The hilarity of the episode can’t be understated. It was a playoff game in January 1983. The New York Jets were on the road playing the Los Angeles Raiders. A phone call came through to the Jets locker room at halftime.
Jets head coach Walt Michaels was handed the phone. The voice on the other end claimed to be Jets owner Leon Hess. What followed was a tirade, making Michaels feel the heat for his Jets underperforming.
Michaels knew it was a prank, but his anger bubbled over.
"I'm gonna have something special to say about this damn Raider organization," he promised after the call.
Obviously, Walt thought the prank was the work of the Raiders. What he did not know was that the prank was from a New York bartender.
Well, unfortunately for Raiders fans, the Jets beat the Raiders 17-14 that game. Afterwards, Walt Michaels said, "I just want to say that whatever member of the Raider organization called me on the phone at halftime and said my owner wanted to talk to me is a sick SOB. It's a sick, rotten way to try to disrupt our team. His initials are A.D. and I don't care if he knows it or not."
So how did a bartender manage to make a phone call and catch an NFL head coach in the locker room to begin with?
The security guy who initially answered the call said later,
"The guy said he was Leon Hess, the Jets' owner, and he had to talk to Walt Michaels. He sounded quite normal. When Joe Namath was here you'd get a lot of crazies calling, but Carroll Rosenbloom (then the owner of the LA Rams) used to call down a lot at halftime, too, so how was I to know? Anyway, Walt just happened to be in the hall at the time, so I gave him the call. I feel like a fool now."
More comedy gold.
It turned out the bartender came clean, though, and told the press.
“The conversation lasted about 30 seconds. I told Coach Michaels to tell his team to fight harder in the second half, to go out and kick hell out of the Raiders, and to make (defensive end) Mark Gastineau stop doing his sack dance because he looked like a real jerk.
"The coach kept saying, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.'
"I heard that Al Davis was getting blamed for it and I didn't want it laid on Al so I called the press to give my side of it."
The Jets and the Raiders, two original American Football League teams, have been playing each other since 1960. The rivalry came on strong in the late ’60s. The Raiders’ Ike Lassiter broke Joe Namath’s cheekbone in 1967. The following season, on their way to winning Super Bowl III, the Jets beat the Raiders in the AFL championship game at Shea Stadium as Namath threw three touchdown passes.
Earlier that season, the Jets and the Raiders played in the famous Heidi game. The Jets took a 32-29 lead with 65 seconds remaining when, at 7pm on the east coast, NBC cut to the start of Heidi, the television movie scheduled to begin at that time. Viewers missed witnessing two stunning touchdowns by the Raiders, who won, 43-32.
Michaels is a man who remembers it all. Including those trips to Oakland to play Al's Raiders when Michaels was Jets head coach Weeb Ewbank's defensive assistant.
He remembers that Al Davis fired him as a Raiders assistant before he joined Weeb's staff. Needless to say he remained aware of the enlarged photograph at Raiders' HQ of Ben Davidson knocking Joe Namath's helmet off.
Walt remembers Al Davis causally coming into the Jets' hotel to talk shop with Namath on the eve of a game. He remembers Al’s paranoia that the Raiders locker room was bugged at Shea Stadium and the supposed retaliation in Oakland when the tarps were mysteriously unrolled on the field in 1968 where the Jets were to practice.
Walt remembers the league fine the Jets absorbed when Michaels stormed the referees locker room after a loss at the Oakland Coliseum as he hammered the door with his fists trying to get the last word in with the refs.
Yes, Walt remembers. Maybe winning that playoff game in 1983 was some measure of consolation for him.
One thing is certain: the Jets-Raiders rivalry is no longer that intense.
The 1983 playoff game was in front of 90,000 fans in the LA Coliseum, a game with 10 turnovers. Two offsetting personal foul penalties had been called in the first quarter. Raiders defensive end Lyle Alzado had ripped off the helmet of Jets tackle Chris Ward and flung it at him. The game-ending quarterback kneel down at the very end by the Jets Richard Todd was marked by a flurry of fists.