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Dawn of a New Era

The most important game in NFL history took place in the cathedral of baseball

With Dec. 28 marking the 60th anniversary of "The Greatest Game Ever Played," here is legendary sportswriter Jerry Izenberg's account of it, which originally appeared in "The 1950s" edition of The Stadium magazine series produced by the Yankees in 2008.

The thing about history is that it rarely takes shape in the think tanks of Madison Avenue or the offices over at Central Casting. Mostly it comes without ruffles and flourishes. It leaps out of an invisible cocoon and smacks the world in the face with the kind of stunning result that demands attention.

And so it was with the single most important professional football game ever played … two improbable armies in shoulder pads, playing a football game for all of America to see in the most famous baseball stadium in the world.

The events that led to the Colts' meeting with the Giants in the NFL's first-ever sudden death game - the game that put pro football on America's sports map - were so dramatic they formed the ticket that brought professional football a stage it never lost.

For openers, consider the two teams. Off their credentials, the New York football Giants should never have made it that far. But unadulterated luck rode their shoulders and four-leaf clovers and horseshoes might as well have filled their playbook. Their season was one improbable event after another.

From training camp forward, the doubts were enormous. They had the team speed of a gang of herniated snails. Yards never seemed to come in double digits. Quarterback Charlie Conerly was 37 years old; Alex Webster, the tough-yards running back, was banged up; and Frank Gifford, who may be the most versatile man ever to play for the Giants, was injured so often and so seriously that his greatest asset that year was courage.

They had so many problems that Vince Lombardi, who coached the offense, said, "If anybody told me two months ago we'd be [in the title game], I'd ask where he got his opium."

The team that really was supposed to represent the Eastern Conference lived in Cleveland. It was coached by Paul Brown and led by Jimmy Brown, who was surrounded with the preseason class of the East. It had reached the league title game the year before with a record of 9-2-1. As the end of the 1958 season neared, the Giants were still chasing the Browns. It took an incredible 48-yard-plus field goal in the teeth of a swirling snow by a limping Pat Summerall that forced a playoff for the Giants to catch them, beat them and find themselves in a title game that nobody expected them to win.

The Baltimore Colts, on the other hand, were lucky to be anywhere at all for a while. Their town has twice lost franchises, but so loves the game that even over one two-year interruption from 1951 to 1952, it produced the only pro football marching band that had no team for which to play. These unpaid musicians practiced every week, marched in every parade from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., and waited for the dream they chased to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality.

In 1953, when the Colts came home in the wake of the bankruptcy of the Dallas franchise that had stolen them away, the band and the town never missed a victorious beat.

The title shot they coveted came as a result of the metamorphosis of a "gift" - a virtually unnoticed quarterback who went from playing sandlot games for six bucks a pop around Pittsburgh with a neighborhood team called the Bloomfield Rams to being accepted as a Baltimore icon named Johnny U. How did he get his shot?

"When you are offered a quarterback for nothing," the, Baltimore general manager Don Kellett once said with obvious logic, "you sign him."

Johnny Unitas, the triggerman, was surrounded with tremendous offensive weapons: fullback Alan Ameche and receivers Raymond Berry, Jim Mutscheller and Lenny Moore. On defense, the Colts had stars like Gino Marchetti, Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb and Art Donovan, whose father refereed the famous 1938 Joe Louis-Max Schmeling heavyweight title bout at Yankee Stadium. And for a "body guard," the quarterback had future Hall of Famer and offensive tackle Jim Parker.

The Giants might have lacked offensive speed and explosive weapons, but that wasn't their game. They were playing in a town where the cry "De-fense … de-fense … de-fense" had become a kind of civic oath of allegiance to their standard-bearers. It was not uncommon on Mondays in Manhattan to see the expense-account set moving salt and pepper shakers and bread trays around the table at Toots Shor's or Mike Manuche's to demonstrate how the Giants defense had operated the day before.

And it was, indeed, positively ferocious with a front four of Andy Robustelli, Jim Katcavage, Dick Modzelewski and Rosey Grier, and an equally aggressive corps of linebackers led by Sam Huff in the middle.

The Colts, despite having lost to the Giants on Nov. 9, were favored, and all day Saturday on the eve of the game, their supporters roamed the streets of midtown Manhattan shouting, "Go, Colts, Go," singing the Baltimore Colts marching song and blowing long, tubular blue horns in the ears of anyone foolish enough not to flee. They had come in surprisingly large numbers to celebrate a championship. Before they left, they would become full-fledged witnesses to history.

A crowd of 64,185 packed Yankee Stadium on a frigid Sunday, and around the nation a whole army of potentially new fans sat in front of their television sets. Nobody had ever televised an NFL title game coast-to-coast before. When this one was over, pro football would have crashed into the 20th century spotlight never to leave it.

At the start, the Colts offensive line, led by Parker, wrapped Unitas inside a steel cocoon the Giants couldn't penetrate. The home side did manage a first-quarter 36-yard field goal by Summerall, but the Giants' offense was stymied and, in fact, helped stymie itself. Twice, Gifford fumbled. The first set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Ameche; the second paid off for Baltimore when Unitas, with all day to throw, arched one 15 yards to Berry to make it 14-3 at halftime.

When the teams returned after intermission, it didn't take long for even the most faithful of New York fans to surrender to the notion that the Giants' surprising run toward glory had come to an end. Unitas continued to pick the Giants apart. He drove his Colts down the field until Baltimore had a third down on the Giants' 1, and the New York defense could almost feel both the goal posts and disaster scraping against its shoulder blades.

Suddenly, the air was colder and the sky a dull dishwater gray. A threnody tinged with desperate hope sounded across the storied old stadium:

"De-fense … de-fense … de-fense."

By now, the field was frozen, and the slippery turf seemed to function as a 12th man for the Giants. Unitas' receivers could not make the cuts they wanted. Ameche could not find traction in the unforgiving ground. Unitas sent him into the trenches and a wall of Gents wrapped him up for no gain.

On fourth down, the Colts did a startlingly untypical thing. Unitas handed off to Ameche, who rolled to his right and pulled to pass. The Giants dropped him on the 5, and once again the sound of the crowd was heavily larded with hope.

Three plays later, Conerly hit Kyle Rote, who made an over-the-shoulder catch. Once a great freewheeling runner and receiver at Southern Methodist University, Rote was hampered with damaged knees. After rambling 62 yards downfield, he was caught from behind and fumbled on the Colts' 25. But the strange alliance with the unexpected that had marked so much of the Giants' season was there once again.

Like a greased pig at a county fair, the bouncing ball eluded everyone until it inexplicably seemed to leap into the hands of Webster, who ran it down to the 1. Mel Triplett then hurdled the massed Baltimore defense for the Giants' first touchdown. Suddenly the home team had made it 14-10.

The Stadium actually seemed to rock as the noise hit an ear-splitting crescendo. The crowd was back in it. So were the Giants, who would take the lead, 17-14, on Conerly's 15-yard touchdown strike to Gifford.

All the Giants had to do was hang on, and it seemed they would, the way the defense rose up.

But then as quickly as the magic resurfaced it seemed to vaporize with momentum shifting in the wake of a confrontation that bordered on the vindictive. On a single emotionally charged play, Huff slung Berry out of bounds and Baltimore coach Weeb Ewbank ran over and punched the Giants' linebacker in the neck. Huff hit back. In that instant, the heat of emotion had turned almost primitive.

With 2:30 left, the Giants needed just three yards for the first down with which they could run out the clock. They didn't get it. The Colts stuffed them and forced a punt. In less than two minutes, Unitas drove them from his 14 to the Giants' 13, and Steve Myhra kicked the tying field goal with seven ticks remaining on the clock.

What followed broke a lot hearts on both sides of the Hudson River. The Giants came within a foot of a first down on the opening overtime possession. They punted. Unitas moved the Colts 80 yards in 13 plays with Ameche getting the last one - the biggest single yard in NFL history - for a 23-17 victory.

The largest football audience in television history to that point saw it all and moved the sport into a new era from which it never retreated.

"From that game forward," the late NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle once said, "our fan base just kept on growing. We didn't know it then, but we owe both franchises a huge debt even today."

Jerry Izenberg is columnist emeritus for The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey. This article originally appeared in the 1950s issue of The Stadium magazine (2008).

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