UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – ‘Twas (first-and-10) the Night Before Christmas

“Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse . . .”

—Clement Clarke Moore

On Christmas Eve in 1969, I was five years into my newspaper career and halfway through my fifth month at The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dick Forbes was well into his 43-year run as a sportswriter.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to hear something profound that he sagely observed, year after year, on December 24.

“Christmas Eve,” he mused. “It’s the only time all year when all the wire machines fall silent.”

What he was noting was that, for a few hours, no story was transmitted on the teletypes that news services then used. It was as if the whole world paused.

(Since the dawn of the computer age, everything has arrived via wire transmission—soundlessly.)

I thought of Dick this Christmas Eve and wondered what he’d say about the Broncos taking on the Patriots a few hours before candlelight services and Midnight Mass—before Santa started coming down chimneys around here.

The National Football League decided, just last year, that the evening of Christmas Eve no longer need be a time for the world to pause.

“The days where families come together across the country,” said Hans Schroeder, NFL executive vice president for media distribution, ”we really believe are opportunities for us to use in a way to help build and celebrate football.”

Last year, the NFL scheduled the Steelers to play the Raiders on Christmas Eve night—the game commemorating the 50th anniversary of The Immaculate Reception. 

That’s the historic catch by Franco Harris of a deflected pass which he carried 44 yards for the decisive touchdown in the final seconds of a divisional playoff game between the two teams at Three Rivers Stadium.

Chosen by NFL Films as the greatest play in pro football history, that score made Pittsburgh the winner, 13-7.

On December 24, 2022, the Steelers fittingly did it to the Raiders again, scoring with 46 seconds left to win, this time 13-10.

It was one of the coldest home games in Steelers history (8 degrees at kickoff), which helps explain why, fiftieth anniversary notwithstanding, the game attracted the smallest attendance of the season—a crowd of 64,761. 

Some 3,639 tickets went unused, presumably because those folks had better things to do on Christmas Eve and couldn’t find others who didn’t.

The second Christmas Eve night game was played 11 days ago right here in Denver, when those 3-11 New England Patriots dashed the Broncos’ faint playoff hopes with a 26-23 defeat.

Game attendance at Empower Field at Mile High was lower than in Pittsburgh the year before—60,186—which is the lowest for a Broncos game since December 1, 2019. 

That one, a 23-20 victory over San Diego, drew only 55,544. No-shows then were 19,094; this time, 16,015.

The Broncos were 3-8 back then. It was a couple days after Thanksgiving, and the region was reeling from a snowstorm. Denver would finish 7-9 in Vic Fangio’s first season as head coach.

Perhaps this year’s game would have drawn better if it had been billed as the 46th anniversary of the Broncos’ first Christmas Eve contest, albeit a day affair, back in 1977.

On that occasion, the Broncos beat none other than those Steelers, 34-21, en route to their first Super Bowl appearance.

Touting this year’s Christmas Eve night game as the commemoration of Denver’s first-ever playoff victory—with guest appearances by Craig Morton, Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson—would have added to the hype and, surely, the turnout.   

Dick Forbes covered the Cincinnati Bengals in their early years, but he was retired by the time they played their first of (so far) seven Christmas Eve games (all during the day) in 1995. He died in 2010 at 93.

It’s a blessing that Dick wasn’t around to see the NFL decide that the Eve after dark was “a great opportunity to serve our fans and create a new window that we think they’ll enjoy.”

In his absence, what a caller to the sports editor of the Kansas City Star said back in 1971, when the NFL announced its first intrusion on the holiday, seems applicable still:

“I enjoy football, but is it really necessary to play on Christmas? This is a religious day, a family day. 

“But apparently it makes no difference to the people who run professional football.”

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at denny
dressman@comcast.net.