It takes effort to be considered “the greatest” of anything. Think about the people and things that frequently carry that label: Muhammad Ali. Michael Jordan. Wayne Gretzky. Serena Williams. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Sopranos. Becoming “the greatest” doesn’t happen by accident; it takes a lot of hard work. And that hard work is certainly evident in what many sports journalists and fans consider the greatest football game ever played — the overtime win of the Baltimore Colts over the New York Giants in the NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium on December 28, 1958.
As we set the Way-Back Machine to take us back 60 years, it’s important to remember how football was perceived back then. This was an era before Sundays were wall-to-wall NFL coverage. Teams didn’t always have dedicated stadiums (this game was even played in the home of the Yankees), and football was less popular than Major League Baseball. It would require national TV exposure and a great game to earn it equal popularity. This was the game that pushed professional football over that hump.
Heading into the contest, which NBC broadcast across the country, both teams had 9-3 records for the season. The Colts’ legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas had missed a portion of the season due to injury but came back to lift the team and clinch what was then called the Western Conference. In the East, the Giants had been forced to play an extra tie-breaker game against the Cleveland Browns to secure their spot in the championship game.
The game itself was a tough, back-and-forth affair. The Colts and Giants were well matched, with stars playing on both sides: The Colts had Unitas and split end Raymond Berry, while the Giants had quarterback Charlie Conerly and halfback Frank Gifford. The Giants put 3 on the board in the first quarter, and then the Colts answered with 14 in the second. The Giants scored 7 in both the third and fourth quarters, while the Colts only managed three more in the fourth. When the buzzer sounded, it was 17–17.
And the players didn’t know what to do next.
The officials announced that the game would go into overtime, the first such extra period in the 26 years of the NFL’s existence. Overtime had been used to settle one exhibition game three years earlier, but it had never been used in the regular season, let alone the championship game. And according to league rules, it would be a sudden-death overtime — whichever team scored first would be the champ.
The Colts lost the coin toss for possession and had to kick off to the Giants. The Giants got nowhere and had to punt. That’s when Unitas took over.
NFL Films lists this as the No. 1 overtime finish of all time.
Setting an example for future Colts quarterbacks, Unitas called the plays himself and marched the team 80 yards in a 13-play drive. On the final sequence, Colts running back Alan Ameche punched through the Giants’ defensive line from the 1 yard line to make it to the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. Neither an NFL championship game nor its successor, the Super Bowl, would be decided in overtime again until 2017.
Praise of the game came immediately. Over 45 million people had watched it. Its popularity led to the launch of the rival American Football League (which would merge with the NFL in 1969). A number of the coaches involved in the game emerged as legends in their own right:
- Colts coach Webb Ewbank would take over as the Jets coach in the 1960s and lead that team to victory over his former team in Super Bowl III.
- Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry went on to his highly successful run as coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
- Offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi would helm the Green Bay Packers for five championships and have his name posthumously given to the Super Bowl trophy.
Over the decades, the reputation of this particular game has only grown. Aside from the quality of play and the personnel involved, the game is seen as the spark that pushed American football forward. Whether it technically qualifies as the greatest will be debated forever, but it’s easily one of the most important and most enjoyable football games ever played in America.
Feature image credit: ©Pro Football Hall of Fame
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