Monday Night Football gave the nation something new. An event. Stars. A fresh way of looking at something it had seen often but still could not get enough of. Cosell was the man viewers loved to hate. Meredith was the quickwitted country boy who could put Cosell down with a Texas one-liner. Jackson was the pro and the straight man, but in the second year of Monday Night Football, Arledge replaced him with Gifford to give the show more celebrity corpuscles.
In the cities where the games were played, the arrival of the ABC crew was often a more conspicuous event than the arrival of the visiting teams. Mayors presided over welcoming ceremonies. Cosell, Meredith and Gifford were asked to speak at banquets. The show became, in the vernacular of the time, a happening.
Forte thought of Monday Night Football as his show. He personally supervised the placement of cameras and fought stadium officials and anyone else who got in his way. Forte picked his own crews and got rid of anyone who did not measure up. He yelled at everyone to "get it right" from kickoff to the final gun.
He wanted to grab the viewer and make him watch right from the opening play. He wanted, above all, to tell a story, to find a narrative within the ebb and flow of the game, and he used whatever was available. In the third season of Monday Night Football, in a game that Houston was losing badly to Oakland in the Astrodome, Forte decided that the story was the displeasure of the home fans, and he showed them leaving by tens and then hundreds. That was heresy in TV sports; you never showed pictures of empty seats. Late in the game, one camera picked up a Houston fan slumped in his seat, asleep. Forte sent the picture out live just as the fan woke up, saw the camera and gave everyone the finger. Meredith said, "Well, there's one Houston fan who still thinks the Oilers are Number One."
Those moments made the show, if not the game, worth watching. With Monday Night Football, Forte, who was already solidly established as a director, became a miracle worker.
He had also become a bettor. In the first Monday-night game, on Sept. 21, 1970, he had the New York Jets over the Cleveland Browns, perhaps because Joe Namath was the Jet quarterback and in him Forte sensed a kindred spirit. (A year earlier, Rozelle had threatened to suspend Namath for associating with gamblers.) Forte lost the bet when Cleveland won.
"But it was a great game, and we did it great, so I didn't care," he says. A pattern was soon established. Forte bet on every Monday Night Football game and lost far more than he won. "I bet everything," he says, "but football was my worst sport. And Monday night was the worst of the worst."
This proves once more that inside information—short of knowing, as Molinas had, that the fix is in—is a gambler's delusion. Forte and his crew met with players and coaches before a broadcast, looking for any edge that might help the show. Forte would learn about small injuries that teams would be trying to cover up or exploit, small shifts in strategy, and vulnerabilities that were not known to the common fan or bettor. This was useful stuff for a broadcaster—and red meat for an obsessed gambler.
Armed with this information, Forte would call his bookie before the game began and make his bet. "A few hundred, maybe as much as a thousand," he says. "Then, later, three or four thousand."
Forte never admitted to himself that his inside information was largely useless. This was, in fact, something he should have learned before he began doing Monday Night Football. He had found out all he needed to know one night in the late '60s in L.A., where he was broadcasting a basketball game between the Lakers and the Royals, the team that had cut him.