Colts-Giants II: Greatest letdown

They were almost identical teams, with the same coaches and similar rosters, that had combined for what is referred to as "The Greatest Game Ever Played" the NFL's first overtime championship, which put pro football on a glittering run to record popularity and acceptance.

What came one year later, a rematch between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, presented little resemblance to the earlier epic confrontation.

Date: Dec. 27, 1959. Place: Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Crowd: 57,557 (a sellout). Baltimore was blacked out for TV reception, but stations in Lancaster, Pa., and Washington offered the picture for those interested in picking up the signal.

Tomorrow will be 40 years later and counting. It was, then and now, to be the only NFL championship staged in Baltimore. The city was ablaze with excitement. Hopes were high. A momentous moment had arrived.

But, as the afternoon progressed, there was scant comparison with what took place nearly a year to the day earlier at Yankee Stadium, when the Colts and Giants were forced into an unprecedented fifth period to decide the outcome. That game will live for the ages; the second meeting is almost forgotten.

The commissioner of the NFL, a rotund gentleman named Bert Bell, was emotionally overcome at Yankee Stadium when he told a reporter-friend, rather paradoxically, "I never thought I'd live to see sudden death."

Bell, unfortunately, wasn't around for the Colts-Giants Part II, because he died from a heart attack in October of that year at a Philadelphia Eagles- Pittsburgh Steelers game at Franklin Field, where he had coached and played as a collegian.

The Baltimore crowd in 1959 was prepared to create bedlam, a condition that Jim Lee Howell, coach of the Giants, attributed to a Baltimore sportswriter whom he accused of trying to incite the spectators. The game had none of the heart-tugging excitement that had marked the setting in New York, a rapid, pulse-racing contest that ended with Alan "The Horse" Ameche taking a handoff from John Unitas on "16-power" and driving through the right side for a touchdown that gave the Colts a 23-17 victory that will live for football posterity.

The Baltimore game was delivered in a different context. Not every game takes on the aspects of a classic. Each to its own unfolding. The frigid weather that was forecast earlier in the week gave way to moderate temperatures, almost a bluebird day, as duck hunters are wont to say.

Baltimore won impressively. Not a smashing conquest, but good enough, 31-16, as the Giants hung in most of the way by relying on Pat Summerall to put points on the scoreboard with his ponderous right leg. Going into the final minutes of the third quarter, Summerall had accounted for all the Giants' offense, with three field goals.

It wasn't until 32 seconds were left that the Giants eventually crossed the goal line. The tough, gnarled ex-Marine from World War II, Charley Conerly, at 38 the oldest player in the league, passing to Bob Schnelker, accounted for their only touchdown. That made it 31-16 before the extra point, and Baltimore danced the victory hop.

The Colts had opened hard and fast, scoring with a spectacular Unitas-to-Lenny Moore strike of 60 yards the first time they had the ball. But then Summerall drilled his field goals rather methodically. Nearing the end of the third quarter, the Giants -- rather Summerall -- had kicked their way into a 9-7 lead.

"But there was never a doubt in my mind that we would win," said Art Donovan, a Colts Hall of Fame defensive tackle. "We were the much better team, and I always believed the Giants realized that, too. Both games, in New York and Baltimore, were closer than they should have been."

The Colts, despite their advantage in personnel, never fully asserted themselves. It wasn't until late in the third quarter, trailing 9-7, that Unitas pitched to Raymond Berry for 17, to Moore for 36 more and to Jim Mutscheller for 5. Then Unitas carried the ball on a rollout into the end zone, and the Colts were back on top, 14-9.

The Colts got outstanding defensive play from middle linebacker Dick Szymanski and defensive tackle Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb. Szymanski and Lipscomb probably had their finest outings. They, along with Gino Marchetti, were piling up ball carriers and keeping the Giants under control.

Meanwhile, center Madison "Buzz" Nutter took care of his West Virginia neighbor, Sam Huff, the Giants' middle linebacker, and blocked him consistently. Suffice to say, Huff had a quiet afternoon.

After a punt by Dave Sherer and a clipping penalty backed the Giants inside the 10-yard line, Conerly was picked off at the 31 by Andy Nelson, who raced to the 14. Ameche pounded for 2 yards and then Unitas tossed to Jerry Richardson at the 8, and the rookie from Wofford upped the Colts' count to 21-9, after Steve Myhra's conversion.

John Sample, who had a verbal scrimmage with Frank Gifford during parts of the contest, pushed the Colts farther ahead by picking off a pass from Conerly and racing 42 yards to the end zone. On the next New York possession, Gifford, on a flea-flicker, couldn't get the ball past Sample, who again intercepted and set up a field goal by Myhra of 25 yards, with less than three minutes to play. The outcome was by then a foregone conclusion.

Unitas said it wasn't surprising the Colts were successful "both of those years against the Giants." In fact, Unitas said the sudden-death game never would have gone to overtime if crowd noise hadn't prevented Ameche from hearing a signal on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with the Colts ahead 14-3 in the third period; Unitas called for a flea-flicker, but Ameche tried to run around right end instead of passing to an open Mutscheller.

"The Giants, both years, had a good defense. I remember so well the first touchdown in Baltimore," he said. "It was a fake pitch to the weak side. Raymond Berry was closed, so Lenny split the defense, made the catch and went 60 yards just like that. The Giants had our respect and still do, despite the fact we beat them twice.

"I think maybe some of the fans felt the game in Baltimore would be a re-enactment of what happened in New York the year before, but the circumstances were different. Maybe not a great game from the spectators' viewpoint, the one in Baltimore, but interesting anyhow."

Vice President Richard M. Nixon visited both locker rooms when it was over and marveled at the defensive play, remindful to him, probably, of when he played tackle at dear, old Whittier. "Another thing that impressed me was the crowd. It was like Milwaukee in baseball," he said.

Sport magazine, for the second year in a row, named Unitas the game's most valuable player and with it went a Corvette. Gifford, in the locker room later, said Sample was "just yapping at him," but the Colts defensive halfback said he pushed Gifford to the ground after he was tackled "because he never mentions my name on his radio show."

Any attempt to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Baltimore hometown win couldn't compare to the stupendous reunion of participants from the 1958 game.

"I can't imagine trying to duplicate the banquet of last year," said Ordell Braase, whose leadership efforts helped raise $230,000 in memory of his late wife, Janice, while endeavoring to find a cure for Lou Gehrig's disease. "The event marking the 1958 game stands alone," Braase said. "That was an almost impossible act to follow, but all of us are certainly proud to have been on a two-time championship team."

Has the '59 game been forgotten? No. Not exactly, but almost. Its meaning has been played down, all because of the immense impact created by "The Greatest Game Ever Played" and the drama that made it seem a fictional masterpiece.