It’s Dec. 28, 1958, and the Colts seem beaten. Less than three minutes remain as the New York Giants, leading 17-14, break huddle on third down with 4 yards to go. If they make it, the NFL championship is all but won.
Gino Marchetti, the Colts’ All-Pro defensive end, feels helpless. They’re not coming my way, he reckons; why play to the enemy’s strength? Yet here comes Frank Gifford, the Giants’ star runner, sweeping to his right to try to turn the corner.
Marchetti draws a bead on the ball carrier but holds back. Instead, he drifts sideways, parallel to Gifford, staying between the runner and the yard marker. Then the sideline looms, forcing Gifford inside, and Marchetti wraps him up as others pile on.
When the dust clears, New York is inches shy of a first down … and Marchetti writhes on the turf.
Sixty years later, the old Colt remembers every second of that game-changing play, down to the bone-rattling hit — and the pain that followed.
“I never hurt so bad in my life. I’d have cried, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” he said. “Gifford said, ‘OK, Marchetti, quit faking it. You can get up now.’ I told him, ‘I can’t, Frank — my ankle’s broken.’ ”
The bone snapped when his linemate, Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, all 285 pounds of him, fell on the pile at the end of the play.
Taken off on a stretcher, Marchetti watched from the sideline as the Giants punted and the Colts, 85 yards from pay dirt, marched downfield for the last-ditch field goal by Steve Myhra that forced sudden-death overtime in a classic now called The Greatest Game Ever Played.
Propped up beside the team’s bench, Marchetti “said a little prayer” for Myhra, who’d made just four of 10 field goals that season before nailing the 20-yard kick that tied it.
In overtime, the Colts triumphed, 23-17, as quarterback Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry, the savvy split end, led the storied winning drive. It’s all there in black-and-white on YouTube, which is fine with Marchetti, who missed the finish firsthand. Before overtime, for safety’s sake, he was whisked to the locker room at Yankee Stadium without access to television or radio.
“So I'm lying on a table in the training room, and some kid is staying there with me, and I'm trying to guess what's happening from the sounds of the crowd,” he said. “And I'm thinking, ‘Geez, we were bad for so many years, and now we're in the championship and I can't even see the finish.’ "
Then the door opened and tight end Jim Mutscheller burst in, dancing and screaming, “Gino, we won! We’re the champs!” Others followed, including Alan Ameche, the fullback who’d scored the winning touchdown. He hugged Marchetti, then handed him the game ball. For keeps. Unitas was named Most Valuable Player, but the Colts presented the ball to their defensive captain who, teammate Ordell Braase said, “came off the ball like he was shot from a cannon.”
“My ankle felt much better then,” Marchetti said. “If we’d lost, I would have been pissed.”
Nearly 93 — his birthday is Jan. 2 — Marchetti is the second-oldest living player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame behind Charley Trippi (97). He gets around with a walker, having suffered a broken hip while making repairs at his home in West Chester, Pa. Otherwise, he said, “nothing really hurts.”
Thirteen seasons a Colt, he made first-team All Pro seven times. In 1994, he was one of three defensive ends named to the league’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Yet those accolades pale next to winning the 1958 title, which Marchetti called “the greatest experience of my life.”
Then, Baltimore was a gritty team whose lunch-pail persona won the heart of the city. Marchetti and teammates Bill Pellington and Carl Taseff shared a rowhouse, carpooled to games at Memorial Stadium and hung out afterward with fans at Sweeney’s bar on Greenmount Avenue.
“We called Baltimore ‘a nickel town,’ where a beer and a hot dog were good food and the people were great,” Marchetti said. “Autographs weren’t much in demand; folks would just slap you on the back. Sometimes, when you left the locker room, kids would find a cigarette pack on the floor and say, ‘Would you sign this?’ We did charity work then; if somebody needed to raise money, we’d show up and sign autographs for nothing. But after the championship game, the price [of a fundraiser] went up to $25 a showing.”
In the spring of 1958, to make ends meet, several Colts worked at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point. An ironworker, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Marchetti swung a 16-pound sledgehammer for $30 a day.
“I liked the job and I felt like I was rich,” he said. “Maybe that’s where I got my strong hands.The others [including Ameche and Unitas] were let go when the union guys complained they weren’t working, but I got to stay.”
When Marchetti left for training camp, his colleagues presented him with a wooden sledgehammer, signed by all.
The Colts went 9-3 that season, including a 24-21 loss to the Giants after which New York quarterback Charlie Conerly crowed, “We out-gutted them.” The Colts filed those words away.
Moreover, in the dressing room before the title game, Colts coach Weeb Ewbank addressed the players, singling each out in his famous “nobody wanted you” oration.
“Best speech Weeb ever made,” Marchetti said. “For some reason, he was really hard on Ameche [a 1955 first-round draft pick]. Weeb said, ‘Alan, people didn’t want me to draft you. They thought you were big and slow, but you showed ’em — and now you’ve got to do it one more time.’ ”
Ameche scored twice that afternoon, the last a 1-yard burst that triggered bedlam in Baltimore. More than 30,000 fans greeted the Colts on their return, stampeding the team bus at Friendship Airport, alarming the players and collapsing the roof of a police car. Marchetti missed the hoopla, having gone from plane to ambulance to Union Memorial Hospital. But what he saw en route touched his heart.
“A couple miles down the road stood a father with his young son, all alone, shining a flashlight on a sign that said, ‘Welcome Home, Champs,’ ” Marchetti said. “I got a big kick out of that.”
Hospitalized nearly a week, he was besieged by so many fans that a “quarantine” sign was hung on his door.
“I’d wake up from a snooze and find 20 people standing around my bed. Didn’t know any of them,” he said. “I got flowers, candy and cards, but no booze.”
While Marchetti’s tackle of Gifford turned the game around, many Giants and their followers believed they’d been swindled on the play.
"It was the worst [ball] placement I've ever seen," fussed Chris Schenkel, the Giants’ play-by-play announcer. And when Gifford, himself a Hall of Famer, squawked over the spotting of the pigskin, Colts tackle Art Donovan demanded he "stop crying and get off the field."
For years, Marchetti said, “Every time I saw Frank, he’d say, ‘A running back knows when he makes a first down. They screwed me.’
“I told him, ‘Frank, you didn’t get screwed, you got stopped. That’s the name of the game, baby.’ ”
Other surviving Colts from the 1958 championship team
» Raymond Berry, 85, wide receiver, Murfreesboro, Tenn.
» Ordell Braase, 86, defensive end, Bradenton, Fla.
» Jack Call, 83, running back, Churchville
» Dick Horn, 88, punter, Palo Alto, Calif.
» Lenny Moore, 85, running back, Randallstown
» Andy Nelson, 85, safety, Glen Arm
» Alex Sandusky, 86, guard, Key West, Fla.
» Leo Sanford, 89, linebacker, Shreveport, La.
» Dick Szymanski, 86, linebacker, Sanford, Fla.
» Charley Winner, 94, assistant coach, Fort Myers, Fla.
1958 Colts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame
» Raymond Berry, wide receiver, 1973
» Art Donovan, defensive tackle, 1968
» Weeb Ewbank, coach, 1978
» Gino Marchetti, defensive end, 1972
» Lenny Moore, running back, 1975
» Jim Parker, offensive tackle, 1973
» Johnny Unitas, quarterback, 1979