Archive for Wednesday, January 24, 2001

58 Colts-Giants game launched pro football to prosperity

January 24, 2001


Their names read like a roster of the NFL's Knights of the Round Table: Unitas, Moore, Berry and Marchetti; Gifford, Huff, Robustelli and Tunnell.

The Baltimore Colts and New York Giants of 1958 and 1959 combined to change the course of professional football.

Before 1958, the NFL had never averaged 40,000 in attendance for a full season; after 1958 the league never had less than 40,000. Before 1958, the NFL had been a 12-team operation since 1951 with limited national appeal; after 1959 it was preparing to expand into Dallas and Minnesota, and a new entity, the American Football League, was about to open for business.

Before 1958 the NFL had no national TV contract; after 1959 CBS began laying the groundwork for a $4.65 million deal it would sign with the league in 1961.

It can be argued that pro football, featuring such household names as Jim Brown, Paul Hornung and Bobby Layne, eventually would have had a place at the head of the nation's sports menu.

Every era needs a keynote date, and for pro football, that day was Dec. 28, 1958, when the Colts won the NFL championship by beating the Giants 23-17 in the sport's first overtime game.

Seventeen future Pro Football Hall of Famers played a role in the game. For the Colts there was Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Jim Parker, Art Donovan and coach Weeb Ewbank. The Giants featured Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli, Emlen Tunnell, Roosevelt Brown, rookie Don Maynard, assistant coaches Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, plus owners Tim and Wellington Mara.

The Colts were also racial pioneers, proving that an integrated team could succeed south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Black stars such as Moore, Parker, Lipscomb and Johnny Sample were popular among fans in border-state Maryland.

The Giants and Colts met again for the NFL title in 1959. The Colts won 31-16, and moviemaker Barry Levinson used Baltimore as a backdrop for his film "Diner."But it was the 1958 title game at Yankee Stadium, called by Sports Illustrated "The Best Game Ever Played," that cemented pro football's hold on the American public.

The Giants had to defeat the Browns 13-10 on the final day of the regular season to force a conference playoff. The winning points came from Pat Summerall's 49-yard field goal through the snow. A week later the Giants blanked Cleveland 10-0 to win the Eastern Conference crown.

Next were the Colts.

Three straight Sundays of win-or-else football for the Giants in New York had galvanized the city, and 64,185 fans packed Yankee Stadium to witness history.

Two plays kept the game on a date with destiny. Early in the third quarter, Baltimore was leading 14-3 and had driven to the Giants' 1-yard line. On fourth down, the Colts passed up a field goal and went for what they hoped would be an insurmountable 21-3 lead.

Unitas called a play for fullback Alan Ameche to take a handoff and then throw a pass. Tight end Jim Mutscheller was open in the end zone.

Ameche, however, didn't hear the play correctly in the huddle and thought he was supposed to run the ball. He never looked for Mutscheller and was tackled for a loss.

The Giants were still alive.

With the Yankee Stadium crowd roaring, the Giants drove the length of the field to cut the score to 14-10. Early in the fourth quarter, a Charlie Conerly-to-Gifford TD pass gave the Giants a 17-14 lead.

The second crucial play, one that is still debated 42 years later, came late in the fourth quarter with the Giants trying to run out the clock with less than three minutes left. The Giants faced a third-and-4 from their 40. Gifford, who had suffered a horrid game with three fumbles, sought to redeem himself by picking up the first down on a sweep. As Gifford appeared to edge past the first-down marker, he was tackled by Marchetti.

When Marchetti made the tackle, teammate "Big Daddy" Lipscomb fell on Gino, breaking his ankle. Marchetti's yell distracted the officials. When referee Charlie Berry spotted the ball, Giants fans swear he marked it a few feet back of Gifford's forward progress. The Giants were inches short of the clinching first down.

"It was the worst placement I've ever seen," Giants announcer Chris Schenkel said years later.

Gifford howled in protest, but the burly Donovan told him "stop crying and get off the field."

The Colts were still alive.

The Giants had to punt, and Don Chandler's kick pinned Baltimore back to its 14. With 1:56 left and no timeouts, the Unitas legend began. After completing a third-and-10 pass to Moore, Unitas hit Berry for 25, 15 and 22 yards to set up Steve Myhra's tying field goal with seven seconds left.

17-17. Sudden death.

Across America, TV viewers and radio listeners were transfixed. The previous four NFL title games had been decided by scores of 56-10, 38-14, 47-7 and 59-14. The Giants and Colts were providing a new kind of athletic drama.

The Giants won football's first overtime coin toss and chose to receive. Three straight Sundays of must-win games, however, had taken a toll. The Giants had nothing left. They went three-and-out on offense and punted.

Unitas took the revived Colts 80 yards in 13 plays, including two third-and-long passes to Berry, whose 12 receptions set a still-standing record for an NFL championship game. Ameche scored from the 1 to win the Colts' first championship 8:15 into overtime.

NFL Commissioner Bert Bell knew the game's future had been forever changed. With tears in his eyes, he told a reporter, "I never thought I'd live to see sudden death." A year later he died at 64.

On the biggest stage of their time, the Colts and Giants on Dec. 28, 1958, realized the full potential of pro football. AP file photo

Baltimore's Alan Ameche scores the winning touchdown in the 1958 NFL championship game.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.