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'Greatest game' launches a league

Good timing - and a great finish - turn the NFL Championship into the stuff of legends.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 1999


Truth be told, there have been more memorable NFL games -- Green Bay's "Ice Bowl" victory against Dallas, the New York Jets' Super Bowl III triumph against Baltimore, Chicago's 73-0 demolition of Washington for the 1940 championship ...

There have been more dramatic deciding moments -- Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception" for Pittsburgh, "The Catch" by Dwight Clark of the 49ers, Scott Norwood's wide-right kick for Buffalo ...

There have been more remarkable drives -- pick any of the dozens engineered by John Elway, Joe Montana, Dan Marino ...

But the Baltimore Colts' 23-17 victory against the New York Giants on Dec. 28, 1958, at Yankee Stadium, the Giants' home turf then, was the first -- and still the only -- NFL championship decided in sudden-death overtime.

It was on national television.

It caught the fancy of a nation just beginning to pay attention to pro football.

It is where the reputation of Johnny Unitas was born. Unitas, drafted in the ninth round out of Louisville by Pittsburgh in 1955, released during training camp and, after a year of $6-a-game semipro ball, signed with Baltimore as a backup quarterback.

It is called -- with some justification in the NFL's mind -- "the greatest football game ever played."

The pro game was only beginning to rival the colleges' hold on the nation's football interest. Its championship games weren't necessarily sellouts (although this one had an overflow crowd of 64,185). Teams still contracted with local TV stations to broadcast their games; NBC had paid $100,000 in 1955 to televise the NFL championship; the league's first multimillion-dollar contract for regular-season games was still four years away.

But this championship made a nation sit up and take notice. For the first time, "sudden death" became part of the NFL lexicon.

"All of a sudden," said Roone Arledge, longtime head of ABC Sports, "the networks woke up and saw that they had to have football."

For most of its first 60 minutes the game was unremarkable. Then Unitas drove the Colts into field-goal range in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter and they tied it with 7 seconds remaining. Unitas followed that by guiding the Colts to the Giants' doorstep in overtime before Alan Ameche ran 1 yard through a huge hole and into history.

New York took a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter on Frank Gifford's touchdown catch. On the Colts' next two possessions Steve Myhra missed a field goal and they punted. New York could run out the clock.

On third and 4 at the Giants 40 with 2:30 to play, Gifford swept to the right. Gino Marchetti and Don Shinnick tackled him. Fourth down. "We only needed 4 inches," Giants lineman Jack Stroud said in The Game of Their Lives. "We would have run through a brick wall at that point."

The Giants punted. With 1:56 to go, Unitas started at his 14. Eleven yards to Lenny Moore, then 25, 15 and 22 yards to Raymond Berry. Then Myhra rushed on and tied it with a 20-yard field goal.

"John knew where to attack the defense," Giants linebacker Sam Huff said. "He found a weakness and exploited it to perfection. "Unitas to Berry, Unitas to Berry, Unitas to Berry.' It still rings in my ears."

Said Unitas: "When we tied the game, we were all standing around scratching our heads, waiting for someone to make a decision what to do. ... They sent me out for the flip of the coin. All they told me was, "Get the ball if you can.' "

The Giants won the toss and received.

"We were standing around saying, "If we get John the ball we're going to win the game,' " Colts defensive tackle Art Donovan said. "It was that simple."

Three plays gained 9 yards and the Giants punted. Baltimore started from its 20-yard line.

It took Unitas 12 plays -- one a 21-yard pass to Berry on third and 15, another an Ameche draw play for 23 yards -- to get to the 1. Then Ameche ran untouched through a huge hole on the right side of the line and into the end zone.

"The guys made the plays; I was more of a catalyst," Unitas said. "I just called the plays. They did the work. I just had to stand back there and direct them."

The game was blacked out in New York but shown everywhere else by NBC. In Baltimore, a loose cable knocked the game off the air during the overtime. Screens were blank for 21/2 minutes during the Colts' final drive -- but the network's luck wasn't all bad. A timeout was called on the field. By the time Ameche scored, the game was back on the air.


-- Information from The Game of Their Lives by Dave Klein was used in this report.

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