On September 21, 1970, the hosting Cleveland Browns beat the New York Jets 31-21 in the first ever Monday Night Football game.
Monday Night Football was almost a decade in the making. The NFL had previously toyed with adding night games to the schedule, and a proposal for Friday night contests was shot down in 1964 due to worries that pro games would harm the high school scene.
Throughout the 1960s, the league experimented with occasional Monday night tilts being televised on CBS. In 1970—the same year as the NFL-AFL merger—it struck a deal with ABC to televise a full slate of prime-time games.
As a way to drum up interest for the new show, Monday Night Football uniquely employed three men in the booth: the play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson, the soft-spoken Don Meredith, and the controversial Howard Cosell. This telecast would also include twice the number of normal cameras along with replays and graphics.
The first contest on Monday Night Football featured the New York Jets, a former AFL club that won Super Bowl III behind the brash quarterback, Joe Namath. The other team, the Cleveland Browns, had won the NFL’s Century Division the season prior, but fell to the Minnesota Vikings in the league’s championship game. Cleveland was one of three teams to move from the NFL to the newly-crafted American Football Conference as part of the two league’s merger.
85,703 attended that first game, a record for Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, and, according to the Nielsen ratings, 38% of active television sets across the country tuned in.
The game itself was something of a drab affair. Cleveland shot out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, and then New York answered with the second quarter’s lone touchdown.
The biggest play came right after the gun sounded for the second half. The Browns’ Homer Jones took the kickoff at his 6 yard-line and dashed down the right sideline, darting through the Jets return coverage. Jones cut across the field at his 45 and muscled past a poor attempted tackle by New York kicker Jim Turner to skirt into the end zone for a 94-yard touchdown return.
Jones’ return virtually sealed the win for Cleveland, as both sides would trade scores the rest of the way en route to a 31-21 Browns win. Despite the loss, Namath passed for 298 yards. However, the former Alabama quarterback also tossed three interceptions (including one that was returned for a score) and the Jets amassed 161 yards in penalties, both of which helped spell doom for the New York ballclub.
And this game is underway on ABC!
The play-by-play announcer’s call of the game’s opening kick-off
Despite the historical significance of the game, and the fact that both teams won division titles in 1969, the Browns and Jets hobbled through the 1970 season. Cleveland went 7-7 and finished second to newfound rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals, in the AFC Central. New York, meanwhile, went a paltry 4-10 and struggled to overcome losing Namath to a broken wrist in their fifth game.
It’s also noteworthy that the Jets’ 161 penalty yards against the Browns would stand as a franchise record until 2013.
Monday Night Football fared much better. While the show endured a few bumps that initial year, such as Cosell throwing up on Meredith’s booths at halftime after having too much drink during a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants, Monday Night Football eventually weaved its way into the fabric of televised football.
It would stay on ABC until 2006, when NBC’s Sunday Night Football became the network telecast for prime-time football. With this switch, Monday Night Football moved over to ESPN, a sister station of ABC. As of the 2019 NFL offseason, there have been over 718 games televised on Monday Night Football.
We met a fine football team and got licked.
The Jets head coach
Thankfully, the game has been preserved in its entirety on YouTube—even the commercials. I’ve embedded the video below, but you’ll probably need to visit the actual YouTube page because the NFL blocks embeds:
Still images also exist. Probably the best of them is this shot of Joe Namath stepping back to pass as the Browns’ Jack Gregory and Ron Snidow close in:
We were lucky to win from a fine football team in a game in which the breaks went back and forth.
The Browns head coach
- On September 21, 1970 the Cleveland Browns hosted the New York Jets in the first-ever Monday Night Football game. 38% of active television sets across the country tuned in.
- The Browns won 31-21 in a game highlighted by Homer Jones’s 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to start the third quarter.
- Both teams struggled the rest of the 1970 season: Cleveland went 7-7 while New York finished 4-10.
- The New York Times, September 22, 1970 via ProQuest
- The New York Times, September 23, 1970 via ProQuest
- “The very first Monday Night Football game aired 42 years ago today”, ESPN
- “September 21, 1970…’ABC Monday Night Football’ Debuts”, Eyes Of A Generation
- “Ex-ABC Executive Says Cosell’s Drinking Was a Problem on Air”, Los Angeles Times
- “New York Jets at Cleveland Browns – September 21st, 1970”, Pro-Football-Reference.com