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ABC broadcasts last Monday Night Football game

12/27/2005 - NFL

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Al Michaels turned to Frank
Gifford, patted his former broadcast partner on shoulder and said
simply: "I can't thank you enough."

Football fans feel the same way about "Monday Night Football."

After 36 seasons on ABC, the television phenomenon concluded its
network run with a game between the New England Patriots and the
New York Jets.

The best highlights, however, were provided not by players in
helmets and pads -- but characters in yellow blazers and outdated
hairdos, talking into ancient microphones and chomping cigars.

The 555th broadcast opened with -- who else? -- the most
recognizable voice in "Monday Night Football" history: Howard
Cosell.

Thus began a night that was less a football game than an excuse
to queue up the highlight reel. ABC sprinkled in bits of footage
that defined the show through the years, from Cosell's outrageous
pontificating to Don Meredith's drawling serenades.

Meredith even saved one last rendition for this show: "Turn out
the lights, the party's over ... " came the familiar strains as
the fourth quarter began. Standing before a black backdrop,
Meredith pumped a fist and shook his head as he finished the verse.

"Monday Night Foobtall," he said softly, smiling with a
twinkle in his eye.

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 segment
even featured a few seconds from last season's controversial
pregame skit featuring Eagles receiver Terrell Owens and a
towel-clad Nicollette Sheridan from "Desperate Housewives."

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.

"The game will continue," Michaels said. "But the ABC era of
'Monday Night Football' comes to an end tonight."

And it concluded with yet another stinker of a game, a problem
that came to plague "MNF" year after year. But that's how it goes
when the schedule is set months in advance, and ABC used halftime
and other breaks to showcase the show's legacy rather than talk
about the meaningless game between the playoff-bound Patriots and
dismal Jets.

New England won 31-21 -- the same score the Jets lost by in the
first "Monday Night Football" against the Cleveland Browns in
1970.

"Obviously we're celebrating a 36-year legacy on ABC and the
end of an era but we're also celebrating the start of a new era
with this great property on ESPN," George Bodenheimer, the
president of ESPN and ABC Sports, said before the game. "It's a
bit of mixed emotions."

Michaels called the program "the perfect marriage of sports and
prime time." In the booth, partner John 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 NFL on Sunday.

On Sept. 21, 1970, "MNF" kicked off what would be the longest
prime-time sports series in television history with the New York
Jets at Cleveland. Keith Jackson, Meredith and Cosell were in the
booth and, it soon became evident, America was watching.

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.

"That was one of the craziest dynamics -- in fact, the craziest
in broadcasting," Michaels said after the clip. "I can't think of
anything like it."

When Gifford replaced Jackson in the booth for the show's second
season, the ratings only went up.

"It seemed to work," Gifford said. "People seemed to like
it."

Those announcers have long been gone -- though Gifford was at
Giants Stadium for the finale Monday night and joined Michaels in
the booth at halftime -- but the program has retained a distinct
position in the landscape of American culture.

"'Monday Night Football' and the bubble-gum card -- that was
kind of important being in the league if you could do that," Jets
coach Herman Edwards said.

It's provided many memorable moments, from Tony Dorsett's
record-setting 99-yard touchdown run in 1983 to Brett Favre's
emotional 399-yard, four-touchdown performance the night after his
father's death. On Dec. 8, 1980, it was Cosell who announced that
Lennon had been shot and killed.

Even the show's misses were interesting: When ratings began to
dip, comedian Dennis Miller was hired to be part of the announcing
team. He lasted two seasons, though a clip showed Monday night
proved he did predict Arnold Schwarzenegger would one day be the
governor of California.

"You look at the body of work that has been completed here over
36 years: the great games, the stars, the story lines, the part of
Americana that 'Monday Night Football' is, it's really a
magnificent piece of work," Bodenheimer said.

With the fracturing of television and the viewing options that
have developed in the era of cable, "Monday Night Football" no
longer holds the same position it once did. But it is still a top
ratings performer week in and week out and its intro -- capped by
Hank Williams Jr.'s rhetoric "Are you ready for some football?" --
are instantly recognizable.

And players still realize its significance. After all, Monday
night is still a prime-time showcase, a place to show the country
what a team, or a player, is made of.

"It's good to know we're going to be the last one," linebacker
Jonathan Vilma said. "That makes it that much more special for us.
We're going to be in the history books as the last Monday night
game on ABC."