A Colts game for the books

The Baltimore Sun

Gerry Sandusky, sportscaster for WBAL television, is the son of John Sandusky, not Alex Sandusky. The television broadcast of the 1958 National Football League championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants has been lost to history, but the radio broadcast still exists.

There were more mistakes in that game, Sandusky said, than there were in the much-maligned Super Bowl V between the Colts and the Dallas Cowboys. Was I really supposed to be learning all this sports stuff at the Maryland Historical Society?

Well, there I was Monday night, in a room filled with fans of the old Baltimore Colts. I learned that Sandusky has had a dickens of a time convincing people he's the son of John Sandusky, who was a line coach for the Colts, and not Alex Sandusky, who played guard. Gerry Sandusky said some people have even gotten downright indignant when he's insisted he's Gerry, son-of-John-not-Alex.

The star of the evening was supposed to be Mark Bowden, author of the recently released The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL. But with retired Baltimore Colts Art Donovan, Ordell Braase and Jim Mutscheller sharing a panel with Bowden, the author found his thunder was stolen a bit.

Donovan, Braase and Mutscheller all played in that '58 game, which Bowden decided to make the topic of his latest work of nonfiction. Bowden has quite an author's resume: Doctor Dealer, Bringing the Heat, Finders Keepers, Road Work, Guests of the Ayatollah, Killing Pablo and - probably the most famous - Black Hawk Down. (His next book will be a novel set in 18th-century Pennsylvania. Go figure.) Most of those in attendance directed their questions toward the former Colts, but they were quick to put the focus back on Bowden, praising his work.

"The author did an outstanding job with Raymond Berry," Braase said.

Braase might have been understating the matter. Editors at Sports Illustrated thought so much of Bowden's portrait of Berry that they made it their selection for an excerpt from Bowden's book that was reprinted in the magazine. And for a Raymond Berry fan like me, Bowden's superb writing and revelations about the Hall of Fame receiver were almost heaven-sent.

When I was a kid, it's possible I could have been convinced there were three more sacred words in the English language than "Unitas to Berry," but it would have taken brass knuckles brandished by a guy named Bubba the Violator to do it. For me, those were the three most sacred words in the English language, and the four most sacred were "Unitas to Berry, TOUCHDOWN!"

Bowden wrote that Berry reinvented the position of wide receiver in pro football, a notion that Mutscheller seconded. (The exact word Mutscheller used was "revolutionized.") Berry, Bowden wrote, had an approach to the game that was strictly cerebral. To illustrate his point, Bowden told those gathered in the historical society auditorium that Berry observed the tarpaulin being taken off the Yankee Stadium field before the Colts-Giants title clash of 1958 and observed those areas where the water had pooled, causing wet spots.

"He noticed those wet spots and used them to his advantage," Bowden said. Berry wore longer cleats to account for the mud. At one point in the fourth quarter Berry caught a pass and, Bowden said, pivoted as if on a dime and headed upfield while poor Giants cornerback Carl Karilivicz went sailing by him.

Berry's victimization of Karilivicz led to Colts' drives in the fourth quarter and overtime, when they eventually won the game. Bowden said the fact that the '58 title fracas was the first overtime game in league history was only one reason he feels it's the best ever. And what are the others?

"First, the lead changes," Bowden answered. "It was the best offense in the league against the best defense. For such a game to be considered the best ever, you would need some of the greatest players in the history of the game. In this one, there were 17 Hall of Fame players or coaches."

And the game led to not only a surge in the popularity of the NFL, but to the formation of the American Football League in 1960, which led to an increase in salaries and the merger between the two leagues.

Without this game, the NFL as fans know it today might not exist. Some might feel there have been better games - and the 1965 Colts-Green Bay Packers Western Division playoff classic still gets my "best ever" vote - few, if any, games had more impact.

And few books about that game have been as exquisitely written as Bowden's.


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