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Retro Baltimore: ‘The greatest game ever?’ Maybe not ...

For decades, the Colts’ first NFL championship — a 23-17 win over the New York Giants in sudden-death overtime in 1958 — has been touted in football as “the greatest game ever played.” The victors knew otherwise.

Yes, that white-knuckle contest put the pro sport on the map, but it couldn’t top an earlier win that season, a pinch-me comeback effort that sealed the title berth for the Colts and put quarterback Johnny Unitas in the record books.

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On Nov. 30, Memorial Stadium rocked as the home team, trailing, 27-7 at halftime, roared back to defeat the San Francisco 49ers, 35-27. The victory clinched the Western Conference for Baltimore (9-1) and set the table for the last-minute rally three weeks later that would tumble the Giants and rivet the sports world.

”That [win over San Francisco] was a much better game,” Unitas said years later. Hall of Fame teammates agreed. Gino Marchetti, the defensive end who received the game ball after the championship, long contended that the earlier contest was “the biggest game we played, and the one I’ll always remember most.”

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1958 Sun Staff File Photo: Lenny Moore of the Colts out in the open and going full speed in a battle with the 49ers.
1958 Sun Staff File Photo: Lenny Moore of the Colts out in the open and going full speed in a battle with the 49ers. (SUN STAFF FILE PHOTO)

Lenny Moore, 87, the Hall of Fame running back and one of the few survivors of that title team, went further, calling the win over the 49ers, “the best game we ever played in my [12] years here.”

It didn’t start that way. At halftime, the Colts slunk off the field, down by 20 points to a so-so team before a sellout crowd.

“A pall hung over the stadium as if it were a big dark tent,” The Sun reported. A scattering of boos reigned down from the stands.

“That [hooting] was a big deal,” guard Alex Sandusky said afterward. “We felt like little kids being sent to stand in the corner.”

Unitas stunk, completing five of 17 passes for 28 yards and an interception that was returned for a touchdown. He’d entered the game on a roll, having passed for a score in 22 consecutive games, one shy of the league record. On this frigid day in the first half, however, “John couldn’t have hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle,” recalled Raymond Berry, 87, the Hall of Fame receiver.

In the dressing room, coach Wilbur Charles “Weeb” Ewbank was brief.

In the dressing room Ewbank gives his men some last minute reminders just before they go onto the field.
In the dressing room Ewbank gives his men some last minute reminders just before they go onto the field. (Baltimore Sun staff/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

“I’ve seen sicker cows than this get well,” he said. Then, on the chalkboard, he scrawled the number “4″ — the number of touchdowns the Colts needed to win. They complied, scoring once in the third quarter and three times in the fourth, while holding the 49ers at bay. It was a rally the players would savor to their end.

“That’s what you call total annihilation,” Hall of Fame defensive tackle Art Donovan bragged at a Colts reunion in 1983.

Shrugging off the first-half blues, Unitas pecked away, marching his troops on two long scoring drives – fullback Alan “The Horse” Ameche plunging over for both TDs – to whittle the lead to 27-21.

Once, facing a tough third down, Ewbank beckoned his quarterback for a parley; Marchetti listened in.

“Weeb said, ‘Let’s do this — no, let’s do that.’ They were indecisive instructions, and John stood there, without emotion, just staring at him,” Marchetti said. “Finally, Weeb threw up his hands and said, ‘John, just get the first down.’”

Fans watch the Colts take on the 49ers in a memorable matchup in 1958.
Fans watch the Colts take on the 49ers in a memorable matchup in 1958. (KLENDER/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Unitas hit Berry with a short pass to extend the drive. Moments later, he called an end run and shoveled the ball to Moore, who raced 73 yards – a dizzying sprint that saw him change direction three times – for the game-tying touchdown. The extra-point put the Colts ahead, 28-27. Jubilant fans charged the field, which startled Dixie, the team’s pony mascot who did a victory lap after every TD. Dixie fell, spilling her 15-year-old rider. Neither was hurt.

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With less than two minutes left, the Colts struck again on a seven-yard pass from Unitas to Berry — the 23rd straight game in which the crew-cut QB had thrown for a touchdown, tying the record set by Green Bay’s Cecil Isbell in 1942. (Unitas’ streak ran for 47 games, a mark that then stood for 52 years).

At the end, fans rushed out and lifted their heroes aloft.

“Unbelievable noise, unbelievable crush,” said Berry. “It’s a miracle no one was killed.”

A spirited team whooped it up in its quarters.

“This is my happiest day,” said Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, the 285-pound defensive tackle, sobbing as he sat at his locker.

Unitas? Offered the game ball, he passed.

“Don’t want it,” he said brusquely. “What I did was nothin’.”

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