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The Greatest NFL Game Ever Played
December 28, 1958. 4:51 PM ET. Yankee Stadium. To many, that's the time and place the NFL "arrived."
On December 28, 1958, what would become known as "The Greatest Game every Played" took place --- the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants at Yankee Stadium in New York City.
And when Colts fullback Alan Ameche burst through a hole for a one-yard touchdown with 6:45 left in overtime -- at 4:51 on a foggy, drizzly day -- he took the National Football League with him into a new era.
The NFL would never be the same. America had discovered it.
It may be hard for today's young sports fan to believe, but 55 years ago, the sports scene -- and the NFL -- was vastly different. There was no SportsCenter, no internet, no radio talk shows, no fantasy football. Baseball was the No. 1 sport with fans.
Then came this late-winter nationally televised NFL epic between larger-than-life teams featuring names like "Huff" and "Katcavage" and "Unitas" in a game that surged back and forth into the first sudden-death overtime in NFL title game history. "PETE ROZELLE (NFL commissioner from 1960-89) always told me that the reason pro football took off was because that happened just at that time, in that season, and it happened in New York," said late New York Giants owner WELLINGTON MARA.
It was the fourth time the teams had played each other that year. The Colts won both preseason meetings and the Giants were victorious in the regular season. New York tied with the Browns in the Eastern Division with a 9-3 record, forcing a playoff against Cleveland. The Giants won, 10-0. Baltimore won the Western Division, also with a 9-3 record.
It was to be a classic confrontation of offense vs. defense. The Colts led the NFL in scoring with 381 points. They were led by 25-year-old quarterback JOHNNY UNITAS (left), signed two years before out of the Pittsburgh sandlots where he had been making $25 a game with the Bloomfield Rams. The Giants, glamorizing defense for the first time in NFL history, surrendered the league's fewest points with 183.
For a matchup featuring such dominant teams, things started slowly. The Giants were the first to score, on a 36- yard field goal by PAT SUMMERALL with two minutes left in the first quarter. By halftime, the Colts had a 14-3 lead, and it looked like their high-powered offense would only add to that total in the second half.
It certainly seemed that way as the half began. On their second series, the Colts drove from their 41-yard line to the Giants' three. A score here would give them a commanding lead. It was time for New York's vaunted defense to stiffen. They did exactly that. Three rushes gained the Colts two yards. It was now fourth-and-goal at the one.
"I decided that another touchdown would kill them right then and there," said Baltimore head coach WEEB EWBANK. "I told Johnny to go for it."
Unitas took the snap, pitched to Ameche, who faked a pass and then took off, only to be stopped cold by JIM KATCAVAGE, DICK MODZELEWSKI and SAM HUFF. Four-yard loss. Giants ball. The momentum had swung. The Giants marched 95 yards on the next series, and 81 yards on the next, with both drives resulting in touchdowns. Now they were ahead, 17-14, one minute into the fourth quarter. It was their turn to try to bury the opposition. The Colts drove to the Giants' 39. A BERT RECHICHAR 46-yard field-goal attempt was short. On the Colts' next series, they were forced to punt. Time was winding down.
"At that point," said Giants halfback ALEX WEBSTER, "we just had to keep the ball, run out the clock, and they'd never get another chance. We were so hot … everything was working well … it sure looked like our game."
Then came the GINO MARCHETTI broken-leg controversy.
The Giants moved from the 19-yard line to their 40, using up the clock on four running plays and a completed pass. On third-and-four, FRANK GIFFORD (right) took a handoff from quarterback CHARLIE CONERLY on a power sweep. He was met at the line by Marchetti and linebacker DON SHINNICK, who were almost immediately joined by 288-pound tackle GENE "BIG DADDY" LIPSCOMB. The force and weight of Lipscomb's arrival snapped Marchetti's right leg above the ankle.
To this day, Gifford thinks he made the first down.
"I made the first down," he says. "But Marchetti broke his leg, and he was screaming like a wounded panther. There was a lot of confusion. A lot of time passed by while they carried Marchetti off the field. When they spotted the ball, it was placed short of the first-down marker."
Go for it? Or punt? The Giants had the best punter in the business, DON CHANDLER. Giants head coach JIM LEE HOWELL (left) waved him in. "Chandler could kick the ball all the way," Howell said. "We thought we could stop them."
The Final Drive
Chandler punted 43 yards to the Colts' 14, where CARL TASEFF fair-caught it.
There was 1:56 remaining, and the Colts had to go 86 yards.
"When we got in the huddle," said wide receiver RAYMOND BERRY, "I looked down the field and the goal posts looked like they were in Baltimore."
"OK, guys, here we go," Unitas simply said. His first two passes were incomplete. On third down, he connected with LENNY MOORE for 11 yards and a first down. On the next play, he missed L.G. DUPRE on a long route. Then Johnny U turned to Berry. Unitas to Berry for 25. Unitas to Berry for 15. Unitas to Berry for 22.
The Colts were now at the New York 13-yard line with 19 seconds left, but no timeouts available. Kicker STEVE MYHRA raced onto the field.
"I told myself I better not miss it," he said, "or it would be a long, cold winter back on the farm in North Dakota." Myhra's 20-yard field goal with seven seconds left created the first sudden-death overtime in NFL championship game history.
The Winning Drive
Unitas called tails on the coin toss. It came up heads. The Giants elected to receive, but gained only four yards before Chandler punted to Taseff. The next 13 plays confirmed the "ice-water-in-his-veins" legend of Johnny Unitas.
"Johnny told us in the huddle before we began that drive that we were going to take the ball right down and score," said Ameche. "And we all believed him."
Unitas moved the Colts 80 yards in those 13 plays. He put Baltimore into position after completing a 12-yard pass to Berry to set up first-and-goal at New York's eight-yard line.
A fan raced onto the field. The officials called time out. Unitas went over to talk to Ewbank.
"Keep it on the ground," Ewbank said. "We don't want an interception here. We can go for the field goal if running plays don't work."
Alan Ameche Scores Colts' Winning TD
Unitas followed instructions … initially. He handed off to Ameche for a one-yard gain off right tackle. Then he stunned everybody -- especially Ewbank -- by fading back and floating a six-yard pass along the right sideline to wide receiver JIM MUTSCHELLER. That set up third-and-goal at the one-yard line. Unitas called "16 power," a play designed to send Ameche through the right side of the line. Mutscheller and Moore leveled Giants linebacker CLIFF LIVINGSTON and safety EMLEN TUNNELL. Colts tackle GEORGE PREAS and guard ALEX SANDUSKY cleared out a hole that the 220-pound Ameche roared through, falling from his momentum after crossing the goal line for the game-winning touchdown.
It was 4:51 in the afternoon. The NFL had arrived
NFL 1958 Championship Game Video - Colts vs Giants
Remembering the Greatest Game
"I'm sure there have been many games just as exciting. But there were some other forces at work for that game. The way everything blended together -- the television, where the game was played, and the fact that pro football was ripe for expansion -- was the key. I consider it to be the greatest game because of its impact."
KYLE ROTE, running back, New York Giants:
"Everything came together for the greatness of pro football. New York is the heartbeat of the media, including Madison Avenue. Those ad men were young guys -- young and sharp -- and suddenly they happened to tie into pro football, just when television was hitting its peak."
DON JOYCE, defensive end, Baltimore Colts:
"It was dusk. The lights were on. Banners were flying. We were world champions and I was in such awe. I walked off the field and stopped three different times. I didn't want to leave." Reactions from national media:
TEX MAULE, Sports Illustrated:
"Never has there been a game like this one."
ROONE ARLEDGE, Chairman, ABC News:
"All of a sudden, the networks woke up and saw that they had to have football. The game was a defining moment in the growth of pro football."
LOUIS EFFRAT, New York Times:
"(The game) was easily the most dramatic, most exciting encounter witnessed on the pro circuit in many a season."
JACK HAND, Associated Press:
"If they play pro football for 100 years, they never can top Baltimore's first championship snatched dramatically in a sudden-death playoff… It seems pro football has come of age."
MORRIS SIEGEL, Washington Daily News:
"One had to come away with the conclusion that the Colts-Giants' blockbuster was one of the greatest spectacles in sport's history."
JOHN STEADMAN, Baltimore Sun:
"It will remain a keepsake for the ages."
C.M. GIBBS, Baltimore Sun:
"That nothing like this will ever again have such a tremendous and widespread fan reaction in the Baltimore sports realm seems a safe bet."
N.P. CLARK, Baltimore News-Post:
"A great day? There was never anything like it around here. And there never will be again. The first is the ever-loving most. Anything from now on can only be anticlimax. Writing it out to the last wonderful drop."
STEVE O'NEILL, Baltimore News-Post:
"Yes, the people were crazy. Yes, they went wild. They had a right to be. They'd seen a dream game on TV… I know how they felt. Because I felt that way to."
JESSE LINTHICUM, Baltimore Sun:
"Yes, it was Baltimore's greatest thrill, and mine."
"Greatest Game Ever Played" Trivia
Sports Illustrated is credited with naming the 1958 Championship "The Greatest Football Game Ever Played." Actually, SI used the title "The Best Football Game Ever Played" in their January 5, 1959 issue, because SI editors in those days did not use the word "greatest" to describe events. Soon, though, "best" became "greatest."
A 17-year-old BILL PARCELLS, at a skating party in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, sat in a car for three hours listening to the game.
The winner's share for the championship game was $4,718.77, the loser's $3,111.33.
ALAN AMECHE left the locker room postgame celebration early. He could earn an extra $500 for an appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show."
Colts defensive tackle ART DONOVAN was born on the Grand Concourse, only blocks away from Yankee Stadium.
LENNY MOORE, nicknamed "Spats" because he did not like the feel of adhesive tape on his bare skin and therefore had trainers tape his cleats, kept a miniature bible in his thigh pad.
Colts center BUZZ NUTTER chased down a security guard after the game to retrieve the ball Ameche had carried over the goal line -- and, with his teammates' approval, presented it to Marchetti as the game ball.
NFL 1958 Championship Game Scoring
|New York Giants||3||0||7||7||0||17|
NYG -- FG Summerall 36
Balt -- Ameche 2 run (Myhra kick)
Balt -- Berry 15 pass from Unitas (Myhra kick)
NYG -- Triplett 1 run (Summerall kick)
NYG -- Gifford 15 pass from Conerly (Summerall kick)
Balt -- FG Myhra 20
Balt -- Ameche 1 run (no PAT)
NY Giants -- Gifford, 12 for 60; Webster, 9 for 24; Triplett, 5 for 12, 1 TD; Conerly, 2 for 5; King, 3 for -13.
Baltimore -- Ameche, 14 for 59, 2 TDs; Dupre, 11 for 30; Unitas, 4 for 26; Moore, 9 for 24.
NY Giants -- Conerly, 10 of 14 for 187, 1 TD; Heinrich, 2 of 4 for 13.
Baltimore -- Unitas, 26 of 40 for 361, 1 TD, 1 Int.
NY Giants -- Gifford, 3 for 14, 1 TD; Rote, 2 for 76; Schnelker, 2 for 63; Webster, 2 for 17; Triplett, 2 for 15; McAfee, 1 for 15.
Baltimore -- Berry, 12 for 178, 1 TD; Moore, 5 for 99; Mutscheller, 4 for 63; Ameche, 3 for 14; Dupre, 2 for 7.
January 28, 1958
Yankee Stadium (Bronx, NY)
1958 Championship Game -- Starting Lineups
|Colts Offense||Colts Defense|
|Source: NFL |
* Pro Football Hall of Fame selection
|82||Raymond Berry *||E||89||Gino Marchetti *||E|
|77||Jim Parker *||T||70||Art Donovan *||T|
|63||Art Spinney||G||76||Gene Lipscomb||T|
|50||Buzz Nutter||C||83||Don Joyce||E|
|68||Alex Sandusky||G||66||Don Shinnick||LB|
|60||George Preas||T||36||Bill Pellington||LB|
|84||Jim Mutscheller||E||55||Leo Sanford||LB|
|19||Johnny Unitas *||QB||20||Milt Davis||CB|
|45||L.G. Dupre||HB||23||Carl Taseff||CB|
|24||Lenny Moore *||HB||17||Ray Brown||S|
|35||Alan Ameche||FB||80||Andy Nelson||S|
|Giants Offense||Giants Defense|
|Source: NFL |
* Pro Football Hall of Fame selection
|44||Kyle Rote||E||75||Jim Katcavage||E|
|79||Roosevelt Brown *||T||76||Roosevelt Grier||T|
|68||Al Barry||G||77||Dick Modzelewski||T|
|55||Ray Wietecha||C||81||Andy Robustelli *||E|
|62||Bob Mischak||G||89||Cliff Livingston||LB|
|76||Frank Youso||T||70||Sam Huff *||LB|
|85||Bob Schnelker||E||84||Harland Svare||LB|
|11||Don Heinrich||QB||21||Carl Karilivacz||CB|
|16||Frank Gifford *||HB||41||Lindon Crow||CB|
|29||Alex Webster||HB||20||Jim Patton||S|
|33||Mel Triplett||FB||45||Emlen Tunnell *||S|
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