Recollections brighten 'Greatest Game' documentary

In a current country song, Jamey Johnson sings the refrain, "You should have seen it in color," referring to a grandfather's vivid memories of times past captured in black-and-white photographs.

Like those old photos, most documents of the legendary Baltimore Colts-New York Giants 1958 NFL title game - the game that launched pro football into American sports ascendancy - have existed in black and white. But producers of ESPN's documentary The Greatest Game Ever Played (9 p.m. tomorrow) have pieced together footage of the game for this 50th anniversary special and colorized it.


The fact of the matter is, though - just like in the song - it is hearing the recollections of the grandpas that truly brings this event into living color.

ESPN Films took players from that game (and a selected few others) and matched them with current Indianapolis Colts and New York Giants, the teams that have won the past two Super Bowls - among them: Art Donovan with Michael Strahan, Raymond Berry with Tony Dungy, Lenny Moore with Brandon Jacobs, Pat Summerall with Adam Vinatieri, Gino Marchetti and Frank Gifford with Tom Coughlin.


This could have come off as nothing more than a gimmick, but it is what most makes the documentary worth watching. The modern players let the old-timers do most of the talking, but the younger men are unfailingly respectful and seem genuinely thankful for the legacy built by the players from the 1950s.

To quickly address what is probably a concern for many old Colts fans: Yes, the documentary acknowledges the departure of the team for Indianapolis. And it might not sit well with some of you to hear Colts coach Dungy say, "We feel a bond to that '58 team." But listen to it in the context of the show, and it sounds perfectly right.

As for another concern: Host and narrator Chris Berman plays it straight, with no John Facenda voice or other shtick.

Point of full disclosure: I am no fan of colorization in general, so perhaps I'm not the right one to judge, but I found the 1958 footage wasn't that greatly enhanced by being in a color. In fact, you could make the argument for leaving the game in black and white because that was how everyone saw it on television back in the day.

The commentators outside the teams set the stage well. Baltimore filmmaker Barry Levinson says, to most people, his hometown was just a railroad stop on the way to Washington. Before the Colts, he says, "We had no real identity." Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leifer, then a teenager, says of New York, "This was a baseball town." Sportswriter William Gildea recalls joining the throng traveling from Baltimore for the game but how Yankee Stadium wasn't even sold out.

One thing the footage clearly captures is just what a mess the field was. Just about every play is accompanied by clouds of dust kicked up by the players, who are often seen sliding around trying to get any footing. (In a phone interview with The Baltimore Sun this week, Donovan said the field had been covered in horse manure in an effort to dry it out.)

Sprinkled throughout the show are nuggets of information, but it's hard to top this one for pop culture serendipity: The spotter for radio announcer Bob Wolff was a young man named Maury Povich, long before anyone knew he would end up refereeing shouting matches between baby mamas and DNA-confirmed baby daddies.

The documentary is loaded with nice touches. The halftime catches up with members of the 1958 Colts band and cheerleaders. There is a clip of the wedding scene from Levinson's Diner in which the bridal party enters to the tune of the Colts' fight song. And we even get a touch of modern technology by putting a pivotal play under review.


The Giants question the official's spot on a third-down run by Gifford late in the fourth quarter, when a first down would have essentially put away the game. New York came up just short, and some have speculated that the official was distracted because Marchetti broke his leg on the play. However, ESPN brought in a mapping expert to look at the game film and determine the ball's position, and he ascertained that Gifford was indeed less than a foot short of the first down.

The drama of the game builds slowly. Early on, as the ball keeps changing hands - "It was really kind of a sloppy game," Marchetti says - and then the Colts open a lead, there is no foreshadowing of how the game would evolve into a classic. But so it does, as the play-by-play is sprinkled with the names of Hall of Famers.

None of them stands out more than John Unitas, as he invents the two-minute drill and the modern quarterback. Except, in the end, he is kind of pre-modern. After Alan Ameche crashes into the end zone for the decisive score, Unitas simply turns and trots away. Not an ounce of histrionics.

For the most part, the same goes for The Greatest Game Ever Played. This game didn't need a lot of embellishment because it's a story compelling enough in its own right. So ESPN just lets the players tell it, through the old footage and through their commentary.

And we get an enjoyable history lesson.