Tuesday, December 28, 2010

December 28, 1958: The Greatest Game Ever Played

BRONX, N.Y. - It all started here. The popularity of the NFL as a televised sport, the beginnings of the NFL's climb to the top of the American sports ladder, can be traced to one Sunday afternoon game in the cathedral of baseball, Yankee Stadium. This one game proved that the NFL was no longer just a fringe sports league, that the game lent itself perfectly to television.

What would eventually become known as the Greatest Game Ever Played started out looking like a blowout. For the most part, the Giants couldn't move the ball, and when they did, they kept putting it on the ground. The Colts turned two Frank Gifford fumbles into touchdowns in the second quarter and took a 14-3 lead into halftime. In front of a coast-to-coast television audience - although the New York and Baltimore markets were blacked out - the NFL's signature game was looking like a romp.

That changed early in the third quarter. Baltimore advanced to the Giants 1-yard line, looking to extend their lead even further, but Alan Ameche was stopped for a loss on consecutive runs on third and fourth down. Trapped deep in their own territory, the Giants turned it into a game with one play. Quarterback Charlie Conerly found Kyle Rote streaking over the middle for a big pass play, but after Rote broke a tackle at midfield, he fumbled on a hit from behind. Running back Alex Webster was on the spot, though, picking up the fumble and advancing all the way to the Colts' 1-yard line. The 86-yard play completely changed the momentum of the game; the subsequent touchdown made it a 14-10 game.

The Giants took the lead early in the fourth on a Gifford touchdown, and still held that lead with 2:00 remaining in the game. Getting the ball at their own 14-yard line, the Colts and quarterback Johnny Unitas began what is often called the first true "two-minute drill" in NFL history. Unitas' crisp passing and quick decisions got the Colts down to the Giants 13-yard line in time to kick the game-tying field goal with 7 seconds left.

Then, the game that was already groundbreaking from a television standpoint became even more so. As Unitas recalled later, the players were standing around on the sideline wondering what would happen next when the official came over and told them to send their captain out for the coin flip. That, Unitas said, was the first the players had ever heard of overtime.

New York won the toss and received the kickoff of the first overtime game in NFL history, but the Giants were forced to punt, giving the Colts the ball at the 20. From there, Unitas continued the precision he had shown on the last drive of regulation, moving downfield in 13 plays to get into scoring position. As Ameche plunged into the end zone from a yard away, the Colts had the championship, 23-17, and the NFL had its benchmark game.

There are almost countless reasons why this game is called the Greatest Game Ever Played, not least of which was the quality of the play. Twelve future hall-of-famers played in the game, most notably Unitas and Colts receiver Raymond Berry, who set a still-standing Championship Game record with 12 receptions. The coaching staffs were legendary, too, with Baltimore head coach Weeb Ewbank and New York assistants Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi all eventually getting enshrined in the hall of fame. An estimated 45 million people watched the game coast to coast, a number that would have been much higher if the New York and Baltimore markets had not been blacked out under NFL rules at the time. And most notably, it remains the only NFL Championship Game decided in overtime.

Highlights of the game, if you don't mind the "Rocky" song

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