52 years ago today: 'The Best Game Ever'

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 27, 2010



(Ed Note: This article, really a review of the book "The Best Game Ever" by Mark Bowden, originally ran on June 22, 2008. We're re-running today, on Dec. 28, 2010, because it's the 52nd anniversary of what's widely regarded as greatest game in pro football history; or, at the very least, what's certainly a watershed game in the development of the sport. Bowden is probably best known as the author of "Black Hawk Down." His foray into football was an impressive work.)
 
By Kerry "The Horse" Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts wild stallion
 
The secret to great non-fiction is to build suspense around events to which your readers already know the outcome.
           
We know, for example, that the Allies secure the Normandy beachhead on D-Day. Yet in Irish historian Cornelius Ryan's influential classic, "The Longest Day," we cling to every word when British paratroopers leap from gliders with guns a-blazing and overrun German-held Pegasus Bridge minutes after midnight on June 6, 1944. It's as if the fate of the free world still hung in the balance.
 
The powerful impact of this kind of classic non-fiction is largely achieved by filling in the details of big-picture, capital-H History with the minutiae of individual human emotion. In great non-fiction we start to feel – in some distant way – what those who lived through history may have felt at the time.
           
And it's in this key area that Mark Bowden largely succeeds in "The Best Game Ever," a new account of the famous 1958 NFL championship game between the Colts and Giants from the author of "Black Hawk Down." We get a clue to what this pivotal moment in pigskin history might have felt like to key actors on the stage, such as Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Sam Huff and NFL commissioner Bert Bell.
 
"The Best Game Ever" was released in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the game. It probably won't go down as a classic sports book. It even has a number of basic factual errors – despite lengthy and detailed source notes – that should never have seen print.
 
For example, Bowden repeatedly makes errors regarding the history of the old AAFC, under the assumption the league lasted three years and not four. In one case, he writes that Cleveland's title in 1950, its first year in the NFL, was the team's fourth straight pro football title. It was Cleveland's fifth straight.
 
(Ed. note: Bowden wrote to us after reading our review to tell us that corrections to these errors would be made in future editions of the book. Seemed like a cool dude.)
 
Still, when Colts kicker Steve Myhra lines up for a 19-yard field goal to force the first overtime in NFL history, Bowden has us gobbling up every word as if they were nacho chips, eagerly anticipating the events and emotions yet to unfold in a never-before-seen "sudden death" ending.
 
Generating that kind of reaction from readers who already know the outcome is the best thing you can say about non-fiction.
 
The second best thing you can say about non-fiction is that you learned from it. And the CHFF crew, which sucks down football information like a frat boy funneling beer, was enamored by the countless little details recounted by Bowden that added rich texture to "The Best Game Ever."
 
Cold, Hard Football Facts readers – Hi Mom! – certainly know the basic story: Johnny Unitas led the Colts on a last-minute field-goal drive to knot the game at 17-17 at the end of regulation; then, in sudden death, Colts fullback Alan "The Horse" Ameche barreled in from 2 yards out to give Baltimore a 23-17 victory.
 
It was a game that effectively put the NFL on the map: it was played before one of the largest TV audiences in history to that point; it created the legend of players such as Unitas and Berry; and it laid the groundwork for the cultural phenomenon we know as the NFL today.
 
But it's the shiny gems pulled from a treasure chest of details that make "The Best Game Ever" a worthwhile read for any football fan. Put most simply, even we learned a lot from Bowden's work.
 
We learned: The 1958 title game was a clash of cultures
College football has always been propelled by a clash of cultures between institutions. Texas vs. Texas A&M, for example, pits liberal Austin against conservative College Station. Numerous college rivalries pit exclusive private schools (say, USC) against big public institutions (UCLA).
 
There is little to distinguish the culture of one pro team from another these days. In fact, there is great camaraderie even among players from different teams, a sort of country-club of rich young men. But that wasn't the case in 1958. The way Bowden reports it, the Colts-Giants title game might have been the greatest example of a college-style clash of cultures the NFL has ever offered.
 
The Giants benefitted from the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple. Their star-status was only boosted by the fact that baseball's Giants and Dodgers had just fled to California earlier that year. So, other than the Yankees, the football Giants were the only game in town – at least the only one that mattered – in 1958. Pretty boy halfback Frank Gifford was a big star off the field, linebacker Sam Huff would become one of the most widely publicized players in football history, and quarterback Charlie Conerly doubled in advertisements as the famed Marlboro Man, once the epitome of American machismo. The Giants were wined and dined at Manhattan hotspots and hung with big-city celebrities.
 
The Colts, meanwhile, were working-class grunts, playing in the relative whistle-stop town of Baltimore. Even the Colts' biggest stars held down other jobs, some of them during the season. Art "Fatso" Donovan was a liquor salesmen. Tight end Jim Mutscheller sold insurance before and after practice. And no less an icon than Johnny Unitas himself picked up an extra paycheck at Bethlehem Steel during his early playing days.
 
Ewbank drove home the message of Baltimore's working-class status in an impassioned pregame locker room speech. Writes Bowden: "The message was that they were self-made men, playing against the glamour boys of the NFL."
 
Naturally, the spunky blue-collar Colts were the people's choice.
 
"The Giants were an established power," writes Bowden, "a team beloved in New York but in the fine tradition of American sports, mostly hated in the rest of the country."
 
We learned: The Colts cheated!
The hysterical and wholly unprofessional reaction of the pigskin "pundits" over the past year to the story that New England coach Bill Belichick had filmed the signals of his opponents was one of the most shameful stories in the long, shameful history of the sports media.
 
Maybe the "pundits" should have waited to read Bowden's book.
 
According to Bowden, Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom "met with the players, apart from the coaches, swore them to secrecy, and then violated league rules by offering them substantial under-the-table incentives for victories." Rosenbloom's illegal payments, reports Bowden, doubled the payday the Colts received for winning the 1958 championship.
 
But the true cloak-and-dagger stuff took place in the days leading up to the game.
 
"You look for any edge if you can find. Any edge," writes Bowden. "In the week before, the Colts had spied on the Giants' practice from the roof of an apartment building outside the right centerfield wall (of Yankee Stadium) ... He couldn't prove it, but (Colts coach Weeb Ewbank) was certain the Giants had spied on his team, too."
 
Ewbank was also "convinced that the Giants had the locker room bugged." Just before kickoff, "he looked under the benches and then pointed at the ceiling to let the players know that he knew they were being overheard. Then he mouthed the first three plays."
 
Perhaps the character assassins of today's sports media, the wild-eyed hacks such as Gregg Easterbrook, will demand the league strip the Colts of their 1958 championship and boot Ewbank out of Canton. And, of course, we expect a full congressional investigation, Sen. Specter.
 
We learned: Colts-Giants was a star-studded affair unlike any other
Though one team might have had a higher profile, at least entering the contest, Bowden calls Colts-Giants the "greatest concentration of football talent ever assembled for a single game."
 
Football luminaries Berry, Unitas, Gifford (pictured here like Superman on the cover of SI) and Huff all played pivotal roles in the outcome of the game. Conerly, as we mentioned, was an advertising icon. But even New York's kicker and third-string quarterback were guys every football fan knows today: the kicker was famed broadcaster Pat Summerall. The third-string QB was future Congressman and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp. The Colts offense took the field with four Hall of Famers, Unitas, Berry, Lenny Moore and Jim Parker. The defense included Hall of Fame legends Gino Marchetti and Fatso Donovan.
 
In all, 12 players from 1958 title game have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
 
Including coaches and owners, 17 actors in the drama of the contest ended up in Canton. Giants owners Tim and Wellington Mara are both in the Hall of Fame, as is Ewbank. Two New York assistants that day also reached the Hall of Fame: offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi and defensive coordinator Tom Landry.
 
We learned: "The Best Game Ever" was hardly perfect
The Colts-Giants was anything but great when it began.
 
In fact, it was an incredibly sloppy game – at least early on – with seven turnovers in the first half. Gifford was the goat of the game, with two lost fumbles that led to Baltimore's first two scores.
 
New York offensive coordinator Lombardi also employed an unorthodox strategy that nobody on his team liked: he would routinely flip-flop his quarterbacks, Conerly and Don Heinrich. Conerly was one of the stars of the team, but Heinrich was given the starting nod in the 1958 championship game. He was replaced after one ineffective drive.
 
The game was even marred by a controversial call: Gifford was in tears after the game, insisting he had picked up a key first down during New York's last drive of the fourth quarter. Instead, the officials ruled him 1 yard short of a first down that would have allowed the Giants to run out the clock.
 
According to Bowden, Gifford "told every reporter who asked that he thought he had made the first down ... later he claimed that the referee, Ron Gibbs, had come up to him after the game and admitted that they had blown the call."
 
We learned: Victory goes to the daring
As is often the case in football, the game turned on pivotal coaching decisions that – with the genius of hindsight – should have gone the other way.
 
Twice in the game, once near the end of regulation and again in overtime, the Giants had a chance to keep drives alive on fourth and short. In the first case, the Giants would have been able to run out the clock and win the game 17-14 in regulation if they had converted.
 
In both instances, Giants coach Jim Lee Howell chose to punt.
 
In both instances, the Colts responded with scores, the first to tie the game at the end of regulation and the second to win the game in overtime.
 
Conventional wisdom has always been to punt in these instances. So Howell made what seemed to be the prudent decision – especially considering his team boasted the best defense in the league.
 
But as we've seen so often throughout football history, the team that makes the aggressive decision usually wins out over the team that makes the safe decision. The Colts would make a series of aggressive decisions on their game-tying drive. The Giants, however, needed a single yard after Gifford was ruled short near the end of regulation and "The Best Game Ever" would have been just another Giants championship. They opted to give up the opportunity.
 
We learned: CHFF favorite Paul Brown was a dick
Brown plays a key role in "The Best Game Ever," as Baltimore coach Ewbank's mentor.  
 
Sure, Brown is one of the great coaches in history, the face of two difference franchises (as we noted in our recent franchise rankings) and the master innovator of his or any other time. His influence, as we've also noted many times, ripples throughout the game today.
 
Bowden certainly agrees with all these assessments: "The game was growing bewilderingly complex, and awaited its first master tactician. His name was Paul Brown."
 
But Brown also had a dark side, according to Bowden, who paints him as a petty, vindictive man. "Both coaches (Brown and Ewbank) reveled in their complete control over the destinies of the bigger, more physically talented men they coached ... both Brown and Ewbank had a mean streak."
 
Brown was also described as "jealous of his assistants" and Bowden writes that Ewbank "lost several college head-coaching opportunities because Brown wouldn't release him from his contract."
 
As a head man himself, Ewbank often ridiculed star fullback Ameche, one of the heroes of the 1958 championship game (two TDs), to the point that the former Heisman Trophy winner quit playing after six seasons.
 
"It was an ugly side to the winning method Weeb had learned (under Brown) in Cleveland."
 
It sounds a lot like the charges levied against modern-day tyrant Bill Belichick. 
 
We learned: the relationship between TV and the NFL has come a long way
As the game entered overtime, fans surrounded the edge of the field and one of them – or somebody, anyway – literally pulled the plug on NBC's broadcast of the game.
 
"TV sets in millions of homes went gray," writes Bowden, right as the game reached its climax. But the NFL didn't answer to TV back then like it does today. So the game was going to continue with or without TV.
 
However, NBC executives had a plan for this situation and a man raced onto the field – "a giddy-looking young man in a flapping winter coat, gave the cops a good run."
 
He was no drunk, however. He was NBC executive Stan Rotkiewicz. The delay he caused allowed the network to fix the problem and get the final moments of "the best game ever" back on the air.
 
We learned: There were clowns in the press box back in 1958, too
The Colts held a 14-3 halftime lead, but the Giant stormed back to take a 17-14 advantage late into the fourth quarter.
 
The blown lead caused Baltimore News-Post sportswriter N.P. "Swami" Clark to "(vent) his disgust" in the press box. According to Bowden, he said loudly of the Colts, "they're going to get routed! Have you ever seen such a bunch of fucking clowns!"
 
We can only imagine how many jocks he sniffed in the post-game celebration. Talk about a clown.
 
He was not the only one: sportswriters in the fourth quarter had already voted Giants quarterback Conerly the game's MVP, only slightly jumping the gun on "the best game ever."
 
(After the comeback, the MVP award instead went to Unitas, who received a new Corvette. Despite his new-found fame, Unitas was still a working-class family man with three children, so he traded in the sports car for "a family-sized vehicle," writes Bowden.)
 
We learned: Raymond Berry is a pivotal figure in the history of football
We all know Raymond Berry is one of the great players in history, a Hall of Fame receiver best known for his obsessive dedication to the game.
 
But we didn't know what a truly self-made pro Berry was. To put it into perspective, Berry never started a single game in college (SMU). He was a 20th-round selection in 1955 – something called a "futures" pick by the Colts, who never even scouted him. He was essentially a name on a board they grabbed late in the draft, with little belief he'd ever see the light of day on an NFL field.
Yet more so than even Unitas, Huff or any of the other stars of the game, Berry is cast as the central figure in the storyline of the "Best Game Ever." He was obsessed by football, studying film of himself, his opponents and other receivers – long before it was common practice like it is today – while keeping pages upon pages of detailed notes. He lifted weights and adhered to strict training and nutrition programs, again long before they were common practice.
 
In the off-season, he would return to this Texas home, step out on a football field, and replay entire games by himself – passing routes, blocking assignments, huddles, even downtime as the defense took the field, all charted in his notes.
 
"At a time when most players had full-time jobs off the field, (Berry) was, at age twenty-two, a complete, full-time football player," writes Bowden.
 
When the Colts acquired back-up QB Johnny Unitas, Berry suddenly had a teammate at a critical position filled with the same drive to improve. The two would stay long after practice, working on routes and timing, while studying reels upon reels of film together.
 
But for all his obsessive dedication, Berry never knew if any of it mattered, writes Bowden ... until the final drive of regulation in the 1958 championship game.
 
Berry had shredded the Giants defense all day (he ended with 12 catches for 178 yards). So as the Colts were marching down field on their final drive of the fourth quarter, Giants defense coordinator Tom Landry double-teamed Berry, putting linebacker Harland Svare head up on the receiver. "The move was radical," writes Bowden. "It was designed to rattle Unitas."
 
"But the one thing the Giants' coach could not have known was that he was facing two players who were as obesssive about film study as he was. Years earlier, in one of their private film sessions, Raymond and John had seen this play."
 
They had even developed a counter-move: Berry would fake to the outside, then cut beneath the double-team provided by the cornerback, across the middle of the field.
 
As Berry lined up, he "looked over at John and their eyes briefly met. Does he remember? He guessed that the quarterback did."
 
Berry sliced across the middle and Unitas had remembered: he hit Berry in stride for a 25-yard gain. Unitas and Berry connected on the next two plays, as well, covering 65 yards on three plays in the biggest moment in the biggest game of the careers of either player.
 
"For the first time, (Berry) knew there was a moment in a game where they had triumphed for no other reason than preparation," reports Bowden. "His personality and his obsessions changed not only his own life, but those of his teammates and the Colts' organization, and ultimately the history of pro football."
 
We learned: Overtime was so foreign in 1958 that it could have worked as an itinerant California farmhand
You probably won't realize how novel the concept of overtime was in 1958 until reading "The Best Game Ever."
 
When the clock ran out on regulation, for example, the players started heading to the locker room, assuming the game was over. In retrospect, it's easy to see why: every other game in history was over at the end of regulation, no matter what the scoreboard read.
 
Writes Bowden: "Many of the players bolted for the locker room, eager to escape the mob that generally raced across the field at the end of a big game" while "Sam Huff ... figured both teams would share the winnings equally."
 
Then the officials called the players back, for a "sudden death" period.
 
"Sudden death? What the hell's he talking about?" said Huff.
 
Pat Summerall turned to Kyle Rote and said, "What happens now?"
 
"Colts safety Andy Nelson didn't know about sudden death either ... (he) was halfway to the locker room when he heard a voice behind him. 'Andy, come on back! We're going to play it out.'"
 
We learned: The Colts won because they wanted it more
According to Bowden, the news that the teams would play through "sudden death" was met with distinctly different reactions by the two teams.
 
When the gun sounded to end regulation, New York's Huff "was bone-tired and even a little happy" that the game was over. Giants quarterback Conerly turned to Gifford and said, "Wow, I can't go anymore. I can't. I just can't."
However, Baltimore's Nelson was "delighted" to play on.
 
"Unlike Huff and most of the Giants' team," writes Bowden, "(Nelson) had never played in a championship game before. He wanted to win." (The Giants won the 1956 NFL title.)
 
It was clear one team wanted it more once play resumed. The Giants won the first-ever overtime toss, but went three-and-out on their first drive. The Colts, on their first and only overtime drive, ripped off 13 plays against the demoralized Giants defense, ending with Ameche's winning touchdown.
 
Crashing in big games would become a specialty for the glamour-boy Giants after that. They were smoked by the Colts the following year, in the 1959 NFL championship game, then lost three straight title games (twice to the Packers and once to the Bears), from 1961 to 1963. The Giants got all the press clippings, it seems, but they never had the heart.
 
We learned: CHFF readers should tip their dirty John Deere ballcap to Bert Bell
Sure, the former NFL commissioner (1946-59) is in the Hall of Fame. But Bell has hardly been lionized the same way as his successor, Pete Rozelle, who led the league from 1960 to 1989, and helped bring the game to new heights.
 
But Rozelle couldn't have built the NFL without the foundation laid by Bell.
 
Bell is romanticized by Bowden – cast as someone who almost single-handedly dragged the game of pro football from out of the mire of sports circus sideshow and into the powerful entertainment medium it is today.
 
Bell was so completely in love with the game of pro football that he sacrificed the opulent lifestyle of a wealthy Philadelphia family to champion the sport.
 
"Bell was aggressively downwardly mobile," writes Bowden. "He had been born ... son of a blueblood Philadelphia Main Line family ... but along this gilded path he had discovered the gridiron, embraced its blue-collar ethic, and never looked back."
 
(The difference between Bell and the CHFF crew is that, though each is devoted to football, we have a blue-collar upbringing and would sell out you people in a heartbeat in exchange for the opulent lifestyle of Bell's birth.)
 
Bell, writes Bowden, is largely responsible for many aspects of pro football we take for granted today – and he often had to battle inward-looking owners to get them to realize the greater potential of the game.
 
Bell, for example, fought for free substitutions and the two-platoon system, both instituted in 1950. He believed the league should hold a draft in which the worst teams picked first. In fact, writes Bowden, Bell had to appear before Congress earlier in 1958 to defend his concept of the NFL draft as a way to help ensure competitiveness among the league's member teams.
 
But, particular to "The Best Game Ever," Bell was as an advocate for overtime in the event of a tie championship game. The owners were not.
 
"Bell had fought the owners for this (overtime) years ago," writes Bowden.
 
In other words, if not for Bell, the Colts-Giants game would have ended a 17-17 stalemate. Millions of sports fans around the nation would have been unfulfilled, like a woman who sleeps with a CHFF reader.
 
You could argue, then, that the 1958 championship game never would have had the impact on American sporting culture that it did, that the NFL would not have grown so quickly, had Bell not fought for overtime.
 
Naturally, Bell was ecstatic after the game. It was a triumph for the Colts. It was a triumph for the sport, as one of the largest audiences in TV history to that time had just witnessed one of the most thrilling football games ever. And it was a triumph for Bell personally.
 
After Ameche's score, "Bert Bell was beside himself," writes Bowden. "He bellowed, 'This is the greatest day in the history of professional football! ... The greatest game I have ever seen.'"
 
Sadly, this pigskin patriarch would not see his pro football child reach maturity. Bell died the following season, while attending an Eagles game, but not without making lasting contributions to the sport he loved and to "The Best Game Ever."

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