Bob Downing

Football fans in Northeast Ohio didn’t know what to do.

It was Sept. 21, 1970, a Monday night, and the Cleveland Browns were hosting the New York Jets and quarterback Joe Namath at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

It was the first game in ABC’s landmark Monday Night Football series and the beginning of something new and big.

But tens of thousands of Clevelanders were lost that night. They worked until 5 p.m. and didn’t know what to do until the 9 p.m. kickoff. Many wandered downstream streets. Others flooded downtown restaurants and bars on an unprecedented scale for a weeknight and imbibed for hours before kickoff. A new Cleveland football tradition was being born. It was the Dawg Pound before the Dawg Pound.

The stadium was largely filled by 8 p.m. with rowdier-than-usual football fans.

I know. I was there.

I was a 20-year-old college student seated in the lower bowl with my father, Richard Downing of Lakewood.

I had met him at his office at 5 p.m. We tried — with no luck — getting into three or four downtown establishments to eat dinner. We ended up dining on stadium hot dogs and watching the teams warm up.

We attended a Browns game every couple years and the Browns-Jets game on Monday night was very appealing. It was also the game that ABC executive Roone Arledge really wanted to kick off his new football series with some pizazz.

It was a sloppy but intense game, witnessed by a then-record 85,703 fans. The Browns’ won 31-21 and clinched the game on a last-minute interception return for a touchdown by substitute linebacker Billy Andrews. He scored from 25 yards with 35 seconds to go. It was Namath’s third interception of the game. The others were by Cleveland defenders Walt Sumner and Jim Houston.

Cleveland newcomer Homer Jones returned the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. Wide receiver Gary Collins scored a touchdown on a pass from quarterback Bill Nelson. Running back Bo Scott also scored. Defensive end Jack Gregory had a monster game.

Browns fans never stopped booing Namath. It was the biggest sport of the night. Boos for him were longer and louder than for anyone else.

But Namath was very impressive and largely shredded the Cleveland defense with his pinpoint passing. He completed 18 passes in 31 attempts for 298 yards.

The Jets outgained the Browns 31 first downs to 20, and 455 yards to 221 yards. Both teams were heavily penalized.

Jets running back Matt Snell gained 108 yards on 17 carries. But he had a costly fumble.

Jets touchdowns were scored by wide receiver George Sauer on a 33-yard reception and running back Emerson Boozer on runs of 2 and 10 yards.

The Jets were hurt at the end when Cleveland punter Don Cockcroft uncorked a 65-yard punt to the Jets’ 4-yard line.

The game was announced by Keith Jackson, Don Meredith and Howard Cosell. It was blacked out in Northeast Ohio.

Nationally, the game drew huge numbers: one-third of television viewers that night. ABC charged sponsors $65,000 a minute. The network doubled the number of cameras used to televise the game. It also offered halftime highlights from Sunday’s games, a very popular feature by Cosell.

There had been Monday night games in the NFL prior to the Browns-Jets game. Some had been televised. But the 1970 game was the first scheduled as part of a weekly series.

The game also marked the merger of the American Football League and the National Football League. The two leagues had given up their separate identities after the 1969 season.

As part of the switch, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and the Baltimore Colts (now the Indianapolis Colts) became part of the NFL’s new American Football Conference, made up mostly of former AFL teams.

So the game was Cleveland’s first as a member of the American Football Conference. Cleveland fans looked at the game as a way to show the upstart AFC what the old-school Browns could do.

The Browns were coming off trips to the NFL championship games in 1968 and 1969. They lost to the Baltimore Colts 34-0 in 1968 and to the Minnesota Vikings 27-7 in 1969. The Jets were led by Namath, who had upset Baltimore in the third Super Bowl after the 1968 season.

The Browns ended the 1970 season with a 7-7 record under Coach Blanton Collier. They ended one game behind the three-year-old Cincinnati Bengals coached by Paul Brown, who had been earlier canned by Cleveland owner Art Modell. The Browns missed the playoffs.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.