When pro football was a lark

For Mark Bowden, writing a book about the 1958 pro football championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants was a return to his roots.

Bowden made his name writing prize-winning articles for The Philadelphia Inquirer and best-selling books such as Black Hawk Down, his reconstruction of a disastrous U.S. military raid in Somalia, and Killing Pablo, his chronicle of the manhunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

But before all that came Baltimore. Bowden was 13 when his family moved to town in the mid-1960s. He graduated from Loyola College and worked for six years as a reporter for the BaltimoreNews-American. He still teaches a writing class at Loyola when he's not penning cover stories for The Atlantic or Sunday columns for the Inquirer.

Bowden also covered pro football for three seasons in Philadelphia. So between his old hometown and his old subject matter, The Best Game Ever offered him quite a trip into his past.

When you moved here, was the 1958 game considered a landmark event for the city?

The Colts were a power in the NFL when I moved to Baltimore, so everyone I met was a Colts fan. And yes, I knew that that game from 1958 was particularly revered.

How did you come to write a book about the subject?

I had just finished a book about the Iran hostage crisis that took about five years. So my publisher, who is always looking for more from me, suggested doing what David Halberstam used to do and interspersing shorter books with the longer ones. In that conversation, he suggested a book about the 1958 game. ... I usually ignore his suggestions, but in this case, it struck me as something that would be interesting, both because I remembered that Colts team as a kid and because I had been a football writer.

What did you see as the thrust of the book?

I covered a lot of football games, and I only used to feel that I was scratching the surface. I never understood what really happened, and the only way to really understand was to study film and watch it with players and coaches. So it was a fantasy project to watch a game and really study it, so I could understand why one team won and one team lost.

For example, I had always known that Raymond Berry was a great football player, but I never understood why. Only by watching the film did I understand that he was the key player in that 1958 game. And that led me into an exploration of how he became the player he was.

Berry became perhaps the major character in the book. How and why did that happen?

Well, in talking to some of the other players, they always came back to Raymond Berry. I remember talking to Alex Sandusky, and he said, "I just knew that Raymond and John [Unitas] were gonna win it for us." So I really hoped Raymond would agree to talk.

Well, Raymond Berry turned out to be the best interview I've ever had with a professional athlete. He has a wonderful memory. He's very articulate, self-reflective. He kept copious notes. He's just a wonderful fellow. He met me at the airport in Tennessee. How many people would do that?

Was it difficult for you that the other key player, Unitas, is no longer around?

He has been written about so much and so much was on the record, that it wasn't hard to get his point of view. Of course, I would love to have spoken to him, but I've discovered with many of my books that the most visible figures are not always the most important to talk to.

What struck you most about your conversations with the surviving players?

How much fun they had. To a certain extent, the pressures weren't there that are today. For a lot of them, football was a lark. They loved to do it, and they made some money, but they knew their real career wasn't going to be football.

Did you come away believing the game lived up to its title as the greatest ever?

I did. I just assumed that was so much hype, that some game had to be better or more important. But you can make a pretty strong argument that it was what it's remembered as. It did lead pretty directly to the television contracts and to the creation of another league. That would've all happened anyway, I suspect, but this was without a doubt, the spark. The game itself was so compelling and then when you look at what it meant off the gridiron, I'm not sure any other game combines those elements.

Have you spoken to many Baltimoreans who have read the book?

People seem to love the book in Baltimore. There's such a reservoir of interest and memories for that team.

And so many of them have nothing to do with the game; they're more about the players as members of the community.

Bowden is working on his first novel and also plans to write a book about the U.S. military's decision not to build the next generation of the F-22 fighter jet.

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