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1958 Colts remember the 'Greatest Game'  

By Tom Barnidge

(Editor’s Note: Forty-four years later, it’s still known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” This story, on the 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, is reprinted from the Official Super Bowl XXXIII Game Program.)

Forty years after Alan Ameche lowered his head, squared his shoulders, and dived through the early evening chill of December in New York, the 1958 NFL Championship Game remains the most celebrated chapter in pro football lore. The Baltimore Colts' fullback had barely landed in the New York Giants' end zone, securing a 23-17 overtime victory, when the contest was described unabashedly as the "Greatest Game Ever Played."

Never mind that it featured 5 lost fumbles and 1 interception. Or that the Colts squandered a 14-3 lead. Nor did it matter that Colts kicker Steve Myhra missed a 31-yard field-goal attempt, was granted a reprieve because of a penalty, and failed again when the Giants blocked his next attempt.

None of that mattered because something larger was at work. The elements of destiny were aligned for this game, which had a cast of characters that included 15 future Pro Football Hall of Fame members. The scene was historic Yankee Stadium, from which the game was telecast nationwide -- with the exception of New York, of all places, which was blacked out. And then there was the script: equal parts high drama and intrigue, with momentum swings, a tie score, and a sudden-death overtime -- the first of its kind in a title game.

1958 video
1958 NFL Championship Game

The 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants.
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A tribute to former Baltimore Colts QB Johnny Unitas.
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• The NFL Century: Johnny Unitas: 1956-1973
• The NFL Century: Dec. 28, 1958: A legend is born

Even the players were mesmerized by the day’s events.

“When the game ended in a tie,” Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas remembers, “we were standing on the sidelines waiting to see what came next. All of a sudden, the officials came over and said, ‘Send the captain out. We’re going to flip a coin to see who will receive.’ That was the first we heard of the overtime period.”

From the perspective of four decades later, Colts wide receiver Raymond Berry shares another admission: “The significance of that game was lost on us. Most of us were in our early twenties at the time. We weren’t into understanding history. But that game was a turning point for the league in terms of the impact it had on the viewing public.”

Some contend that the modern NFL was born on December 28, 1958. It was born of heroic performances by marquee players bathed in the national spotlight and conveniently transmitted by network television to the living rooms of a new generation of fans.

Standing squarely at the center of this watershed event were the remarkable Baltimore Colts, who hardly expected to command the nation’s attention when they reported to training camp that season.

The 1958 Colts, who opened for business in Baltimore only five seasons earlier, were an unlikely mix of free-agent castoffs, early-round draft picks, blossoming young talent and battle-scarred veterans. They had displayed uncommon poise while beginning the previous season with victories over the Lions, Bears, and Packers. And then they promptly had self-destructed with successive losses to the Lions, Packers and Steelers .

The 1957 season had, in fact, provided Colts fans with a crash course in promise and disappointment. By Week 11, the club owned a 7-3 record and needed just one victory in two games to claim a playoff berth. Back-to-back losses to the 49ers and Rams left Baltimore with a 7-5 record and third place in the Western Conference. It was a bitter taste that lasted through the offseason.

By 1958, coach Weeb Ewbank was in the fifth year of his announced five-year championship plan, but thanks to a combined record of 20-27-1, he hardly was secure in his first NFL head-coaching assignment. Stories still circulated of how he was nearly dismissed in 1956, when general manager Don Kellett, demonstrating a distinctly curious management style, surveyed a sampling of veteran players for their assessments of the head coach.

“He was asking some of us if the coach should be fired,” defensive tackle Art Donovan recalls in wonderment, “and I turned to him and said, ‘You’re asking me, a player, if the coach should be fired? What are you, crazy?’ I told him to give the guy a chance. Weeb still had two years left on his contract.”

If any player embodied the spirit of the Colts, it was Donovan, a bigger-than-life defensive tackle who had played without distinction for three previous teams before landing in Baltimore, where he proceeded to carve out a Hall of Fame career. Famous for his ravenous intake of cold cuts, his city-boy fear of furry creatures, and a nervous stomach that caused him to vomit before every game he played, Donovan was the most unmistakable character in the Colts’ locker room. He was a 300-pound man who struggled constantly to fit into Ewbank’s 270-pound weigh-in demand -- he once gave up baloney and beer as his weight-loss plan -- and was both a favorite of teammates and a frequent target of pranks.

Baltimore Colts FB Alan Ameche rushes into the end zone and history books. 
Baltimore Colts FB Alan Ameche rushes into the end zone and history books.  

Players still talk about the night in training camp when a dead groundhog mysteriously found its way into Donovan's bed. Shortly thereafter, a blood-curdling scream and a stream of expletives followed his hulking frame as he set out in search of another place to sleep. The next morning, calmer and cooler, the huge defensive tackle reported for practice and opened his locker, where the same groundhog, hanging from a rope, greeted him at eye-level. Donovan nearly trampled an equipment man as he ran out of the room.

“We were rich in characters on that team,” Berry says, “and I think I understand better now than I did then that the chemistry of a football team -- the varied personalities -- is extremely important to a winning atmosphere.”

It was a simpler time in pro football, which promised neither fame nor fortune to its participants. Players tackled their jobs with different mindsets than they would in later years.

“We played the game because we liked it,” defensive end Don Joyce says. “We played one year at a time, and we played gung-ho. If we got hurt, we figured we’d just go out and get a real job. It’s not like now, where players want to play ten years and make their fortune.”

Camaraderie was part of the allure, and it surfaced in postgame parties at players’ homes and at local watering holes after practice. For the Colts, especially, locker-room horseplay was a part of the bond that brought the players together.

Tackle Jim Parker, a gentle giant, frequently was a victim. On the field, he played with a controlled rage that enabled him to manhandle the best defenders in the game. Off the field, he looked warily into his locker after practices for fear of what he would find. Chicken feet. Crawling animals. Live snakes.

“He’d go through his clothes and find something moving,” says teammate Lenny Lyles, “and he’d jump all over the place.”

Even Gino Marchetti, a no-nonsense defensive end who was bound for the Hall of Fame, found time for the fraternity-style humor that characterized the Colts.

“One day after practice we were fooling around,” he says, “and Carl Taseff wanted to get Ameche. So he filled a bucket of water, and waited around the corner until I signaled him that Alan was coming. So here I see Weeb Ewbank, all dressed up to go downtown to do his TV show, and just as he walks through the door, I give Carl the signal.

“The funniest part was watching how Carl tried to chase after the water and catch it in the bucket before it hit Weeb.”

The Baltimore Colts had characters, all right. But what they had discovered by 1958 is that they also had some football talent.

“I started with the Colts in 1954,” tight end Jim Mutscheller says, “and I could see that more things were falling in place each season. We started out with a good defense, and we had a good draft in 1955 [Ameche, Dick Szymanski, L.G. Dupre, and George Preas]. Then we picked up Unitas and drafted Lenny Moore. And we got some blockers on the line. By 1958, it just seemed that it was our time.

“We had a lot of good guys on that roster. Donovan had been in combat in the Pacific in the Second World War. Marchetti had seen duty at the Battle of the Bulge. We had guys who had life experiences, plus they were great football players.”

Ewbank’s foremost asset, Berry insists, was his knack at sizing up players. “His ability to spot talent was unbelievable,” Berry says. “In some cases, our careers depended on that. Unitas and Berry are good examples -- a free agent and a twentieth-round draft choice. He saw something in us that others didn’t.”

Another of Ewbank’s strengths was his knowledge of the defensive line, which he previously had coached for legendary Paul Brown in Cleveland. It was Ewbank’s “keying defense” that suddenly enabled Donovan, heretofore a journeyman player, to utilize his surprising quickness by reading the direction of offensive blocks. And it was Ewbank’s decision to move Marchetti from offensive tackle to defensive end that anchored one of the great defensive fronts in history.

“People forget,” Berry says, “but the real backbone of our team was defense.”

Of course, the ’58 Colts offense was difficult to ignore. With Unitas, Moore and Ameche in the backfield and with Berry and Mutscheller at ends, Baltimore lit up scoreboards throughout the league. There was a 51-38 victory over Chicago and a 56-0 verdict over Green Bay. The Colts defeated Detroit 40-14, Washington 35-10, and Los Angeles 34-7. By season’s end, Baltimore led the league in scoring with 381 points -- an average of more than 31 points per game.

“Weeb prepared us well,” Unitas says. “There never was any doubt as to what the game plan was. But when we got out on the field, he never bothered me as far as play calling. That was pretty much up to me.”

Unitas had a rare talent for dissecting defenses, which he soon discovered were “creatures of habit.” When he recognized the telltale signs of a blitz, Unitas checked off to a running play. When he identified a receiver with single coverage, he exploited the situation.

“Another thing,” Parker says, “he’d ask us in the huddle what plays we thought would work. He’d look at me and say, ‘Can we go over your hole and get six yards?’ If I’d say, ‘Yes,’ then that’s where he’d go.”

“John was the kind of quarterback who could find a weakness in a defense that he could take advantage of,” Mutscheller says. “He’d sit in the pocket and never panic. If a play didn’t work, he’d take off and run. And he didn’t run around in the backfield trying to evade a tackler. He was always gaining yardage.”

The Colts were sitting atop the Western Conference standings, en route to their sixth victory without a defeat, when they collided with their first real hurdle of the 1958 season. During a lopsided victory over the Packers, Unitas surveyed the field, broke free from traffic, and took off downfield. Seconds after he was tackled, while still lying on the ground, he winced as defensive back John Symank landed on him, knees first. Unitas was helped off the field with three cracked ribs and a punctured lung.

One week later, the Colts suffered their first defeat -- to the same team they would meet seven weeks later in the NFL title game. Donovan remembers it clearly.

“In the last minute of the game,” he says, fairly spitting out the words, “as the Giants let the clock run out, they were standing across the line of scrimmage laughing at us. I said, ‘You rotten bastards,’ and I picked up some stones on the field and started throwing them at them. Man, I wanted another shot at them.”

One week later, with George Shaw at quarterback, the Colts rebounded to defeat the Bears 17-0 and run their record to 7-1. “We had confidence in Shaw,” Berry says. “He was the starter before Unitas came along.” But the players weren’t fooling themselves.

They knew they needed Unitas.

“I don’t know how the doctors felt about my injury,” Unitas says. “But there wasn’t any doubt in my mind. I was going to be back that season.”

On November 23 -- Week 9 of the 12-week season -- Unitas squeezed inside a protective harness to face the Los Angeles Rams. A piece of molded aluminum, covered with a quarter inch of sponge-rubber padding, was fitted to his chest from his sternum to his spinal cord. It was connected at the top and bottom to his shoulder and hip pads. He looked as if he were outfitted for war.

But teammates who worried about how their quarterback would function with a nine-pound breastplate strapped to his pads quickly discovered that their concerns were misplaced. On the Colts’ first play from scrimmage, Unitas connected with Moore for a 58-yard touchdown pass. He finished with 218 passing yards in a 34-7 victory.

“One thing about John,” Parker says, “he never complained about how he felt.”

“He was tough as nails,” Joyce adds, “and not just that time. I remember a game against the Bears where he was wearing a helmet that was missing a piece of padding on the front. Somebody hit him in the crown of the helmet, and it slammed down and peeled his nose back. He just taped himself up and kept on playing like nothing happened.”

By the tenth week of the season, the Colts were flying high. At 8-1, they needed just one victory to clinch the Western Conference championship and a berth in the NFL title game. Berry remembers the setting.

“The team was gathered and ready to go out for the kickoff,” he says, “when Weeb said, ‘Okay, all of the coaches are going to leave now because Gino [Marchetti] has a few words he wants to say.’ As soon as the coaches left, Gino stepped to the front of the room and said, ‘Uh ... we’ve got a party at my house after the game. It’s ten dollars for couples, five dollars stag. If we win this game, we’ll have a whole lot more fun at the party. Okay, let’s go.’

“Jim Mutscheller and I were standing at the back of the room, and we turned to look at each other at the same moment as if to say, ‘Can you believe what we just heard?’”

Thus inspired, the Colts fell behind 27-7 by halftime.

“But that,” says Berry, “turned out to be the most memorable game any of us played. At halftime, we told the defense, ‘Shut ’em out and we’ll score twenty-eight. That’s exactly what happened.”

Unitas passed for a touchdown and ran for another. Berry finished with 9 receptions for 114 yards. And Moore broke free for a 73-yard touchdown run that proved to be the deciding score in a 35-27 victory. It was 1 of 14 touchdowns Moore scored that year.

“Lenny Moore was, in my mind, the greatest offensive player I ever saw,” Mutscheller says. “I think everybody on the team felt that way. He could make moves, whether running with the ball or after catching it, that nobody else could match.”

With a spot secured in the championship game, the Colts coasted through their last two games, reserves seeing increased playing time in season-ending losses to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Giants finished in a first-place tie with Cleveland in the Eastern Conference. In a playoff game, the Giants used a suffocating defense to earn a 10-0 victory and a berth in the title game.

“We wanted to play the Giants because they’d beaten us,” Donovan says. “We all rooted for the Giants in the playoff game.”

“The Giants were cocky,” Marchetti says. “I remember reading that [quarterback] Charlie Conerly had said after our first game that the Giants ‘outgutted’ us. That article was on our bulletin board weeks before the championship game.”

As if further inspiration was required, Ewbank saved one of the most memorable speeches of his coaching career for the championship game. He gathered the players in the locker room and addressed them one by one.

“Now, you ought to know that Weeb gave some lousy pep talks through the years,” Marchetti says. “But the one he gave before the championship game was something you couldn’t forget. He went down the roster and talked about each guy, about how he had been released or traded or insulted by some other team.

“I remember he said to Art Donovan, ‘You tried out at Cleveland and they didn’t want you. Nobody in the NFL wanted you. But we took a chance, and you proved to be great tackle. Now let’s show everybody what they missed.’ And then he said, ‘Raymond Berry, everybody in the league thought you were too slow, too small. They said you’d never make it in the NFL. Let’s let ’em see how wrong they were.’ And on and on he went, down the line.”

A two-week layoff since their last game and the pressure of their first championship appearance showed in the Colts’ performance. Unitas fumbled on Baltimore’s first offensive series. Then he was intercepted. When the Colts finally advanced close enough to try field goals, Myhra misfired on successive attempts.

In spite of that, the Colts battled to a 14-3 halftime lead on the strength of Ameche’s 2-yard touchdown run and Berry’s 15-yard touchdown reception. And with the score unchanged when the Colts threatened again late in the third quarter, it seemed as if the game might turn into a blowout. The Colts had first-and-goal at New York’s 3-yard line.

“The most awful feeling was when we were trying to score down there near the Giants’ goal line,” Unitas says. “We were on frozen turf. We tried running twice to the right side, and that didn’t work. I tried to sneak, but couldn’t get any footing.

“On fourth down, I called a play that had Ameche throwing the ball, but he didn’t hear the full play call. He thought it was just a plain pitchout. You look at the films and you see Mutscheller standing in the end zone all by himself. Ameche could have thrown the ball behind his back and had a touchdown, but ... ”

Ameche was tackled on the 5, and the Giants took over on downs.

Almost immediately, the Giants got back in the game. Conerly completed a pass to Kyle Rote on third-and-2 from the Giants’ 13-yard line, and Rote raced to the Colts’ 25, where safety Andy Nelson caught him and stripped the ball. But Giants halfback Alex Webster scooped up the ball and advanced to Baltimore’s 1 before Taseff forced him out of bounds.

“Webster trailed the play for fifty yards,” Berry says, in admiration. “It was one of the greatest second efforts I’ve ever seen.”

Two plays later, when Mel Triplett scored on a 1-yard run, the margin was narrowed to 14-10. Momentum had begun to turn.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Conerly connected with end Bob Schnelker for 46 yards. Then Frank Gifford scored on a 15-yard reception, dragging cornerback Milt Davis with him into the end zone. With 14:07 left to play, the unthinkable had occurred. The Giants, once in danger of being routed, had a 17-14 lead.

Ordell Braase, the Colts’ second-year defensive end, still remembers the thoughts that were dancing in his head. “I was thinking, ‘If we blow this one, it’s a damn shame.’ If you look at the stats, you can see that we dominated that game.”

Baltimore breathed a flicker of life when it advanced within field-goal range. But Bert Rechichar, the Colts’ long-field-goal specialist, was short on a 46-yard attempt that would have tied the score. Opportunity raised its head again when the Giants fumbled on their next possession. But the Colts failed to capitalize when consecutive quarterback sacks put them in a punting situation.

And, finally, it came down to this: The Giants could run out the clock if they converted their final first-down opportunity. On third-and-4, Conerly handed to Gifford, who was met near the first-down marker by Marchetti, then linebacker Don Shinnick, then defensive tackle Gene (Big Daddy) Lipscomb. When the play ended, Gifford was inches short of a first down, and Marchetti was being helped off the field with a broken ankle.

“They wanted to take me to the locker room,” Marchetti says, “but I wanted to see the end of the game. I told them to put me down. What the hell, it had taken me seven years to get there, so I wanted to see how the game turned out.”

The Giants punted to the Colts’ 14-yard line, where, with 1:56 left to play, Unitas gathered the offense for one final assault.

“I remember trotting onto the field for that last series and thinking, ‘We’ve blown this game,’” Berry says. “We should have put the Giants away much earlier.”

Two pass attempts fell incomplete, but an 11-yard completion to Moore kept the possession alive. After an incompletion, Unitas connected with Berry on successive completions of 25, 15, and 22 yards. That brought the Colts to New York’s 13-yard line. Myhra, who had converted only 4 of 10 field-goal attempts during the season, was good from 20 yards with seven seconds left. The score was 17-17.

“I was lying on the sidelines when the game ended in a tie,” Marchetti says. “You could hear guys asking, ‘What do we do now?’”

The Giants won the coin toss and elected to receive, but when Conerly’s third-down run came up two feet short of a first down, they were forced to punt. Unitas brought the Colts’ offense onto the field at their 20-yard line, as 64,185 fans shook the rafters at Yankee Stadium.

“It seemed like everybody in the whole city of New York was in that stadium,” Parker says.

Two first downs moved the ball to Baltimore’s 41. Then Unitas was sacked. But on third-and-14, Unitas found Berry for a 21-yard gain to the Giants’ 42. The play worked so well, he called it again.

“But when John got to the line of scrimmage,” Braase says, “he noticed that [linebacker] Sam Huff was drifting back to his right to drop into pass coverage. So Unitas checked off and handed to Ameche. That was so typical of John -- to spot a weakness and take advantage.”

Ameche gained 22 yards to the Giants’ 20.

Three plays later, with anticipation hanging in the air, panic swept through the NBC broadcast booth as television screens went blank across the country. Somehow, the broadcast had come unplugged. A plaintive call to field judge Chuck Sweeney resulted in a commercial time out as technicians frantically restored the connection.

Meanwhile, down on the field, Unitas was about to defy convention with a daring cross-field pass from the Giants’ 7-yard line. Nothing dangerous about it, Unitas claims, recalling the details as if the game were played yesterday.

“Cliff Livingston, the strongside linebacker, took an inside position on Mutscheller. Emlen Tunnell, the safety, took a position even more inside than Livingston. The only person I had to be concerned about was Lindon Crow, who was covering Lenny Moore. All I had to do was raise up and loft the ball to Mutscheller and make a hero out of him. But he decided to fall out of bounds at the one instead of going over the goal line. I guess it was slippery over there.”

Seconds later, as night fell on New York, Ameche took a handoff from Unitas and dived 1 yard into history.

“When I came off the field,” Joyce says, “it was starting to get dark. The bunting hanging from the walls was flapping in the breeze and discarded hot dog wrappers were blowing across the field. I turned to one of our coaches, John Bridgers, and said, ‘Take a look at this. Here’s a scene we’ll never forget. We’re world champions standing here in Yankee Stadium.’ It was almost like a war scene.”

“In the last forty years,” Marchetti adds, “I must have met 500,000 people who claimed they were at that game. They say, ‘I saw you there on the stretcher at the end of the game.’ But I never get tired of talking about it. You never get tired of talking about an important event.”

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