The greatest game nobody remembers

Fifty years ago, the Baltimore Colts rallied to win a world championship over the New York Giants before 57,545 jubilant fans at Memorial Stadium.

Go on, scratch your head. The 1958 title game is burned into our brains: 23-17, sudden-death, Ameche's plunge, the stampede at the airport. But the sequel, on Dec. 27, 1959? Half a century later, who can recall the cast, the Colts' comeback, or the score?

Not even the players, it seems.

"Don't remember it at all," said Hall of Famer Lenny Moore, who caught a 60-yard touchdown pass in the 31-16 victory that day. "Man, oh man. Can you believe that? I don't remember me."

Ditto, say many of Moore's teammates, who helped build Baltimore's first football dynasty.

Come on, guys. After 50 years, there's no buzz about the only NFL championship ever played in Baltimore?

Nope, said defensive end Gino Marchetti, then the Colts' captain: "That game is lost in space."

Pity, that. Because the city's second football title was, in some ways, as sweet as the first. Roused by a partisan crowd, the Colts rallied from a 9-7 deficit with a 24-point blitz in the fourth quarter to quiet Giants fans who had called 1958 a fluke.

On its own, the 1959 game had legs. But it pales beside the Colts' first championship, dubbed "The Greatest Game Ever Played."

"You couldn't come up with a scenario to beat the '58 game even if you stayed up all night to plot it," said Raymond Berry, the team's star receiver. "My memories of it are vivid. But the second one? I've hardly given any thought at all to that."

It is, players said, The Game That Time Forgot.

It wasn't always so.

In 1959, Christmas week in Baltimore was less about holly than horseshoes. Folks stood in line for hours, not to purchase gifts but tickets to the title game. In Govans, a homeowner trimmed his outdoor tree with lights of blue and white.

Downtown, construction workers putting a new wing on the city jail unfurled a 42-foot banner that read "Go Colts Go" from atop the crane's 130-foot boom.

With one title in tow, Colts fans wanted more, especially if it meant another shot at the haughty Giants. When New York gamblers started a rumor, a week before the game, that Johnny Unitas had broken his leg, club officials cried foul and pondered hiring bodyguards to protect their 26-year-old All-Pro quarterback.

Unitas led the Colts (9-3), who had the NFL's No. 1 offense, against the Giants (10-2), who had its No. 1 defense. Oddsmakers installed Baltimore as a 3 1/2 -point favorite even though New York, earlier in the season, had defeated two teams (the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns) against which the Colts had stumbled.

The Giants fueled the pre-game rancor. Dick Lynch, a newly acquired defensive back, promised to give Berry, a hero of the '58 championship, a licking.

"The only way to stop hotshots like Berry is to really blast them," Lynch said.

New York linebacker Sam Huff all but promised victory for Gotham.

"If we can score 21 points, we'll win," Huff said. "They won't get more than that against us."

Right up to the kickoff, the Giants strutted their stuff, said Charley Winner, 85, then Baltimore's defensive coordinator. During warm-ups, he said, the Colts' Johnny Sample, a brash young defensive back, sidled over to Frank Gifford, New York's star runner who had written columns that season for a New York newspaper.

"Hey, Gifford, when are you going to write an article about me?" Sample asked.

Gifford looked up.

"Kid," he said, "I don't even know your name."

The game changed that.

The Colts struck first. On their sixth play from scrimmage, Unitas fired to Moore, who split two defenders and raced 60 yards for a touchdown.

"He was running so hard, bringing his legs up so high, that one of his knees hit [defensive back] Lindon Crow in the head and left him groggy," Giants assistant Tom Landry said later.

Then Baltimore's attack fell silent. Three field goals by Pat Summerall put the visitors ahead 9-7, which is where it stood late in the third quarter with New York again on the move.

But on fourth-and-inches at the Colts' 27, the Giants gambled and sent Alex Webster, their 215-pound halfback, straight ahead. Colts tackle Ray Krouse latched onto one of his legs and refused to let go. Webster was caught, the Baltimore News-Post wrote, "like an animal in a trap." Loss of 1. Memorial Stadium rocked.

At that point, The Evening Sun reported, "the ballgame began to explode in the Giants' collective face."

Quickly, the Colts marched 55 yards for the go-ahead touchdown as Unitas - sprung by a crushing block from Moore - scuttled around right end on a bootleg for the last 4 yards.

Then, on three consecutive New York possessions, Baltimore proceeded to intercept the Giants "like harvesters picking currants," wrote Red Smith, the premier columnist of the day.

Andy Nelson, an All-Pro safety, stole a pass from Charlie Conerly at the Giants' 31 and dashed halfway to the end zone, skidding to a stop in the mud in front of an NBC camera. Two plays later, the Colts scored on a 12-yard pass to rookie Jerry Richardson. Then Sample swiped one and took it 42 yards for a touchdown. Then Sample struck again, intercepting a pass thrown by - who else? - Gifford, the Giant who had mocked him earlier. The Colts kicked a field goal and were up 31-9.

Baltimore's lead had mushroomed, Smith wrote, "until ordinary human decency demanded one last meaningless consolation TD for New York."

Final score: Colts 31, Giants 16. At the gun, tackle Jim Parker scooped up the ball, tucked it under his jersey and lumbered toward the locker room.

Fans streamed from the stands, hoisted players aloft and grabbed souvenirs - chairs, wads of used adhesive and wooden planks from the Colts' bench.

"They stole the helmet right off of my head," Marchetti said.

The iron goal posts toppled quickly. When boisterous fans broke one of the crossbars, several City College students seized a 10-foot section and hustled it out of the stadium and onto 33rd Street.

"We tried to get on the No. 22 bus, but the driver looked at the pipe and said, 'You can't bring that thing on here,' " said Sheldon Baylin, 66. "Then we told him what it was, and he changed his mind.

"We took the crossbar to my house in Northwest Baltimore, cut it up and sold it. I kept a 2-foot piece, painted it blue, added the score of the game and got a bunch of the players to sign it."

In the winners' locker room, Weeb Ewbank, the Colts' frumpy little coach, waxed eloquent about his team's late rally.

"Once the snowball started rolling, there was no stopping it," he told reporters.

"Isn't it great?" rasped Art Donovan, the beefy defensive tackle. "The Giants shot their mouths off all week. But we played the football."

Vice President Richard M. Nixon stopped in to slap some backs and proclaim the game "the best I have ever seen."

As Nixon left, a fan shouted, "We'll give you a ticket [for the 1960 election] - Unitas and Nixon."

"If you can do that," the vice president replied, "we'll let Unitas call the signals."

Afterward, the Colts quarterback was as nonplussed as ever.

"Even when we fell behind, I wasn't worried," said Unitas, who was sacked seven times. "I figured we'd get a couple more touchdowns."

For the second straight year, Unitas won the game's Most Valuable Player award - another $4,200 red Corvette. The first one, he confessed, he had traded in.

"But we still have our '57 Chevy," Unitas said.

That night, Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom threw a team party at the Sheraton Belvedere. Afterward, as he was driving home to Annapolis, guard Alex Sandusky was pulled over by a patrol car.

Fumbling for his driver's license, Sandusky asked, "Would you give a Baltimore Colt player a ticket after we just won the world championship?"

The cop thought a moment.

"Aw, get out of here," he said.

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