - namely, mine - that whole ESPN "SportsCentury" Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century countdown was a farce in your mind. You don't need some catchphrase-spewing nimrod such as Stuart Scott to lie through your television screen and dare claim that someone other than the one and only Vincent Edward "Bo" Jackson is the best athlete your eyes have witnessed. Sure, he was a shooting star, a hip injury derailing both of his careers, but he did things on the baseball field we haven't seen since (running up the wall after making a catch, hitting a home run off Wes Gardner that's probably still embedded in the wall behind Fenway's center field bleachers), and damned if baseball was his second-best sport. This performance, in which Bo busted off a 91-yard run straight down the left sideline and into the tunnel, lives on as football career tour-de-force, in large part because he also traumatized the fraudulent Brian Bosworth so badly on a goal line encounter that The Boz ended up selling freakin' real estate for a living. (The link no longer works, but you get the gist.) Best athlete? Athlete? There's Bo, and then there's everyone else. Period, end of discussion, and I don't give a damn what "SportsCentury" says.

Joe Montana out-Elways John Elway, 1994: The two greatest quarterbacks in NFL history going toe-to-toe and throw-for-throw. Elway was at the height of his giant-toothed powers, but it was Montana who enjoyed one last heroic hurrah on this night, marching the Chiefs down the field and throwing the game-winning touchdown pass with six seconds left. (For some reason, I keep imagining this certain skinny high school kid in California watching this game unfold and thinking, "Someday, that'll be me.")

Joe Washington throws, runs and passes for touchdowns as the Colts beat the Patriots in a driving rainstorm, 1978: Washington didn't torment only the Patriots; a speedy halfback who played for the Chargers, Colts and Redskins, he was one of the most versatile and underrated weapons of his time. Right, kinda like Mike Vrabel.

Dan Marino and the Dolphins gun down the 12-0 Bears,1985: This was one of those much-anticipated showdowns where the hype proved justified. The best passer ever puts the lone blemish on the record of the best single-season defense ever in what I believe is still the highest-rated Monday night game ever. And somewhere that night, the 1972 Dolphins got sh*tfaced.

Tony Dorsett breaks off a 99-yard, two-foot, 11-inch run against Minnesota, 1983: Perhaps its because most of his Cowboys accomplishments have been bumped out of the record book by Emmitt Smith, but Dorsett's legacy isn't what it should be. He was the most electric ballcarrier of his time, a threat to go all the way every time he touched the ball. This was his definitive run. If you never saw Dorsett, watch Reggie Bush. The similarities are uncanny.

Returning to Schaefer Stadium for the first time since being paralyzed by a Jack Tatum cheap shot in the '78 preseason, former Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley receives a seven-minute standing ovation from fans and players before the season-opener against Pittsburgh, 1979: Still and forever the most emotional moment in Patriots history.

Broncos safety Steve Atwater, miked up for NFL Films, stops Kansas City locomotive Christian Okoye in his tracks, 1990: The hardest one-on-one hit I've ever seen. The audio sounded like Paul Bunyan's axe splitting a tree.

Howard Cosell tells the world that the icon of a generation has been murdered, 1980:

"An unspeakable tragedy that came to us from 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 the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead . . . on . . . arrival."

I was in fifth grade, already a full-blown sports nut but only then starting to get into music, so I was more moved by Russ Francis's touchdown catch than I was the tears in mom's eyes after Cosell delivered the heartbreaking news. The significance of the tragedy became clearer the next day at school, when Mrs. Walton put off our normal curriculum so we could spend class discussing Lennon, and the Beatles, and music, and death, and anything else we had on our prepubescent minds that day. The sense of sadness among my teachers - most of whom were about the same age then as I am now - was palpable even to a doofy, oblivious 11-year-old like me. The memory of that day has stayed Kodachrome-clear through the years. I recall it as the first time I ever saw my teachers as human beings.

Lawrence Taylor snapping Joe Theismann's leg like a wishbone, 1985: If only LT had hit him in the mouth instead, our Sunday Night ESPN telecasts (and next year's Monday nighters, come to think of it) would be so much more pleasant.

As for today's Completely Random Football Card:

"Turn out the lights, the party's over . . . "