Greatest Game: Remembering the '58 NFL title game Print
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Saturday, 13 December 2008 08:27
NFL Headline News

 NEW YORK (AP) -As Raymond Berry left Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, 1958, he saw NFL commissioner Bert Bell with tears in his eyes.
It took decades, Berry says now, to realize why.
Berry was a star in what is known today as ``The Greatest Game Ever Played,'' the Baltimore Colts' 23-17 victory over the New York Giants for the NFL championship on Alan Ameche's 1-yard run 8 minutes and 15 seconds into the first-ever overtime. In the euphoria of the moment, Berry didn't have time to think of long-term ramifications.
Bell saw them immediately. Though he was to die the next October, the commissioner realized the boost that thrilling game could give a league he had run since 1946 at the midlevel of American sports. So did Roone Arledge and Lamar Hunt, two men who helped turn the NFL into a colossus.
roughly 50 million Americans watching the game on NBC, a record number for a pro football game in those early days of television. He instantly grasped the potential for a sport with just 12 teams in 11 cities (Chicago had two). Two years later, he and a group of other millionaires founded the American Football League.
Arledge, then the 27-year-old producer of a puppet show on NBC, recognized football's television appeal as he moved up the network food chain. As president of ABC Sports 12 years later, he took on Pete Rozelle's ``Monday Night Football'' project when the other networks had turned it down.
The players were the last to understand what they'd been a part of.
``Most of us just wanted to get out of town after a long season,'' says Frank Gifford, who parlayed his stardom with the Giants into announcing jobs on, among other shows, ``Monday Night Football.''
``I lived in New York, so I just went back to my hotel. But my teammates were thinking about was loading up the cars and going back to their homes and jobs.''
Jobs? In those days, NFL salaries were relatively small and so were title game shares - each Colt earned $4,718.77 and each Giant $3,111.33. So from January through July, NFL players were car salesmen, accountants, gym teachers, businessmen, whatever.
The ``Greatest Game'' upped the ante.
the league, by two new books - one by Gifford - and even an ESPN film.
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Greatest game?
Watch a replay or scan the play-by-play.
First series: Giants three-and-out.
Second series: 3-6-C34 - Unitas fumbles after hit by Huff on pass attempt and Patton recovers on the Colts 37.
Third series: 2-11-C38 - Heinrich fumbles after hit by Marchetti who recovers for Colts on Colt 37.
Fourth series: Unitas' pass for Berry is intercepted.
Turnover ledger for the game: Giants 4, Colts 3.
---
Forget execution. Think excitement. And star power. The game featured 17 future Hall of Famers: 12 players, three coaches, Giants owner Tim Mara and his son and successor, Wellington.
The game turned John Unitas into one of America's best-known sports heroes. It was Unitas who led the tying drive in regulation and the final touchdown drive in OT. Not only did Unitas call all the Baltimore plays (quarterbacks mostly did in the those days), he went 26-of-40 for 361 yards. Twelve of those passes went to Berry, who gained 178 yards.
The Giants coaching staff featured two future icons of the game: Vince Lombardi on offense and Tom Landry on defense. The head coach, Jim Lee Howell, was a caretaker who turned almost all decisions over to the aides who would win Super Bowls in Green Bay and Dallas.
ck returner for the Giants. ``I caught the opening kickoff, so I was the first one to touch the ball'' he laughs.
Maynard played only one year with the Giants. But he, Unitas and Weeb Ewbank, who coached the Colts, were also involved with the ``second-greatest game ever played'' - when the Joe Namath-led Jets, coached by Ewbank, upset the Colts in the third Super Bowl a decade later, establishing that AFL teams could play with the NFL.
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The Giants barely got to the title game, but their presence is one reason for its influence.
``It was New York that did it,'' says Lenny Moore, the Reggie Bush (and then some) of the Colts. ``If it had been Baltimore against ... maybe Cleveland ... most people wouldn't have noticed, certainly not Madison Avenue or the media.''
In fact, the Giants tussled with Cleveland for most of the season. Jim Brown emerged as perhaps the best player ever, rushing for 1,527 yards (a 5.9 average) and 17 touchdowns in 12 games, and the Browns were 9-2 entering the final game of the regular season, with the Giants a game behind as they met at Yankee Stadium.
The game was tied late 10-10 and a tie was all the Browns needed to win the Eastern Conference.
But Pat Summerall kicked a 48-yard field goal through the snow off a scruffy, dirt field and the Giants won 13-10, setting up a playoff for the conference title, again at Yankee Stadium.
f 10-0 as Huff and the New York defense held Brown to a career-low 8 yards on seven carries.
The Colts won the Western Conference (the NFL always has been geographically challenged) at 9-3, a game ahead of the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams. One of the losses was 24-21 to the Giants at Yankee Stadium, although Unitas was injured that day and didn't play.
``We knew before that title game that we were the better team,'' says former Colt Gino Marchetti, one of the most feared pass rushers of his day. ``John hadn't played in that game and we almost won anyway.''
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There were 64,185 fans in Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, not even a sellout - despite a healthy contingent of Colts fans who had made the four-hour train journey up from Baltimore.
After the turnover-plagued start, Unitas hit Moore for 60 yards, setting up the Colts at the New York 25.
But Steve Myhra, who had made just four of 10 field goals in the regular season, missed a 32-yard field goal and then had one blocked by Huff after the Giants were offside on the first attempt.
On the next drive, Gifford's 38-yard run set up Summerall's 36-yard field goal to give the Giants a 3-0 lead with 2:02 left in the first quarter.
For most of the next two periods, Baltimore dominated.
Gifford's fumble at his 18 set up Baltimore's first TD, a 2-yard run by Ameche.
the Giants the ball at the Colts 10, Gifford gave it right back, Don Joyce recovering at the 14. ``Not my greatest game,'' Gifford says now. ``I fumbled going out and I fumbled going in.''
Unitas then drove Baltimore 86 yards, finding Berry from 15 yards and the Colts led 14-3 at the half.
Baltimore seemed ready to put the game away midway through the third quarter, driving to a first down at the Giants 3.
The Colts were stuffed on three straight plays, then went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1. Unitas called a halfback pass by Ameche, who was to toss the ball to Jim Mutscheller.
The pass call was prefaced by a ``P'' when Unitas called it. Ameche didn't hear that and was buried at the 5 by linebacker Cliff Livingston while Mutscheller stood alone in the end zone.
That awakened the Giants.
Two plays later, Charley Conerly found Kyle Rote behind the Baltimore secondary. He raced to the Colts 25, where Andy Nelson knocked the ball loose. But New York's Alex Webster scooped it up and took it to the 1, setting up Mel Triplett's TD run that made it 14-10.
On New York's next possession, the Giants took a 17-14 lead on a 15-yard Conerly-to-Gifford pass that followed passes of 17 and 46 yards to Bob Schnelker. The stadium rocked.
The score stayed that way deep into the final period.
the first-down marker. Marchetti pulled him down and 6-foot-6, 285-pound Gene ``Big Daddy'' Lipscomb, landed on Marchetti's ankle, breaking it. As Marchetti was treated and taken off the field - he lay on a stretcher on the sideline to watch the finish - the ball lay where Gifford had left it. Then referee Ron Gibbs picked it up and spotted it several inches back, just short of a first down.
Gifford still insists he made it.
Asked what might have happened if there had been instant replay, he laughs and replies: ``We wouldn't be here.'' His teammates concur; the Colts don't, and history records him as short.
So New York punted and Unitas and Berry put on a show that made the game into the ``Greatest Game.''
Starting from his 14, Unitas hit Moore for 11 yards, then Berry for 25, 15, and 22. On came Myhra, who hit from 19 with 7 seconds left as the Colts and their fans held their breath.
Overtime.
``We really didn't know what to do,'' Berry says. ``We'd never played it. Nobody had ever played it. Nobody really knew what came next.''
What came next was a coin flip. The Giants won but came up a yard short again on third down. They punted.
That was it. Unitas toyed with New York's exhausted defense. L.G. Dupre ran for 11, Unitas hit Berry for 21, Ameche ran for 22 and Unitas hit Berry again for 12 yards to the 8, within easy field goal range.
roll Rosenbloom had bet thousands of dollars on his team, which was favored by anywhere from 3 1/2 to 5 1/2 points. But the players insisted that because Myhra was unreliable, they went for the TD.
So Unitas passed to Mutscheller to the 1 and Ameche ran it in as fans swarmed the field.
The Colts and Giants simply went to the locker rooms, talked to the media and left - the Giants for homes all over the country, the Colts for a short flight to Baltimore, where 30,000 people met their plane. None thought about history.
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The next season, the Colts re-established their dominance by beating the Giants 31-16 for the title. Baseball was still the national pastime, boxing was huge and college football was preferred to the NFL in most of the country.
But people like Hunt recognized that if millions tuned in, there had to be potential.
Bell died during the 1959 season and was succeeded in January 1960 by the 33-year-old Rozelle, schooled in public relations and young enough to recognize the pull of television.
As the AFL formed, and armed itself with a five-year contract from ABC, the NFL staged a pre-emptive strike, establishing an expansion franchise for Dallas in 1960 that eventually forced Hunt's Dallas Texans to Kansas City, where they became the Chiefs.
Most important, NBC agreed to pay the NFL $615,000 for rights to televise the championship game for the next two years.
By 1961, three years after the game, there were 22 pro football teams in the two leagues, almost double the dozen of 1958.
What followed were a series of moves designed to make pro football into television's sport, including an antitrust exemption that allowed a single network to carry a single league. CBS was the carrier of choice for the NFL; ABC and later NBC for the AFL.
Most important was the move by Rozelle with the concurrence of the owners in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, to distribute television revenues evenly to all franchises, making it possible for Green Bay, with Lombardi as the coach, to dominate the NFL for much of the 1960s.
Most of the players drifted away. Gifford, Summerall, Huff and Roosevelt Grier parlayed their fame into media success; Berry, Webster and Schnelker, among others, went into coaching; and Marchetti made millions with a fast-food franchise.
Others drifted into obscurity and poverty. Lipscomb was found dead of a drug overdose at age 31 in 1963.
But few of the survivors really connected that 1958 game with the NFL's growth.
Gifford and Summerall, for example, broadcast more than two dozen Super Bowls between them. ``I did many, many big games,'' Summerall says now. ``I don't think I ever recalled thinking 'I played in the game that created all this.' To some extent, I guess it did.''
 

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