On some fall Sunday last year, while nestled next to my girlfriend, focused on the 50-inch flat panel throwing football colors at us, I suddenly swelled with gratitude.
“Do you realize how lucky we are?” I asked.
It wasn’t about dating a woman as beautiful as she is, that I’d clearly out-kicked my coverage. It wasn’t about having a roof over my head or Doritos in my belly. It wasn’t even the generic sense of religious blessings that Sunday mornings promote.
I was thinking about how far Sunday afternoons have evolved.
If you were alive and lucid 40 years ago, how do you explain to a Millennial the dearth of decent viewing options for NFL football? Today we have the virtual buffet of television options. Between DirecTV, RedZone and all the HD spinoffs, we are assured some form of football around the clock, all year long.
But back in the late-’70s, we lived in a two-channel purgatory — CBS and NBC, the former for the NFC, the latter for the AFC. On one channel we had the iconic tandem of Pat Summerall and John Madden. On the other we often heard Marv Albert teamed with any number of luminaries, from Namath to Len Dawson. And if the TV Gods felt generous, a bonus game with Don Criqui and Bob Trumpy, or Dick Enberg paired with Merlin Olsen.
There was no — Gasp! — ESPN until the ’80s. But even then it was a fledgeling franchise, a Sunday lineup of SportsCenter, followed by bowling or bass fishing. The only real source of football during the week was the newspaper, which was often outdated by the time we bought it. There were no tickers or instant updates. If you wanted scores, you were forced to dial a 976 number, for a fee, to hear someone rattle off scores with the speed of an auctioneer.
There was no Sunday night football. No Thursday night football. No new network brandishing the shield, 24/7 of NFL updates and replays and predictions and analysis.
My girlfriend — a Bengals fan, sadly, to rival my Steelers worship — wondered why I told her we lived in a high-tech utopia of football fandom. She could hardly fathom the dearth of decent TV options back in the black-box cable days, when even a remote control was considered space age.
Forget fantasy football. Imagine an NFL world void of your favorite team every Sunday. Imagine watching a game before the flat-screen smoothness of today’s televisions, before souped-up stereo enhancements and wall-rattling subwoofers, before the screen-in-screen drama that can now be summoned by a single button.
Imagine my menu on Sundays in, say, 1978. If you lived in New York City, the Jets were on at 1 p.m. And the Giants at 4 p.m. or the reverse. They never played at the same time, because, God forbid, we be robbed of the singular agony of these wretched teams.
The Jets had jettisoned Joe Namath. I was born the year he flexed his forefinger out of the Orange Bowl, so I couldn’t appreciate Broadway Joe’s true genius. But I was around for the Herm Edwards game. Long before his “You play to win the game!” monologue, Edwards was famous for gobbling up a fumble in the New Jersey swamp.
In a game coined “Miracle at the Meadowlands,” Edwards, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles, feasted on the biblically bad football from the “Football” Giants. While burning off the clock to secure a surefire victory, Giants QB Joe Pisarcik bungled a handoff to Larry Csonka. The ball bounced on the concrete turf, and Herm just scooped it up and dashed 20 yards into the end zone. The Giants were so bad that the NFL pondered stepping in to hire competent management. While my beloved black & gold were about to win their third out of four Super Bowls that decade, I was solemnly sitting on a sofa, next to my dad, wondering why we couldn’t just watch the Steel Curtain.
That’s not an issue now. The 25-year-old football fan has no idea what I’m talking about. His (or her) biggest dilemma is whether to watch from the love seat or the ottoman, whether to go with guacamole or salsa. Coke or Pepsi.
Indeed, the home-viewing experience is so lifelike, folks often eschew the rigors of high prices, parking, drunk fans and ornery weather for the five-star comforts of their home theater.
Too often young people hear from folks my age about how much better things were in that opaque, cinematic, “Back in the day” period, whenever that is. This is one of those rare times they won’t. Because only a fool thinks football was better in 1978, or at least better to watch. This really is the golden age of NFL television. Count your NFL blessings.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.