'Greatest game' ignited NFL legacy

The image did not add up in Raymond Berry's mind. There he was, sharing a moment of purest fulfillment with his Baltimore Colts teammates as they left Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, 1958. World champions! They could call themselves that after beating the New York Giants in a tense overtime before a huge national television audience.

And yet, there stood National Football League commissioner Bert Bell, quietly weeping.

"I didn't comprehend why, but the memory stuck with me," Berry said recently from his home in Tennessee. "It struck me years later that he knew his baby just got born. I think he was by himself in understanding that."

What Bell knew was that 45 million people had just watched Berry and John Unitas create something beautiful on the most dramatic stage possible. What he suspected was that the NFL would never have to fight for attention again.

One can easily argue that dozens of games have been better, pass for pass and tackle for tackle. But consider the collection of famous names involved, the debut of sudden-death overtime, the expansion teams that formed in the game's aftermath, the record audience that tuned in and realized how perfectly pro football fit America's favorite new toy - television.

How many games can claim all those components? How many pulled together, in one day of drama, all the factors that transformed pro football from small time to the nation's most popular sport?

Author Mark Bowden was skeptical of the "Greatest Game" tag when he began research for a book on the contest. By the time the former Baltimore resident and News American staffer finished writing The Best Game Ever early this year, he was convinced.

"Off the field, you had the mounting interest in pro football, the extraordinary growth of television, and then you had the serendipity of a dramatic overtime game that spilled into prime time," he said. "Some game was going to ignite the interest in pro football, and that turned out to be the game."

In America's Game, his history of the NFL's rise to power, Michael MacCambridge pinpointed the game as a seminal moment. "In the 1958 title game," he wrote, "pro football had arrived as a viable alternative to baseball, not merely as the most popular sport, but the one that best defined America."

Such grandiose notions were far from the minds of players on that chilly evening. Maybe Tex Maule, in Sports Illustrated, was the first to stand back from the whole spectacle and say it to the world.

"Never has there been a game like this one," Maule proclaimed in a Jan. 5, 1959, article titled "The Best Football Game Ever Played."

Trade "best" for "greatest" and you have the title by which the game is known 50 years later. Surviving players have trouble looking past the multiple fumbles and other sloppiness to call it the greatest game, but they understand why Bert Bell had tears in his eyes.

"People saying it's the best game, I don't know if I agree about that," said Colts Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti. "But it was the most important game."

In a pure football sense, the game brought together names that would loom over the NFL for decades - Unitas, Sam Huff, Frank Gifford, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry. And that just scratches the surface of the talent involved. Berry, Marchetti, Lenny Moore and Rosey Brown were just as great. Fifteen Hall of Famers played or coached that day.

The spectacle led directly to growth.

A Texas businessman named Lamar Hunt watched those great players go to the first sudden-death overtime and decided once and for all that he had to own a football team.

"Clearly, the '58 Colts-Giants game, sort of in my mind, made me say, 'Well, that's it. This sport really has everything,'" Hunt told MacCambridge.

Rebuffed by the NFL, Hunt and seven others formed the American Football League. That bold expansion led to the first Super Bowl in 1967 and the league structure we know today.

But more than anything, the Colts-Giants game revealed the potent chemistry between pro football and television. As the game went to overtime after sundown, millions of fans dropped in to watch Unitas craft his drives on the grandest stage in American sports, Yankee Stadium. The players looked like mythic figures, wearing capes and billowing steam, their deeds illuminated starkly against the dark backdrop of the stands.

Many baby boomers remember the game as one of the first big events they watched on television.

"A lot of people tell me that was the first time they had any interest in pro football," said Pat Summerall, who kicked for the Giants and went on to broadcasting fame.

The league signed its first national television deal in 1962. No other professional league's ascent was so closely tied to the medium. And no league has a stronger financial underpinning than the NFL's current television contracts.

"Clearly, that was the match that lit the flame," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said of the game.

It's hard to imagine in this era of Super Bowl parties and fantasy teams, but professional football really was not a big deal in the first half of the 20th century. It ranked behind baseball, boxing, horse racing and college football in national esteem, and across great swaths of the country, people had never seen a professional game.

"When I got back from the season, people asked me where I had been," Summerall remembered.

The league had 12 teams and played a 12-game regular season. There was no national television contract, and most games did not appear on local stations until 1956. Newspapers treated the NFL as an afterthought.

Few if any of the players in the 1958 game had grown up with dreams of playing in the NFL. Over and over, surviving players harped on how much more casual everything seemed in the 1950s.

"When I was drafted, I couldn't have told you who all the other pro teams were," said Giants halfback and subsequent broadcasting star Frank Gifford. "I heard it [that he had been drafted] on the radio on the way back from a ski trip. I didn't get a call from the Giants for a week."

The players weren't rich (even most stars made less than $10,000 a year) or particularly used to adoration. They were the sons of barbers, coal miners and farmers. Many had seen combat in World War II or Korea.

Most of the Giants couldn't afford to live in Manhattan during the offseason. In season, most lived in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium, and took the subway downtown to hit the saloons.

In Baltimore, the Colts drank beer with steelworkers and cops at Andy's on Greenmount Avenue or ate cheeseburgers at Kusen's in the shadow of Memorial Stadium. Many had jobs and were expected at work Monday morning after playing Sunday afternoon. They were happy to own $5,000 rowhouses next to the other working folks. They coached Little League and hosted barbecues.

"We didn't want to be treated as a big deal," Marchetti said.

Players scrupulously avoided weights in the offseason lest they destroy the desired looseness in their muscles. At 245 pounds, Marchetti was a big player and at 284, his linemate, Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, was a revolutionary Goliath. Many players smoked, and if they needed to bulk up, they turned to beer for help.

Film study was just coming into vogue, and in-game adjustments were primitive. "[Giants co-owner] Wellington Mara would take Polaroid shots from the stands, put them in a sock, put a rock in the sock and toss it down to the sideline," Gifford remembered. "But we hardly looked at it anyway."

The game hardly received the sort of buildup we associate with Super Bowls. In New York, the newspaper deliverymen were on strike, so Giants fans could barely read about it.

The New York players felt less than hyped after battling through two must-win games against the Cleveland Browns.

"We weren't focused at all," Gifford said. "We were most focused on getting out of town. The wives were bitching about having to go to another game, how cold it was."

It was a bigger deal for Baltimore, which sent 15,000 fans up the New Jersey Turnpike to invade Yankee Stadium.

The effect of playing the game there can't be overestimated.

"When you ran out of that dugout and the announcer was calling your name, I'll tell you, there was nothing else like it," Giants linebacker Sam Huff said. "It was really something special."

Marchetti remains certain that if the game had been played in Baltimore, accounts would have been read one day and tossed in the trash the next. "In New York, that's a different story," he said. "Then, it's a big game."

Through 3 1/2 quarters, no one would have called the game the greatest anything. The Colts took advantage of Giants turnovers to go up 14-3 but squandered a goal-line chance to go up 21-3. The Giants then scored two unanswered touchdowns, aided by another sloppy play in which Kyle Rote fumbled, only for Alex Webster to pick up the ball and advance it for an 86-yard gain. But Unitas' masterful drive - 71 yards in 2minutes, 5seconds to set up a tying field goal - moved the game into iconic territory.

As the clock ran out with the score tied, confusion reigned.

"What happens now?" Summerall remembered asking Rote, as they crouched on the sideline.

The players had never participated in a sudden-death overtime, but that, too, added to the wonder of the occasion. As Unitas and Berry began their masterpiece, the television audience grew and grew.

None of this registered with the players on the field. After Alan Ameche crashed through for the decisive score, few thought they had participated in an event that would be discussed for decades.

"I was concerned about getting off the field," Summerall said. "That was it. I don't remember that anybody in the locker room thought anything about the magnitude of it.

"I thought we had played better games. I thought they had played better games."

But things were forever altered for the NFL.

"You could see right away the following season that the crowds were building from game to game," Marchetti said. "We felt like kings. At the taphouses, people introduced you to friends like they were proud to know you."

Television interviews multiplied.

Huff appeared on the cover of Time in 1959, and in 1960 CBS aired a special, hosted by Walter Cronkite, called The Violent World of Sam Huff.

Unitas, meanwhile, became an emblem of the crew-cut, stoic men who defined the 1950s and early 1960s. By beating the glamorous Giants, the Colts had become a sensation in Baltimore and a symbol of how the NFL could bring life to new markets.

"I think it was really a coming-out party for the city of Baltimore," said Goodell, who was born in New York less than two months after the game but grew up a Colts fan.

With the AFL expansion, more sophisticated passing offenses came into vogue. Training methods improved, and players grew larger. Coaching, following in the footsteps of Landry and Lombardi, became more specialized. The game as we know it bloomed.

Historians tie much of that back to the 1958 game. "They were really on the vanguard," Bowden said, "inventing the modern game of football."

Berry offered a simple take on that legacy, celebrated this year by four books and a feature-length ESPN documentary.

"I think it's just a hoot," he said, "to think that 50 years later, anybody gives a flip."