The football is still in Billy Andrews’ house.
It’s the football thrown by Joe Namath in the first Monday Night Football game 50 years ago.
Andrews intercepted the pass for running back Emerson Boozer at the Jets’ 25 with about 40 seconds to go in the game. The Browns linebacker dived to make the catch, picked himself up, turned toward the Jets’ end zone and ran. He stiff-armed a Jets offensive player, rumbled over the baseball dirt infield of Cleveland Municipal Stadium, made a little jump over the goal line, and before he ran out of the end zone, Andrews threw the ball into the ground. It was a touchdown spike before it became the most common form of touchdown celebration.
The largest crowd in the history of Cleveland professional fooball – 85,703, which will never be exceeded – roared as the Browns repelled Namath, the most famous football player of his time, and the New York Jets, 31-21, winning arguably one of the five most famous games in NFL history.
The ball, which had special white stripes on each end to improve visibility in night games, was awarded to Andrews in the locker room by coach Blanton Collier. It has no inscription signifying its history.
“It’s just a football. That’s all it is. It’s not even written on,” Andrews, 74, said in a telephone conversation from his home on his 800-acre dairy ranch in Clinton, LA.
“My son [Will] wasn’t born till seven years later,” Andrews said. “The first time he realized what had happened was in 1990. We were at the ABC 20-year reunion [of Monday Night Football]. They had all the Monday Night people back up there from the first game and other years. They had a ball encased and my son was just overcome with it. I told him, ‘Well, that’s really not [the real ball]. It’s in your room. You’ve been playing with it outside.’”
On Monday, the Browns and Jets renew the inaugural meeting that changed the way the NFL was televised and consumed.
Andrews was the football hero on that night. His game-clinching interception was the first in his eight-year career and his only touchdown. That single play changed his life. But not in the way you might think.
Finding meaning: Andrews was a 13th-round draft choice of the Browns in 1967 out of Southeastern Louisiana. He started a few games on great Browns teams in 1968 and 1969 that lost in the NFL Championship Game. Had they won those games, the Browns – not the Colts – would have faced Namath’s Jets in Super Bowl III, and the Browns – not the Vikings – would have faced Len Dawson’s Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV.
Andrews did not even start in the first Monday Night Football game, which was the opening game of the 1970 season. He came in at outside linebacker after an injury to starter Dale Lindsey.
The interception of Namath, Andrews said, “was huge to my career and life, it was a life-changing event for me.”
“My whole life basically had been set towards trying to play in the NFL,” Andrews explained. “All the way through from Pee Wee, high school, college, I was considered too small, too slow, too everything, and at each level I was told you’re not going to be good enough.
“So I built my life on this. When that game happened, it was like all of my dreams, all of my ambitions, and everything, was fulfilled because I became a starter and had recognition. But what I realized was it was not what it was cracked up to be.
“Not that it wasn’t inviting, not that it didn’t fulfill my dream. But I was an empty person. I had pursued this and there was nowhere else for me to go, and I turned to Christ to find satisfaction in life.”
Andrews’ career took off after the interception. He started 10 games the rest of the season. The next year he was named Browns defensive player of the year by the Cleveland Touchdown Club. After that, he was named a defensive captain.
While Andrews achieved on the football field, he learned there was a greater calling to his life. He said he attended a conference of a new organization called Pro Athletes Outreach in April of 1971, attended by Roger Staubach, among others, and “was saved.”
“The outcome of me becoming a Christian was the climax of my whole career, that I was saved in April of 1971,” Andrews said. “It radically changed my life because I was going down a different path. It was very, very wonderful.”
From there to here: The Browns hosted the first Monday Night Football game because no other team wanted to.
Owner Art Modell, whose background in television advertising placed him alongside Commissioner Pete Rozelle in strategizing the growth of the NFL through television, volunteered to host the game when other owners feared Monday night attendance would bomb.
It was also a risk for ABC-TV, which dared to pit a football game against the popular TV shows at the time. The week of the game, the cover of the TV Guide blared, “Pro Football tackles Doris Day.”
ABC producer Roone Arledge revolutionized TV coverage of football on that night in Cleveland by employing double the number of cameras normally assigned to games and utilizing instant replay for the first time, among other innovations.
Arledge also introduced a three-man announcing team, headlined by the redoubtable Howard Cosell, a one-of-a-kind commentator with no football expertise who became equally hated and loved by TV viewers. Cosell became so popular, he actually hosted his own variety show on TV.
Cosell’s introduction at the top of the broadcast was an instant classic.
“It is a hot, sultry, almost windless night here at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, where the Browns will play host to the New York Jets … and here at midfield, on the gridiron itself, we will see two of the outstanding teams in professional football, each accorded the chance to reach the Super Bowl,” Cosell said in his oft-imitated intonation.
Andrews’ pregnant wife had to drive to her father’s house 30 minutes away to see the game and Andrews’ big play because the Clinton, LA, television station declined to show the game. Many stations thought football on Monday night wouldn't attract viewers.
“They lived on a tall hill and they had an antenna that would get Channel 6 out of New Orleans,” Andrews said. “She jumped off her daddy’s couch [at the sight of the interception.] And just a few days later she had the baby.”
Andrews said he remains a die-hard Browns fans. He and his family, including many grandchildren, plan to travel to Cleveland for next Sunday’s prime-time game against the Los Angeles Rams. They intend to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton on Saturday.
“They have a mural of me scoring the touchdown painted on the wall. My children and grandchildren wanted to take family pictures of that,” Andrews said.