Running back Charlie Smith was a homegrown Oakland Raider.
The 6-foot, 205-pound Smith was a football and track star at Castlemont High School in Oakland before going to the University of Utah.
The Raiders selected Smith in the fourth round (No. 110 overall) of the 1968 NFL Draft and he basically replaced dual-threat running back Clem Daniels, whose career was cut short by a knee injury sustained in 1967.
Smith, the 11th-leading rusher in Raiders history, played in 91 games for Oakland and carried the ball 858 times for 3,351 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also caught 141 passes for 1,596 yards and 10 TDs and returned 22 kickoffs for 437 yards.
But he is remembered most for his role in the famed “Heidi Game” against the New York Jets at the Oakland Coliseum on Nov. 17, 1968.
Smith had fumbled the ball away at New York’s three-yard-line early in the fourth quarter and quarterback Joe Namath drove the Jets 97 yards for a touchdown completely through the air, and New York eventually took a 32-29 lead with 1:05 left in the game in Jim Turner’s fourth field goal of the game from 32 yards.
Turner kicked off to Smith, who returned the ball to the Oakland 22-yard-line, but that was the last play television viewers in the Eastern time zone would see because the game was running past 4 p.m. EST.
The children’s classic, “Heidi,” was due to start at that time, so NBC studio workers in New York switched to the movie.
NBC executives tried to call the studio to have them go back to the game, but the telephone lines were jammed with phone calls from irate viewers complaining about the switch.
This eventually led to changes in how the networks broadcast sporting events, and the NFL required the networks to broadcast games to their conclusion.
Meanwhile, back in Oakland …
Quarterback Daryle Lamonica hit Smith with a 20-yard pass to the 42-yard-line and Jets safety Mike D’Amato was given a 15-yard penalty for grabbing Smith’s facemask, moving the Raiders to the Jets’ 43-yard line.
“Prior to that, I had thrown a long touchdown pass to Charlie Smith, and it was called back because one of my receivers was in motion,” Lamonica said. “Johnny Sample, their left corner, came up and patted me on the butt and said, ‘Nice pass, Lamonica, better luck next year.’ That fired my Irish-Italian temper up, and I said, ‘The game’s not over.’”
On the next play, Smith cut across the middle, caught another pass from Lamonica, and cut up the right sideline, outrunning D’Amato 43 yards for a touchdown to give the Raiders a 36-32 lead with 42 seconds remaining.
“I told Charlie, ‘They’re going to be looking for you going down the hash mark,” Lamonica recalled. “Do a deep crossing pattern.’ Larry Grantham, their middle linebacker, was out of the game at that point.
“I split Charlie a little wider in the backfield so he could get by the linebacker easier and get a clean release. I kept the fullback in to give me a little more protection. I hit Charlie, and he took it up the right side for a touchdown.”
The Jets claim that never should have happened, but D’Amato was replacing star safety Jim Hudson, who had been ejected from the game earlier for a blatant facemask penalty before he told off the official who made the call and flipped off the crowd as he left the field.
“I would have outrun Hudson, too,” Smith said. “The play that was called back was a circle pattern, but teams were getting wise to that. So on the touchdown, I ran to the hash mark on the right side and then broke to the sideline.
“That play was open all day, but Daryle told me to be patient, that we would get to it. Our wide receivers ran deep patterns to clear out the secondary and then I just cut underneath.”
Mike Eischeid of the Raiders sent a bouncer on the kickoff that Earl Christy of the Jets fumbled when hit at the 10-yard-line. The ball rolled back to the two-yard line, where Raiders reserve running back Preston Ridlehuber grabbed it and fell into the end zone for a touchdown.
The Raiders had scored two touchdowns in a nine-second span for a memorable 43-32 victory and over the years Ridlehuber has become the answer to a trivia question among Raider Nation.
“Television missed one of football’s most exciting and exhausting minutes of emotion. In that minute, Oakland fans saw despair turn to delirium,” Bob Valli wrote in the Oakland Tribune.
After the game, Jets coach Weeb Ewbank got a congratulatory phone call from his wife, Lucy, who was in New York and unaware of the Raiders’ comeback. Ewbank informed her that they had lost and angrily slammed down the phone.
Smith rushed for 53 yards on 10 carries, including a three-yard touchdown, in addition to catching four passes for 76 yards and the game-winning touchdown, and is most remembered as the hero of this incredible game in his hometown.
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