Football Explained: The Greatest Game Ever Played

New York -- 45 million Americans sat in silent awe as Alan "The Horse" Ameche galloped into the end zone, ending the 1958 NFL Championship game. A game some are already calling "The Greatest Game Ever Played".

The match pitted the West Division Champion Baltimore Colts against the East Division Champion New York Giants. Jim Lee Howell’s Giants were playoff tested. A week earlier, Howell’s Giants shut down Paul Brown’s Brown powerhouse in a playoff to determine the winner of the deadlocked East Division. The Giants won in dominant fashion, 10-0, behind a stifling defense. Defensive coordinator Tom Landry’s seven maulers, aligned in a radical formation he tersely refers to as the "4-3", clobbered reigning MVP Jim Brown. Holding the colorful power-back to just 8 yards on 7 carries. This reporter thinks all those slow strolls to the huddle weren’t just gamesmanship this time.

The Colts, led by scrappy young signal caller Johnny Unitas, entered Sunday the heavy favorites. The former Bloomfield Ram and contract hardhat never need worry about carrying a lunchbox again. Just two short years after battling his way up from the semipros, Unitas is the toast of American sports. The Lithuanian Launcher, the kid with the golden arm, capped his finest season as a pro with a masterful showing. Unitas finished 26 of 40 for 361 yards, but if few remember his stats, fewer still will forget his heroics.

The game started in sloppy fashion. Second string quarterback Don Heinrich started for the Giants, part of Howell’s strategy to test the Colts before subbing in veteran stalwart Charlie Conerly. The Heinrich led Giants recorded a three and out. Not to be outdone, Unitas fumbled away the Colt’s second snap. Giants’ defensive back Jim Patton recovered. It was a showdown of screwups in the house Ruth built, as Heinrich fumbled, the Colts took possession and two plays later Unitas connected with Lindon Crow. Unfortunately for Unitas, Crow plays for the Giants.

Things picked up after Howell subbed-in "Roach" Conerly. Connerly led the G-Men to a first quarter lead. Pat Summerall, a well spoken kid out of Arkansas, stung a 36 yard field goal to put New York up 3-0. It was the last lead they would see until the 4th. Their demise began at the slippery hands of left halfback Frank Gifford. Gifford, enjoying a comparatively watertight season after fumbling 9 times in 1957, put the ball on the turf twice in the second quarter. Gifford’s flubs and Conerly’s rust kept New York’s offense quiet for the remainder of the half.

As the hometown Giants sputtered, Weeb Ewbank’s visiting Colts staked a commanding 14-3 lead. Unitas, Ameche and the dazzling Raymond Berry sliced through Landry’s vaunted defense. After the loss Sam Huff confessed "We didn’t have a defense for Unitas." At halftime, some forlorn Empire State fans feared this Championship was all over but the crying.

Offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi thought different. Famously, following a 0-5 sleepwalking through the preseason, Lombardi rallied the Giants with a kegger at Bear Mountain Inn. Facing a similarly sober lot in the locker room, Lombardi delivered with his customary fire, brimstone and brilliant play calling.

The Giants clawed back within 4 following a Mel Triplett touchdown rush. And just in time, Landry’s defense began finding holes in the Colts offensive line. Led by "Wanda", "Meg" and "Sarah" linebackers, Harland Svare, Huff and Bill Svodoba, the Giants shut down the Colts offense, sacking Unitas 4 times. Early in the 4th, Gifford put New York ahead with a 15 yard touchdown reception. The two sides continued to battle to a stalemate, but time sided with the Giants.

Destiny sided with Johnny U and the Baltimore Colts. With the Giants driving, 3rd and 3 on the Colts 43, Gifford swept left. With most of the Colts defense reading pass, only defensive end Gino Marchetti stood between Gifford and the first down; the Giants and almost certain victory. Marchetti tackled Gifford 3…4 ya—Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb piled on, accidentally breaking Marchetti’s ankle. "I’d have cried if I wasn’t Gino Marchetti." Play is interrupted as Marchetti is loaded onto a stretcher. When play resumes, officials spot the ball inches short of the first down. Gifford is sure he made it. Marchetti is busy bargaining with medical staff on the sideline "Wait a minute. I played on some pretty shitty teams and it took me awhile to get here so I’d like to see the end of it." The Giants punt.

Baltimore starts its drive at its own 14. Two plays in and following a Dick Modzelewski sack, the Colts face a desperate 3rd and 14. At the snap, Unitas scrambles left, finds 3rd progression receiver Berry open free from fallen Giant DB Carl Karilivacz; passes, completes. Berry, with nothing but daylight between him and the end zone, misreads his coverage and coasts out of bounds to kill the clock, but the drive is alive.

With 7 seconds remaining, now on the Giants 13, kicker Steve Myhra, having played the whole game at outside linebacker after Leo Sanford’s injury on the second play of the game, converts the chip shot to send the game into overtime.

The Giants win the toss but their drive stalls. The Colts take the field at their 20. Mixing run and pass, the Colts offense creeps down the field. The crowd is in such a furor that someone disconnects a power cord and NBC’s national broadcast crashes. Across the land, 45 million Americans, sitting in silent awe, are treated to an unwelcome blizzard. The Colts execute two plays before NBC employee Stan Rotkiewicz bolts onto the field, delaying the game. Rotkiewicz’s not-so spontaneous stunt gives NBC enough time to reestablish connection.

Back on the air, the Colts stand at the Giants 8. Under the league’s new "sudden death" overtime rule, any score will win. Unitas confers with Ewbanks, both agree: three straight runs. On the second play, defiant, Unitas throws a strike to tight end Jim Mutscheller. Mutscheller catches, steps out of bounds at the one. Later, Mutscheller recalled "if it gets picked off it’s going 99 yards the other way. Case closed. But that was Johnny U." The next play, Alan "The Horse" Ameche gallops into the end zone, ending the 1958 NFL Championship game. The greatest game ever played. "I would rather win a game like this by a touchdown rather than a field goal." Adds Unitas "Nothing against Myhra, I had more confidence in me."

Box Score

Baltimore Colts

New York Giants

Passing

Johnny Unitas: 26/40, 361 Yards, TD, Int

Passing

Charlie Conerly: 10/14, 187 yards, TD

Don Heinrich: 2/4 13 yards

Rushing

Alan Ameche: 14 for 59 yards, 2TD

L.G. Dupre: 11 for 30 yards

Lenny Moore: 9 for 24 yards

Unitas: 4 for 26 yards

Rushing

Conerly: 2 for 5 yards

Frank Gifford: 12 for 60 yards, 2 fumbles

Phil King: 3 for -13 yards, 1 fumble

Mel Triplett: 5 for 12 yards, TD

Alex Webster: 9 for 24 yards

Receiving

Ameche: 3 for 14 yards

Berry: 12 for 178 yards, TD

Dupre: 2 for 7 yards

Moore: 5 for 99 yards

Mutscheller: 4 for 63

 

Receiving

Gifford: 3 for 14 yards, TD

MacAfee: 1 for 15 yards

Rote: 2 for 76 yards

Schnelker: 2 for 63 yards

Triplett: 2 for 15 yards

Webster: 2 for 17 yards

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