Art Donovan and Lenny Moore

Baltimore Colts greats Lenny Moore (left) and Art Donovan watch a replay of the 1958 NFL championship game. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / December 26, 2008)

It matters not that their gaits are slowed and frames stooped, the result of ancient wounds and the passing of decades. These former Baltimore Colts - the 1958 Baltimore Colts - are arrested in the collective mind's eye of generations of football fans in the flower of their strength, swiftness and fortitude.

And last night, some of them gathered once again as they did nearly 50 years ago at Yankee Stadium, where they won the NFL championship, 23-17, in sudden-death overtime. But instead of preparing to take on the New York Football Giants - as their foes were often called back then - in a struggle none of them could have imagined would come to be known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played," these old Colts were assembled in the club level at M&T Bank Stadium in a warm spirit of fraternal bonhomie known only to those who have joined in a great struggle.

"We had no idea whatsoever that we were involved in something they call historic now," said Art Donovan, the former defensive tackle and raconteur extraordinaire. "I remember standing on the sideline with [defensive end] Gino Marchetti while we were fighting for our lives and saying, 'You know, it's going to be a darn shame if we lose this thing because we should be ahead of these guys by four touchdowns.'"

Donovan was referring to the fact that the Colts had a 14-3 lead at one point and an opportunity to blow the game open when they drove to New York's 1-yard line. But the Giants stopped the Colts and rallied offensively and the stage was set for the great Baltimore comeback that ended with Alan Ameche's plunge into history.

Like all defining episodes, the one these Colts shared resulted from the convergence of their own grit and prowess, and the fortuitous circumstance of drama and technology. In other words, they were in the right place at the right time.

"What did it was that overtime," former center-linebacker Dick Szymanski said. "Without that overtime, you don't have the drama, and no one remembers it. Because the field was icy, there were a bunch of fumbles, people were slipping all over the place. It wasn't pretty. But the way it happened, the long drive for the field goal by Steve Myhra that tied it at the end of regulation and then the overtime."

The Colts' victory in overtime - played out on live TV - launched the NFL's popularity and made that 60 minutes of football and the names of the players the stuff of legend.

John Unitas. Raymond Berry. Lenny Moore. Jim Parker, Jim Mutscheller. "Big Daddy" Lipscomb. As well as Donovan. Myhra, Ameche and others.

Some have passed, but many returned for last night's event, which benefited charities for ALS, retired NFL players and the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation. Also back - along with about 2,000 fans - were some of the Giants.

Hall of Fame wide receiver Don Maynard, who lives in El Paso, Texas, might be better remembered for his days as a New York Jet who played on the team that beat the Colts in the third Super Bowl, but he was also on the losing Giants side in 1958.

In fact, as a kickoff returner, he was the first player to touch a ball in an overtime game.

"It was very disappointing," Maynard said of the championship loss, "but you realize later that you never know what destiny has in store for you, and if you work hard and believe in yourself, good things will happen for you."

In Baltimore, the 1958 championship was the beginning of a cresting wave of athletic glory for the city, including a Colts Super Bowl title in January 1971 and, much later, one by the Ravens. And, of course, there were World Series championships for the Orioles.

However, none of those triumphs - as great as they might have been - has reached the legendary proportions of "The Greatest Game Ever Played." And no group of athletes who carried the standard of the city has been revered as these men, now in their 70s and 80s, who had roles in that epic.

Mutscheller, who has lived in Baltimore since his playing days, recalled how two Irish women who lived across the street from his Northeast Baltimore home would bless him on game days.

"I remember after that game being in the bus coming from the airport and people jumping on the roof of the bus," Mutscheller said. "I thought, 'We just won a championship and now I'm going to die in a bus.' ... It was a great time. It was a lot of fun for the city. It was a lot of fun for us players. And eventually, it was a lot of fun for the NFL."

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