Sports Legend Revealed: Did NBC send an employee on the field to delay an NFL title game?
FOOTBALL LEGEND: NBC sent an employee running on to the field to delay the 1958 NFL title game because they had lost the TV signal.
STATUS: I'm Going With True.
I've already written in the past about the great influence that the 1958 NFL Championship Game had on the future of professional football, but I'll mention it again. The 1958 Championship pitted the Baltimore Colts against the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium for a game that has since been dubbed "the Greatest Game Ever Played." It was the first, and remains the ONLY, NFL title game (including all Super Bowls) to ever end in overtime. In fact, it was the first NFL game period to ever end in overtime. It came about at a time when the American public were primed to become invested in professional football, and the game served as a sign that they were now "all in." Gone were the years of poorly attended games - the league would never average less than 40,000 a game again and within three years public demand caused the league to expand from 12-game seasons to 14-game seasons.
Perhaps even more important was how pro football was adopted by the media. Sports Illustrated had barely given any coverage to the league, but soon began covering them regularly. Soon, incoming commissioner Pete Rozelle would began to control the media angle of the sport and help to build a multi-media sporting empire. He founded NFL Films and began to work out national television contracts to replace smaller, local TV deals. Eventually, these plans would lead to shows like Monday Night Football and today an entire network devoted to the NFL. It all started that night, when a record 45 million people watched the Colts defeat the Giants.
So as important as the game was to the future success of the NFL, it was also very important to the network, NBC (National Broadcasting Company), who was televising the game. As stated, the NFL was clearly poised to become a ratings bonanza and NBC wanted to capitalize on that themselves. They were so invested in the coverage of the game that, when they lost their TV signal late in the game, NBC took very drastic measures to make sure that their viewers would not miss the ending of the game. Drastic measures that included actually causing an on the field delay in the middle of what turned out to be the game-winning drive!
Tied at 17-17 that cold December 28th day, the Colts took over at their own 20 yard line following the Giants' offense stalling after getting the ball to start the overtime period. Through a bold mix of passing and rushing (passing was certainly gutsy on a cold day when any interception could lead to a dramatic loss), Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas slowly brought his team all the way to the Giants' eight-yard line, where he called timeout.
The problem was, the crowd of over 68,000 was SO raucous that the cable providing NBC's TV signal, which was located in the end zone, actually became DISCONNECTED! It happened RIGHT before Unitas called timeout. So now 45 million Americans saw only snow on their screens (I am sure you can imagine the scenes all over the country of people freaking out in front of their TVs). As opposed to snow, the folks at NBC were likely seeing red! The Colts were on the Giants' eight-yard line! The game could be over on the very next play!! They frantically tried to locate the problem. Interestingly enough, earlier that year, in an article about televised sports, the New York Times had asked a CBS producer what they would do in just such an occasion. The producer joked that they would likely send someone out on to the field acting like a drunk to delay the game.
Well, sure enough, that's exactly what NBC did! NBC employee Stan Rotkiewicz, standing on the sidelines doing some statistician work (a former college football player, Rotkiewicz worked as a business manager for NBC News, but did stat work on game days), was the sacrificial lamb. After Unitas returned from the sidelines and the timeout, Rotkiewicz ran on to the field, running up and down the length of the field chased by a few police officers. Some more officers joined in from the other side of the field and soon Rotkiewicz was taken down and hauled off of the field (even at the time, when everyone considered him a drunk, most fans and commentators noted how well dressed the young man was).
The delay worked well, but NBC still missed the first play out of timeout. Luckily for them, it was just a short rush that gained only a yard. The signal returned in plenty of time to capture Unitas' final two glorious plays - a six-yard pass to Jim Mutscheller (who, had he not slipped on some ice, might have won the game right there). Finally, he handed off to Alan Ameche for the game-winning one-yard rush for the touchdown, finishing the scoring at 23-17.
And all of America's TV viewers had a chance to see it.
It's worth noting that Johnny Unitas refused to believe Rotkiewicz was not actually a drunk. He felt that no one could be THAT good of an actor, as Rotkiewicz was swearing up a storm when the cops took him down.
However, with the New York Times report coupled with Rotkiewicz, you know, working for the network that needed to delay the game and all the sources over the years that have said that that is exactly what Rotkiewicz was doing, I'm willing to differ with the late, great Johnny U and say that this one is true.
Thanks to Mark Bowden's excellent The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL and Tom Callahan's great Unitas biography, Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas, for the information for the piece (Bowden about Rotkiewicz and Callahan about what Unitas felt about the moment).
-- Brian Cronin
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Photo: Baltimore Colts fullback Alan Ameche advances through a big opening provided by teammates to score the winning touchdown in overtime period against the New York Giants during the NFL title game at Yankee Stadium in New York. Colts' Lenny Moore gets a good block on Giants' Emlen Tunnell (45) at left. Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas (19) is at right along with Giants' Jim Patton (20). Credit: AP.