With TV proposal, Ahmad Rashad married sport and pop culture

In the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” the titular Pilgrim proposes to the lovely Priscilla Mullins by proxy — his roommate, John Alden, does it for him. Thirty years ago, on Nov. 28, 1985, the sportscaster Ahmad Rashad performed a similar ritual, asking for his intended’s hand through an intermediary on live television, before an estimated 40 million viewers.

It was among the most memorable and unusual moments in the history of Thanksgiving football broadcasts — and pop culture at large.

The Detroit Lions were hosting their annual Thanksgiving Day game in Pontiac, Michigan, welcoming the New York Jets to town for a game broadcast by NBC. Rashad, a host of the network’s pregame show, “NFL ’85,” was there for on-site coverage. Bob Costas introduced Rashad to talk X’s and O’s in his usual manner.

After reminiscing about being injured and carried off the field on a stretcher the last time he was at the Silverdome, as a player, Rashad summoned a deep breath and asked his colleague for a Standish-style favor.

“Bobby, I got something I want you to do for me,” Rashad said to Costas and an unsuspecting nation busily basting turkeys. “There’s a lady that I’m in love with. And you know the lady as Clair Huxtable on ‘The Cosby Show.’ What I’d like you to do is dispatch somebody — she’s there in New York at the Macy’s Day Parade. Now this is in all seriousness now. I would like to send this message to her. Phylicia — would you marry me? Would you get back to me, Bobby, on that answer?”

The “Phylicia” in question was Phylicia Ayers-Allen, who played Bill Cosby’s wife on his show, a hugely popular sitcom on NBC. She was America’s mom, dispensing tough love with a straight face opposite Cosby’s comic mugging every Thursday night.

Ayers-Allen was indeed in New York for the broadcast of the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, also airing on NBC. As network synergy, Rashad’s proposition was a triumph for the ages.

Costas had been informed before the broadcast by Michael Weisman, the executive producer of NBC Sports, that Rashad planned to propose on the show, but he gamely played the surprised accomplice, yelping, “You’re not kidding, are you, Ahmad?”

“I am dead serious,” Rashad replied. He added, “Either I will be the happiest person in the world or the biggest turkey on national television.”

After ending his conversation with Rashad, Costas turned to his in-studio sideman, Pete Axthelm, who was genuinely stunned by Rashad’s bravado, and asked the question on everyone’s mind:

“She’ll say yes, won’t she?”

America waited with bated breath as the Jets and the Lions played the first half. Detroit dominated, with two touchdown passes from Eric Hipple leading to a 17-3 halftime lead over the favored Jets. (Detroit went on to win, 31-20.) But to most fans, the on-field action was of secondary interest compared with whether Ayers-Allen would accept her boyfriend’s offer.

Rashad knew he had tiptoed way out onto a ledge. He later told People that if Ayers-Allen had rejected his proposal, “it probably would have been like the movie ‘Network’: I would have told everybody to stay tuned ’cause at the end of the show I’m going to blow my brains out.”

An intern was duly sent to find Ayers-Allen and escort her to the NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Dressed in a yellow blouse, the ordinarily elegant and serene Ayers-Allen seemed a bit overwhelmed to be sitting next to Costas on the set of a football halftime show. Highlights of the game were swiftly dispensed with in order to get to the matter at hand.

Rashad appeared on camera from Michigan and began sweating mightily. He tried to wipe his face down with a tissue but left some detritus on his chin.

“The man is falling apart,” Costas teased. “In the days prior to the proposal, he was easily one of the coolest, most suave guys around the National Football League. He’s a mess now!”

Costas then turned to Ayers-Allen and, playing the role of John Alden, asked her if she accepted Rashad’s proposal. With a finger nervously scratching at her tooth, she said, “Yes” — and then repeated it for emphasis.

Rashad, visibly relieved, beamed a smile as wide as the Atlantic, and all across the nation, families sat down for Thanksgiving dinner with a warm glow.

Romance had to give way to commerce, so Costas quickly pivoted back to regularly scheduled programming with his trademark irreverence.

“In our continuing effort to do anything to boost our ratings,” he said, “Pete Axthelm plans to be seen very shortly in a secluded grotto with Dr. Ruth Westheimer.”

Costas then introduced a recorded feature about Bobby Layne, who almost certainly would never have proposed on live television.

Just a moment earlier, however, Costas had asked Ayers-Allen whether her TV husband — Cosby — would “give the bride away.”

Once again, Ayers-Allen said yes.

These days, Rashad, 66, is probably best remembered for his broadcasting of the NBA, including his hosting of “NBA Inside Stuff” from 1990 to 2005, and his close relationship with Michael Jordan, which earned him the envy of other basketball reporters and questions about the propriety of being friends with a figure he covered so often.

But before his television career, Rashad was one of the greatest players in Oregon Ducks history and a solid pro as well. He was known as Bobby Moore, after his birth name, while starring at running back and wide receiver in Eugene and was an all-American in 1971. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007.

A first-round draft pick of the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals, Rashad, then still known as Bobby Moore, made the 1972 all-rookie team. But he ran into trouble upon changing his name the next year (Ahmad Rashad means “Admirable One Led to Truth” in Arabic), a practice not yet commonplace. In his first game in St. Louis as Ahmad Rashad, boos drowned out the public-address announcer. Rashad received death threats, and his own teammates ostracized him.

“On the practice field, I was like a leper,” Rashad told the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1981. He added: “The Cardinals were very much against my name change. I could see the point. They had drafted a commodity — Bobby Moore, all-American from Oregon.”

So Rashad was traded to the Buffalo Bills for a nonentity named Dennis Shaw and then dealt again, to Minnesota, where he made the Pro Bowl as a wideout four times in seven seasons. But it was in Buffalo that he shed his troublemaker image, mainly thanks to his roommate, the team’s best player. When the other players saw that this superstar accepted and befriended Rashad, the controversy over the new name died.

That roommate was O.J. Simpson.

On Dec. 14, 1985, at the Church of the Master in Harlem, Rashad married Ayers-Allen. Both had been married twice before, with five children between them. As the Rev. Eugene Callender performed the ceremony, a photographer for Jet magazine captured the momentous occasion.

There was one particularly interesting photograph, in the moment an impossibly glamorous one but in retrospect ominous: a handsome Rashad stands flanked by the man giving away the bride, Cosby, and his best man, Simpson.

“It was an ’80s moment like no other but filled with portent,” said Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “What a waste it happened before the Internet!”

The proposal and the wedding signified a seminal intertwining of sports and popular culture, beginning a union that has only deepened with time. Jocks and starlets had been married before, of course — Ayers-Allen’s own sister, Debbie Allen, of “Fame” fame, had married the basketball star Norm Nixon.

But few such marriages captured the zeitgeist in such a manner, and at such a moment in the culture.

In 1985, cable television and VCRs had yet to penetrate much past half of United States households, leaving network television dominant. African-American stars like Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Michael Jackson and Prince ruled Hollywood and the pop charts. The very public engagement and celebrity-infused coupling of the Rashads fit the moment perfectly.

It felt like a royal marriage — a uniquely American one.

But the sinister future that lay ahead for Cosby and Simpson cannot easily be distilled from the mixture. Their troubles are unrelated to the Rashads, to be sure, but they seemed to cast a pall over the marriage, which ended in divorce in 2001.

Rashad seemed to sense that there was a darkness on the horizon.

“Some people spend their entire lives trying to figure out what the secret” to a good marriage is, Rashad told Jet six months after the wedding. “If it were so obvious and easy, there wouldn’t be half the divorces that there are.”

Phylicia, who has kept the last name Rashad, declined to discuss the proposal. Ahmad Rashad, who has since had another marriage and divorce (to and from Sale Johnson, the ex-wife of the Jets owner Woody Johnson), does not like to talk much about it, either, but said he had nothing but “fond memories of a beautiful moment in time.”

You might even say he gives thanks for it.