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Monday Night Football signs off from ABC

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.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (Dec. 26, 2005) -- 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 years 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The best highlights, however, were provided not by players in helmets and pads -- but characters in yellow blazers and outdated hairdos, talking into ancient microphones and chomping cigars.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 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."

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 primetime." 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 primetime 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 primetime 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."

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