'Greatest' came from NFL's best

On Dec.28, 1958, the NFL's best offense and defense, its finest quarterback, its best possession receiver and big-play threat, its most dominant defensive lineman and prototype offensive tackles, its best-rounded linebacker and its most promising assistant coaches all took the same field at Yankee Stadium.

The championship game that resulted between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts is widely known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played."

It is most often remembered for the remarkable drives authored by John Unitas, for the NFL's first sudden-death overtime and for introducing professional football as a potent television product to millions of new viewers.

But lost in talk of the game's impact is an appreciation of how much football talent took the field that afternoon at Yankee Stadium.

"I think there were an extraordinary number of great athletes involved," said Ernie Accorsi, who watched the game as a 17-year-old Colts fan and went on to become general manager for both franchises.

"You can still name them 50years later," said Sam Huff, one of 15 Hall of Famers who either played or coached in the game.

"They were reinventing the way the game was played," said author Mark Bowden, who re-created the contest in his book The Best Game Ever. "It was just becoming a more interesting game."

On the rise
At the time, the Colts and Giants knew they were playing against stellar opponents but had little notion that names such as Unitas, Huff, Frank Gifford and Gino Marchetti would ring out in football history. For one thing, many of those greats were just establishing themselves. For another, the league had only 12 franchises with rosters of 35 players each, so matchups between strong teams invariably brought together clusters of future Hall of Famers.

Unitas was only the start of it. His favorite target, Raymond Berry, was a perfectionist who foreshadowed the remarkable level of preparation the public takes for granted with modern players. On the other side of the Colts' offense, Lenny Moore was simply a super athlete, the genetic and stylistic godfather of big-play threats such as Marshall Faulk and Brian Westbrook. To a man, the old Colts call him the finest talent they played with.

Accorsi called Moore and Gale Sayers the greatest halfbacks he saw. "Lenny could have made the Hall of Fame as either a pure receiver or a pure runner," he said.

In protecting all that skill, Jim Parker showed enough strength to fell an ox and enough quickness to stay between a cheetah and its prey. The nimble 330-pound tackles of today are his heirs.

Parker honed his craft in practice against one of the game's greatest pass rushers. "The first three or four times, he never touched me," Marchetti remembered of their sessions. "So he says, 'Gino, will you work with me and show me how to deal with a fast player?' We did, and he developed such footwork that he was just impossible to get off balance."

Berry remembered Parker going against 6-foot-8 behemoth Doug Atkins of the Chicago Bears. Atkins liked to grab linemen by the pads and just flip them over. But when he tried the move on Parker, nothing.

"It was hilarious to watch," Berry said. "It was like Atkins had grabbed a fireplug. We never had to worry about him after that."

That was just the offense. At defensive end, Marchetti was big enough for his day at 6-4, 245pounds. But his real advantages in getting to the quarterback were speed and an endless bag of moves. Sounds a bit like Terrell Suggs, no?

"He was right there with Bruce Smith and Reggie White," Gifford said. "He was so quick that he just destroyed offensive tackles."

Accorsi remembered a story San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Bob St.Clair told about Marchetti. After a particularly rough day against the Colts, the Hall of Fame lineman walked up behind Marchetti and lightly pawed his jersey. "I just wanted to be able to say I touched you once today," St. Clair quipped.

If you prefer your linemen huge and light of foot, like Haloti Ngata, then Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, all 6feet, 6inches and 284pounds of him, would've been your man on the Colts. Art Donovan wasn't as great a physical specimen, but few penetrated the middle of the line better than the five-time All-Pro.

In the secondary, a crew of Ed Reed-style ballhawks - Andy Nelson, Milt Davis, Ray Brown and Carl Taseff - picked off a league-high 35passes.

The Giants were pretty good, too.

On defense, coordinator Tom Landry revolutionized play with his 4-3 alignment, which put the onus on middle linebacker Huff to be smart, swift and strong enough to check every move of an offensive master such as Unitas. At end, the Giants had their own version of Marchetti in Andy Robustelli, whose quickness and thoughtful study of offenses made him a match for hosses such as Parker. Inside at tackle, Rosey Grier, who played hurt against Baltimore, could plug any hole.

The Giants didn't pick off as many passes as the Colts, but individually, no one did it better than safety Emlen Tunnell, the first black player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

On offense, Gifford was New York's version of Moore, a threat to create points with his legs, his hands and his arm. "He was an alien," Marchetti said in remembering Gifford's versatility.

Tackle Roosevelt Brown, a Morgan State alumnus, was the locomotive clearing the way for Gifford, who called his favorite blocker the best all-around athlete on the team.

"Roosevelt Brown and Jim Parker are still the greatest left tackles I've ever seen," said Accorsi, who used the pair as his standard for excellence when he scouted the position as a team executive.

The Giants didn't throw as much as the Colts, but when they did, old warhorse Charlie Conerly was among the league's most efficient passers.

Designing plays for New York was a stout, bespectacled fellow who felt certain that no one knew more about football execution than him. His name was Vince Lombardi.

A head for winning
Yes, anyone who flipped on the game that day learned as much about where football was going as where it had been. So many of the combatants had hands in shaping how their positions would be played and in determining how the patterns of football would be designed.

Amid the glittering constellations on the field, Unitas and Berry were the unquestioned supernovas. "I think that's what made the game so great," Nelson said. "The exhibition between Berry and Unitas."

Unitas threw some beautiful passes, but far beyond that, he directed the game.

"What is a marvel to me is the decision-making process that went on in John Unitas' head," Berry said. "Why did he call the plays he called? I think he had a huge amount of instinct, and Weeb Ewbank had the good sense to tap into his great natural play-calling ability."

Huff fancied himself a pretty smart defensive captain, but Unitas spooked him, convincing the great No.70 that he could read minds.

"I couldn't tell what he was going to do," said Huff, still sounding frustrated by the experience. "Eventually, I went in the huddle and said: 'Everything I've called, he's beaten. Anybody else want to call it?'"

One of Unitas' greatest plays involved little physical effort on his part. Berry had caught so many balls by the overtime that Huff had begun shading back to help cover him. Unitas spotted this and called a trap run up the middle by Alan Ameche. Had Huff been in his normal spot, he could have disrupted the play. But he wasn't, and Ameche burst free for 24yards, the backbreaking play in the Colts' winning drive.

Playing for the moment
Of course, the Colts never would have been in such a position without the preternatural connection between Unitas and Berry.

Even in an age when the average player wasn't built like a cyborg, Berry lacked the physical traits expected of a football star. Without exceptional size or speed, he fashioned a Hall of Fame career out of doggedness and remarkable powers of analysis. He wanted Unitas to throw to him after every practice so they could perfect timing on every route imaginable. Once Unitas had enough, Berry moved to other teammates. If they weren't available, he turned to his wife, Sally. He didn't want perfect spirals thrown to his chest. He wanted wobblers thrown at his feet and scorchers above his head. Off the field, he filled dozens of notebooks with scouting reports and schemes for countermeasures.

Fellow players might have considered Berry a nut, but now, they speak of how far ahead of his time he really was.

"No question about it," Giants kicker and longtime announcer Pat Summerall said.

No sequence of moves was too obscure for Berry to master. If the game afforded him but one chance to use a trick, well, that chance might be the moment that turned around a championship.

So it went in the 1958 game, as Berry's preparedness paid off when the Colts needed him most. Early in the tying drive, Landry shifted linebacker Harland Svare to play face up on Berry, a brand-new alignment. Relying on a near-telepathic link, Berry and Unitas, without speaking, remembered a counter they had devised for the situation years earlier. Boom! Unitas hit Berry slanting hard across the middle for a 25-yard gain.

Berry had also worked on a move in which he would catch the ball with his back to the defense, fake a step to the middle to draw the cornerback on an inside angle and then pivot to the outside. In three years, he had not had a chance to use it. But two plays after the 25-yard gain, he ran a 10-yard hook in front of Carl Karilivacz, faked inside and twirled past the helpless cornerback for another 10yards. The gain set up Steve Myhra's tying field goal.

"You didn't always know when your work would be significant," Berry said from his home in Tennessee. "You may never see a payoff for 99percent of it. But that 1percent may be the difference in a world championship."

Nelson called the last two drives simply the "best example of pitch and catch I've ever seen."

The refrain of Unitas to Berry, which boomed over the loudspeaker 12times that day, lives on in Huff's nightmares.

"I sleep with them," he said. "That's right."

Next Sunday: The impact of the game on John Unitas' career.

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