EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Al Michaels turned to Frank Gifford, patted his former broadcast partner on the shoulder and said simply: “I can’t thank you enough.”
Football fans feel the same way about “Monday Night Football.”
After 36 years on ABC, the television phenomenon concluded its network run with New England’s 31-21 win over the New York Jets, a lackluster game that didn’t come close to epitomizing the special place “Monday Night Football” has held in the American cultural landscape.
There were still plenty of great highlights, just not from players in helmets and pads. Instead, they featured characters in yellow blazers and outdated hairdos, cracking wise into ancient microphones and chomping cigars.
The 555th broadcast opened with — who else? — the most recognizable voice in “Monday Night Football” history: Howard Cosell.
And it ended with his longtime foil, country boy Don Meredith, singing his trademark line “Turn out the lights, the party’s over ... .” By the time the song moseyed to a conclusion — ending a final montage more than three decades in the making — Hank Williams Jr. was carrying the tune, with a slight lyric change for the last line:
“Mondays will never be the same again.”
Not for ABC, anyway.
The series switches networks next season, when ESPN begins an eight-year deal in which it will pay $1.1 billion per year for Monday night rights.
“They can take football away from ABC on Monday night,” announcer John Madden said after the game ended, “but they can’t take away the memories.”
Famous faces such as John Lennon, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Richard Simmons appeared during a halftime montage that illustrated how the program was as much entertainment as sport.
“The game will continue,” Michaels said as the show opened. “But the ABC era of ’Monday Night Football’ comes to an end tonight.”
Michaels spent much of the fourth quarter extolling the virtues of the production staff and former executives.
In an eerie symmetry, the Jets lost 31-21 — the same score New York lost by in the first “Monday Night Football” against the Cleveland Browns in 1970. That game featured an advertisement for Marlboro cigarettes; this one had a postgame show sponsored by AutoTrader.com.
Michaels called the program “the perfect marriage of sports and prime time.” In the booth, Madden reminisced how, even as coach of the Oakland Raiders, he sensed there was “something special about this.”
How right he was.
The show came a long way from its beginnings as a risky experiment that defied the American football tradition of high school on Friday, college on Saturday and the pros on Sunday.
On Sept. 21, 1970, “MNF” kicked off what would be the longest prime-time sports series in television history with Keith Jackson, Meredith and Cosell in the booth.
It became appointment television, with the interplay between the Cosell and Meredith providing almost as much entertainment as the play on the field. A clip shown during the game had Cosell describing Meredith as “uniquely qualified” to talk about a moribund team because he had once quarterbacked a team to an 0-11-1 record. “I could have done better than 0-11-1,” Meredith growled back after correcting that he hadn’t been the quarterback of that team.
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