- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Turn out the lights, the party’s over.

After 36 years on ABC, the television phenomenon known as “Monday Night Football” 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The best highlights, however, were provided not by players in helmets and pads — but characters in yellow blazers and outdated hairdos, talking into ancient microphones and chomping cigars.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 broadcast started with — who else? — the most recognizable voice in “Monday Night Football” history: Howard Cosell.

Thus began what would be an ongoing highlight reel. All throughout the broadcast, 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 and Frank Gifford helped play-by-play announcer Al Michaels with the opener, which closed with a twist on the program’s signature motto:

“And now for those of us lucky enough to have represented [series creator] Roone Arledge’s original inspiration over the years, there’s only one thing left to say,” Michaels said.

“Are you ready for some football?” Meredith asked.

The series switches networks next season, when ESPN begins an eight-year deal in which it will pay $1.1 billion a year for Monday night rights.

“The game will continue,” Michaels said as the 555th broadcast of began. “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 its halftime and other breaks to showcase the broadcast’s legacy rather than talk about the playoff-bound Patriots and dismal Jets.

“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. It’s also a long way from where “Monday Night Football” started.

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 quickly became appointment television, with the interplay between the Cosell and Meredith providing almost as much entertainment as the play on the field.

Those announcers have long been gone — though Gifford was at Giants Stadium for the finale last night, to be announced by Al Michaels and John Madden — but the program has retained a distinct position in the landscape of American cultural.

“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.

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