Throughout the storied history of the Las Vegas Raiders, the team has bested NFL greats like Tom Brady (yes, they beat him… once in 2002), Don Shula, Roger Staubach, Lawrence Taylor, and Walter Payton. However, few fans recall the time that the famed members of the Silver and Black “beat” Willy Wonka and his famed Chocolate Factory. Here’s the story…
The year was 1975 and NBC spent a fortune advertising the first-ever televised showing of the film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Network executives scheduled the airtime on November 23, at 7 p.m. (E.S.T.), following a matchup on our Nation’s capital between the Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders. Apparently, everyone felt comfortable with the fact that Sunday games did not usually run for more than three hours, and when they did, the endings were either expected or anti-climactic. Keep in mind, in the days before cable television and online streaming, the airing of Hollywood blockbusters on television witnessed huge ratings for networks and expensive airtime for sponsors. As a viewer, you could not postpone seeing a film because it might not be shown again, home video was roughly a decade away.
This wasn’t something new for the Raiders
This situation should sound eerily familiar to both Raider fans and NFL fans alike. Back in 1968, the Raiders played a thrilling game against the New York Jets that ran far longer than NBC expected. In the final moments, the Jets kicked a short field goal to establish a 32-29 lead with just over a minute left in the game. Then at 7 p.m., NBC switched the game off in favor of a scheduled showing of a children’s film called “Heidi.” The Raiders scored two touchdowns to prevail 43-32 and the negative public response to this forced the NFL to later establish new television rules (still in effect to this day) that TV stations must show the entire game regardless of any program that might follow it.
As a result, any four o’clock games that went longer than three hours would continue to be televised. The program following that contest would either be delayed or joined in progress. For many years after this was established, this issue was not a problem. In those days, most NFL teams ran run-heavy offenses which often killed the clock and easily ended games well under the three-hour window that NBC or CBS scheduled. Television customers uninterested in football, corporate sponsors, and the networks got comfortable with this situation and slowly the years went by. Then those pesky Raiders, the team that had “lost” to “Heidi” came along again for some revenge.
That legendary Raiders team…
Oakland entered the game with a 7-2 record following a rough start to the season. In that span, the team played its first five games on the road. Oakland’s two losses occurred during the span, but they rebounded with four straight victories. The team was loaded with talented players and coaches that we are all familiar with; John Madden, Cliff Branch, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Willie Brown, and quarterback Ken “Snake” Stabler. Meanwhile, the Redskins entered the game fighting for their playoff lives against 1970s NFC powerhouses like Dallas and Minnesota. This game was one that the Redskins (6-3 record) had to win.
The first quarter was a quiet one. At one point, Snake drove his Raiders downfield and short-yardage running back Pete Banaszak opened the scoring with a one-yard plunge. Ageless wonder George Blanda, now 48 years young, trotted out onto the field for the easy extra point. Blanda’s kick missed and the flub by the old man would return to haunt Oakland later.
Redskins had their own ageless wonder…
Redskins’ quarterback Billy Kilmer, another ageless wonder in NFL lore, was not to be outdone by Stabler. Kilmer quietly guided his team to nine points and a slim lead. Then, Banaszak shocked the football world by running a sweep off the left tackle and following a perfect block by Upshaw, the “Rooster”, as he was called by his teammates, scored from 27 yards away. Blanda’s kick was true, and the Raiders had retaken the lead. Later, just before halftime, Snake called a draw play and once again the Rooster carried the ball behind perfect Raider blocking. Banaszak scored his third touchdown of the day on a short jaunt and with Blanda’s successful kick, the Raiders led the Redskins 20-9.
During the first half, television commercials advertised the showing of the Willy Wonka film later that evening. You could feel kids across the country getting excited. Surely, the Raiders’ first-ever trip to the nation’s capital would end in an easy victory with them running out the clock. NBC executives were about to be disappointed.
The Raiders’ second half was a different story…
In the second half, the trailing Redskins defense opened like an avalanche on Stabler and the Raiders. Running lanes were clogged and Snake was picked off twice. In the meantime, Kilmer got the Redskins offense moving again. Running back Mike Thomas from two yards away to trim the Oakland lead to 20-16. Early in the fourth period, Snake got the Raiders moving again but the drive bogged down at the Washington 22. Blanda salvaged the effort by booting a field goal to extend the Raider lead to seven points.
It was do-or-die time for the Redskins as the clock ticked away. Things were growing ever closer to that 7 p.m. mark when actor Gene Wilder would warm everyone’s heart with his portrayal of the most famous chocolate factory owner in the history of literature. Now it was up to the Raiders’ famed defense of the 1970s to make sure that Wilder’s famed smile would shine across the nation’s television screens. It was not to be.
Kilmer mounted a drive for the ages with 2:30 remaining on the clock. He ran a perfect play-action fake and fired a 33-yard touchdown toss to Frank Grant. Oakland got the ball back but was unable to do anything with it. Unfortunately, they now had to contend with the first-ever overtime game in franchise history.
First overtime game in franchise history…
The Redskins and Raiders captains met at midfield. The coin was tossed, and the Redskins won. Electing to receive they were about to find out that the Raiders were the far better team. Oakland overwhelmed Kilmer’s attack. In the meantime, 7 p.m. had long since passed and the Willy Wonka movie was well underway. This was taking place as Snake got his team moving again. In those days, the Redskins defense liked to rush only four men and drop the rest into coverage. Snake modified his assault by keeping both backs in to block for him. This meant, as Washington defensive tackle Bill Brundige later lamented, “seven blockers against four rushers.”
Behind this wall of Silver and Black, Stabler easily picked the Redskins apart with two key passes. The first connection was a 26-yard pass to Fred Biletnikoff at the Washington 45. Freddy juked one Redskin defender and rushed forward to spot the ball deep in Redskin territory. Then, Snake dropped back and was forced to his left because of heavy pressure by Brundige and defensive tackle Diron Talbert, who came within inches of sacking Stabler. The pass connection to Branch covered 18 yards and put the ball on the Washington 7.
Banaszak was finally stopped…
Snake ran the ball with Banaszak once but this time, the Redskins were ready, and they stuffed the Rooster for a three-yard loss. Madden was now faced with an interesting dilemma. Blanda had already missed a kick earlier, but he had rebounded successfully on two extra-point tries and one field goal. Meanwhile, Oakland had committed five turnovers (three fumbles lost and two interceptions). It was now second and goal at the Redskin 10 and Madden opted to kick the game-winning field goal. “Why fool around?” Madden later told reporters. “We were not going to get any closer to the goal. Why run another play and risk a fumble?” Blanda, the greatest clutch player the game has ever known, was sent in for one more miracle.
The Raiders decided not to take any risks…
As the Raiders’ field goal team lined up, the people who hate football were likely cheering for Blanda to end the contest so that they could enjoy Willy Wonka. It was nearly 7:45 p.m. and kids all over the United States were missing the movie. Dave Dalby snapped the ball and Snake laid it perfectly on the grass. Blanda was already instantly celebrating after his foot connected with the football. He knew it was good and it was. Oakland prevailed in its first-ever trip to Washington D.C. with a 26-23 victory.
What’s the legacy of that game?
So, what about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? The Raiders had beaten him too because the game ran 43 minutes and 20 seconds beyond its scheduled TV time, causing viewers on the East Coast to miss the beginning of the film. A repeat of 1968 could never happen again, could it? The answer to that question was resolved by the flood of phone calls to the NBC switchboard for more than two hours.
Parents were livid that their children missed little Charlie Bucket buying his Golden Ticket that would later gain him access to the famous factory tour and a lifetime supply of chocolate. Millions of dollars were lost in the venture and NBC learned two valuable lessons. First, never assume that an NFL game will end on time. Second, never premiere a movie after a game that you think will end on time.
And so, kids, that was the day that guys like Snake, Rooster, the Ageless Wonder, and a head coach more famous to millennials for his video game series, broke the hearts of millions by beating Willy Wonka and the Washington Redskins.
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*Top Photo: Photo Courtesy of Getty Images