Colts-Giants II: Greatest letdown

Sun Columnist

They were almost identical teams, with the same coaches and similarrosters, that had combined for what is referred to as "The Greatest Game EverPlayed" the NFL's first overtime championship, which put pro football on aglittering run to record popularity and acceptance.

What came one year later, a rematch between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, presented little resemblance to the earlier epic confrontation.

Date: Dec. 27, 1959. Place: Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Crowd: 57,557 (asellout). Baltimore was blacked out for TV reception, but stations inLancaster, Pa., and Washington offered the picture for those interested inpicking up the signal.

Tomorrow will be 40 years later and counting. It was, then and now, to bethe only NFL championship staged in Baltimore. The city was ablaze withexcitement. Hopes were high. A momentous moment had arrived.

But, as the afternoon progressed, there was scant comparison with what tookplace nearly a year to the day earlier at Yankee Stadium, when the Colts andGiants were forced into an unprecedented fifth period to decide the outcome.That game will live for the ages; the second meeting is almost forgotten.

The commissioner of the NFL, a rotund gentleman named Bert Bell, wasemotionally overcome at Yankee Stadium when he told a reporter-friend, ratherparadoxically, "I never thought I'd live to see sudden death."

Bell, unfortunately, wasn't around for the Colts-Giants Part II, because hedied from a heart attack in October of that year at a Philadelphia Eagles- Pittsburgh Steelers game at Franklin Field, where he had coached andplayed as a collegian.

The Baltimore crowd in 1959 was prepared to create bedlam, a condition thatJim Lee Howell, coach of the Giants, attributed to a Baltimore sportswriterwhom he accused of trying to incite the spectators. The game had none of theheart-tugging excitement that had marked the setting in New York, a rapid,pulse-racing contest that ended with Alan "The Horse" Ameche taking a handofffrom John Unitas on "16-power" and driving through the right side for atouchdown that gave the Colts a 23-17 victory that will live for footballposterity.

The Baltimore game was delivered in a different context. Not every gametakes on the aspects of a classic. Each to its own unfolding. The frigidweather that was forecast earlier in the week gave way to moderatetemperatures, almost a bluebird day, as duck hunters are wont to say.

Baltimore won impressively. Not a smashing conquest, but good enough,31-16, as the Giants hung in most of the way by relying on Pat Summerall toput points on the scoreboard with his ponderous right leg. Going into thefinal minutes of the third quarter, Summerall had accounted for all theGiants' offense, with three field goals.

It wasn't until 32 seconds were left that the Giants eventually crossed thegoal line. The tough, gnarled ex-Marine from World War II, Charley Conerly, at38 the oldest player in the league, passing to Bob Schnelker, accounted fortheir only touchdown. That made it 31-16 before the extra point, and Baltimoredanced the victory hop.

The Colts had opened hard and fast, scoring with a spectacularUnitas-to-Lenny Moore strike of 60 yards the first time they had the ball. Butthen Summerall drilled his field goals rather methodically. Nearing the end ofthe third quarter, the Giants -- rather Summerall -- had kicked their way intoa 9-7 lead.

"But there was never a doubt in my mind that we would win," said Art Donovan, a Colts Hall of Fame defensive tackle. "We were the much better team,and I always believed the Giants realized that, too. Both games, in New Yorkand Baltimore, were closer than they should have been."

The Colts, despite their advantage in personnel, never fully assertedthemselves. It wasn't until late in the third quarter, trailing 9-7, thatUnitas pitched to Raymond Berry for 17, to Moore for 36 more and to JimMutscheller for 5. Then Unitas carried the ball on a rollout into the endzone, and the Colts were back on top, 14-9.

The Colts got outstanding defensive play from middle linebacker DickSzymanski and defensive tackle Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb. Szymanski andLipscomb probably had their finest outings. They, along with Gino Marchetti,were piling up ball carriers and keeping the Giants under control.

Meanwhile, center Madison "Buzz" Nutter took care of his West Virginianeighbor, Sam Huff, the Giants' middle linebacker, and blocked himconsistently. Suffice to say, Huff had a quiet afternoon.

After a punt by Dave Sherer and a clipping penalty backed the Giants insidethe 10-yard line, Conerly was picked off at the 31 by Andy Nelson, who racedto the 14. Ameche pounded for 2 yards and then Unitas tossed to JerryRichardson at the 8, and the rookie from Wofford upped the Colts' count to21-9, after Steve Myhra's conversion.

John Sample, who had a verbal scrimmage with Frank Gifford during parts ofthe contest, pushed the Colts farther ahead by picking off a pass from Conerlyand racing 42 yards to the end zone. On the next New York possession, Gifford,on a flea-flicker, couldn't get the ball past Sample, who again interceptedand set up a field goal by Myhra of 25 yards, with less than three minutes toplay. The outcome was by then a foregone conclusion.

Unitas said it wasn't surprising the Colts were successful "both of thoseyears against the Giants." In fact, Unitas said the sudden-death game neverwould have gone to overtime if crowd noise hadn't prevented Ameche fromhearing a signal on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with the Colts ahead 14-3 inthe third period; Unitas called for a flea-flicker, but Ameche tried to runaround right end instead of passing to an open Mutscheller.

"The Giants, both years, had a good defense. I remember so well the firsttouchdown in Baltimore," he said. "It was a fake pitch to the weak side.Raymond Berry was closed, so Lenny split the defense, made the catch and went60 yards just like that. The Giants had our respect and still do, despite thefact we beat them twice.

"I think maybe some of the fans felt the game in Baltimore would be are-enactment of what happened in New York the year before, but thecircumstances were different. Maybe not a great game from the spectators'viewpoint, the one in Baltimore, but interesting anyhow."

Vice President Richard M. Nixon visited both locker rooms when it was overand marveled at the defensive play, remindful to him, probably, of when heplayed tackle at dear, old Whittier. "Another thing that impressed me was thecrowd. It was like Milwaukee in baseball," he said.

Sport magazine, for the second year in a row, named Unitas the game's mostvaluable player and with it went a Corvette. Gifford, in the locker roomlater, said Sample was "just yapping at him," but the Colts defensive halfbacksaid he pushed Gifford to the ground after he was tackled "because he nevermentions my name on his radio show."

Any attempt to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Baltimore hometown wincouldn't compare to the stupendous reunion of participants from the 1958 game.

"I can't imagine trying to duplicate the banquet of last year," said OrdellBraase, whose leadership efforts helped raise $230,000 in memory of his latewife, Janice, while endeavoring to find a cure for Lou Gehrig's disease. "Theevent marking the 1958 game stands alone," Braase said. "That was an almostimpossible act to follow, but all of us are certainly proud to have been on atwo-time championship team."

Has the '59 game been forgotten? No. Not exactly, but almost. Its meaninghas been played down, all because of the immense impact created by "TheGreatest Game Ever Played" and the drama that made it seem a fictionalmasterpiece.

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