Revive Blog: The Greatest Game Ever Played

It’s possibly the most overhyped re-run ever broadcast.

But the NFL Films/ESPN Films documentary version of the 1958 NFL Championship deserves a live blog. Actually, call it a revive blog.

First, a preview, swiped from Awful Announcing:

And the dulcet tones of Chris Berman welcome us. Wonderful.

“And they’ll see it like they’ve never seen it before: in color.” Really, Berman? Those players didn’t see the game in color when they played it? Come on, that was a terrible line.

Setting the stage now, with Berman touting the Baltimore Colts’ Johnny Unitas-and-Raymond-Berry offense and reminding us that the New York Giants were the only Giants in New York after Willie Mays and Co. moved to San Francisco.

ESPN pieced together the game, because no full tape of the TV broadcast exists; we’ll have look-ins from the present-day Colts and Giants, discussing the game with the oldsters. And Berman is off of my TV now.

We have Mike Tirico with Bob Wolff, Tony Dungy with Raymond Berry. These groups are fun. The New York Times’ Dave Anderson, author Bill Gildea, and Michael Smith: which of these things is not like the other? Lenny Moore and Brandon Jacobs are talking money, with Moore saying: “If you made eleven, twelve thousand dollars a year, you were lucky.”

Oh, my: Frank Gifford, Gino Marchetti, and Tom Coughlin. I think that one wins.

Gifford: “Lombardi coached the offense, Landry coached the defense.” Nice coaching staff for Big Blue, there; you forget how they came into the sport.

Worst pairing: Steve Smith and Lindon Crow. Like, the not-even-the-third-most-famous-receiver-on-the-Giants-roster Steve Smith.

The opening kick is kneeled for a touchback.

Bob Wolff’s spotter for the game? Maury Povich. Tirico: “So you’re responsible for Maury Povich?” Funny, Mike.

Gifford: “That game was blacked out in New York. If you wanted to see the game, you drove to New Haven.”

Winner’s bonus: $5,000.

Giants begin with the ball, fumble it away thanks to a Marchetti hit, and Unitas does a foxtrot in the pocket to make time to throw to the flat.

Berman foreshadows a score. I foreshadow me wishing bodily harm on Berman at some point if his schtick pollutes this otherwise golden documentary.

Unitas drops straight back–you forget that odd quirk–and throws a pick. After a punt, Unitas then bombs to Moore over Crow, who complains to Smith about having to see it again.

Moore on the timing relationship with Johnny U: “If you don’t time up with John, he’s not gon’ say nothing to you.”

Dwight Freeney and Alex Sandusky may be the underrated pair of the night, if famed photographer Neil Leifer and Baltimore resident Barry Levinson don’t count; Leifer’s talking about how the Army veterans came to these games.

The Colts’ first field goal try is no good, and then, after an offsides call, the second one is blocked by Sam Huff.

Art Donovan and Michael Strahan are going to be the most candid couple. Donovan on facemasks: “If you wore one, you were a sissy.”

Freeney and Sandusky discuss holding. Apparently, it was actually a penalty at one point.

Pat Summerall makes the first field goal of the game, and explains to Adam Vinatieri how to coerce a referee to call it good. If I were a 1958 ref, and I’d seen Summerall’s kicking motion, which looks a little like attempting to stare at one’s shoelaces while booting a rock, I would need convincing, too.

With this game being reviewed mostly by players, journalists, and fans in this documentary, it should be noted that, this October, there was a fantastic article in The Atlantic by Mark Bowden, who watched the game with Andy Reid and had him break it down. Well worth your time.

Frank Gifford fumbles to give the Colts the ball within field goal range, and the Colts come out with Lenny Moore going outside and Alan Ameche running up the middle.

Oh, Antonio Pierce is here. That’s not jarring, given recent real-world events.

Ameche scores on a plunge, and we get Berry telling Dungy that a spectacular block he thought he’d made was instead a run into a lineman’s back. So, a half-block.

Unitas had a gorgeous spiral, and the guile to pump-fake. Wow.

And he added a 16-yard gain on a scramble later in the drive.

Sam Huff picks up Moore and deposits him on the dusty ground.

I should note that ESPN is showing most of the plays and Berman’s filling in the plot holes, but it seems like this is more a compilation of what they had and a plastering over what they did not. Still, worth it.

Unitas to Berry for six, and the score is 14-3, Colts, after the point after.

Oh, Berman, your witty Janet Jackson reference makes me wish you would get fined by the FCC. At least it’s a segue to a segment on the famous Colts marching band. Hats, sweaters, skirts, and pom-poms for the cheerleaders, too, and there’s a cute “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” routine they did with antlers on.

The inevitable bit on the Colts’ move gets some choice quotes: “I think, when everybody saw those Mayflower vans, their hearts went with them.”

Two of the Majorettes comment on the similarity between Unitas and Peyton Manning; apparently, it was so good as to rescind their curse.

We go to the second half, and Huff piles on Berry. Weeb Ewbank comes over to throw a punch, Huff backs off, and a Hall of Fame title bout is averted.

What a catch: a Colt goes airborne and hurdles a Giant to make a 40-yard reception. Neil Leifer’s “Oh, my, GOD” says it very well.

The Colts, up 14-3, and driving, appear to be in control with a goal-line series. Ameche goes left, gets one or two. Unitas sneaks for nothing. Ameche is stuffed at the line on third down.

And, on fourth down, from what we know as the pro form, with Ameche on the right, Unitas’ call of a pitch-out, which was supposed to be a pass to a wide-open tight end in the end zone and could have easily been a touchdown, turns into a loss of two. The Giants hold, and this is a tipping point of this game.

It’s just great football.

“What a freak, weird play,” the announcer roars, as the Giants cover almost a full field on one pass play that turns into a fumble. Two plays later, Mel Triplett, who Dave Anderson tells us inspired Giants fan Lew Alcindor to wear #33, scores, and Summerall’s extra point makes it 14-10.

Charlie Conerly, who Anderson calls “the best quarterback not in the Hall of Fame,” shows all sorts of trickery on a play-action pass and fires a strike to Gifford on a goal line play, leading the Giants on another scoring drive that vaults them to a 17-14 lead.

Berman narrates two drives, one culminating in a missed field goal by the Colts, the next sabotaged by a Giants fumble. Another Giants stand forces a punt.

Tom Coughlin mentions that he counted the sacks in this game, and that the Giants had five; he connects it to the pressure generated on Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLII, indirectly pointing out how pass rush is the great equalizer in football.

The Giants have been passing to get back in the game, but will have to run five minutes off the clock to keep their 17-14 lead. A third-down pass picks up a first down, and the Giants look like they might be able to do it.

Two more runs bring up a third and three, and Gifford runs right, and right into Gino Marchetti: this prompts one of the most contentious third-down discussions in history. Marchetti’s ankle gets twisted in a pile, and we get the anecdote: while Marchetti was screaming in pain, the ref looked at him, then set the ball down, and the call was fourth down.

So ESPN pulls out some science, bringing out someone who can settle this with “photogrammatical mapping.” This is awesome: he’s bringing our modern yellow first-down laser to the field through trigonometry, and he concludes that Gifford was about nine inches short. Very cool.

The Giants, we learn, wanted to go for it, especially with Marchetti out; Dungy says he would punt, and the Giants do. The Colts will take over at their 14 with 2:20 left in the fourth quarter and a three-point deficit to overcome.

First down is an incomplete deep pass, and the clock runs to the two-minute warning. The Colts will go to a no-huddle offense in what is maybe the first two-minute drill in the NFL’s history. Second down is a dropped pass, and Unitas is faced with a third and long; his strike to Lenny Moore (who says, “I knew where ten yards was; I ran twelve yards; he threw it to eleven yards”) nets enough to move the sticks.

Another incompletion, but it’s followed up by a post to Berry, who gets almost to midfield. Unitas is cool, calm, and throwing well, and he fakes a pitch and fires a dart that picks up another first down.

The last completion of the drive goes to Berry, and the Colts will kick. All involved recount the nerves that were jangling, but the kick sails straight and true, and the score is 17-17.

The game will go to overtime.

But first, everyone must discuss the concept of “sudden death” overtime; the word “tie” is said maybe fifteen times.

Neil Leifer marvels at the light: they’re in the gloaming at Yankee Stadium, and one of the foremost sports photographers of any generation is given “magic hour” to work with. It’s fate, this game being destined for greatness, with things like that happening.

The Giants get the ball first after winning the coin flip, but they are forced to punt. Gino Marchetti, who has been wheeled back onto the field, jacket over his legs, watches from the sideline.

A deep Unitas pass is deflected by Crow, but short running and throws to the flats are picking up first downs for the Colts, who were, as Moore says, “leaning on Johnny U all the way.”

Unitas is sacked around midfield, forcing a third and 15, but he scrambles left and rockets one to the sideline for just enough. Then, Ameche rumbles up the middle past some pass rushers, gaining about 20 and entering field goal range.

The Colts will not kick, though, running once and throwing a short slant to get within the 10.

(The SportsCenter break-ins really ruin this. Can we stop this? Please?)

From the 8, the Colts ready for a deciding play, and a fan runs onto the field as the picture dies; someone pulled the plug, and the fan is an NBC employee, trying to stall the game until the cable could be restored. Neat.

Ameche runs over left guard to get a few. It’s second down from the 5.

Leifer submits a story about the Colts owner, a renowned gambler, urging the Colts to go for a touchdown to cover the spread. Some things never change.

On second down, Unitas goes to Jim Mutscheller, he of the great leaping catch before, and he makes a catch and slips out at the 1. The call actually begins “Touch-!”

Third and one. Ameche goes off tackle right. Lenny Moore blocks the outside linebacker. Ameche scores. Unitas walks away coolly. Goosebumps form.

Leifer’s pictures are beautiful.

Light falls on the champions. (Neil Leifer)

Light falls on the champions. (Neil Leifer)

Just incredible.

Summerall: “I remember the disappointment. The heartbreak. Having to fight my way back to the locker room.”

Off go the victors on the shoulders of their supporters; down come the goalposts as the hands of the revelers.

The call, by Wolff, is perfect: “And the Colts are world champions! Ameche scores!”

What a game. What an ending. What a moment.

The Baltimore Colts have won the 1958 NFL Championship, beating the New York Giants 23-17.

Confetti falls from the stands, the fans exult.

The reminisces and notices are sweet. “It was almost like a religious experience,” Alex Sandusky says; Art Donovan says, back in Baltimore, the Colts were “kings.” Tony Dungy points out that the game came down to a few huge plays.

The impact of the game is discussed: Lamar Hunt, seeing it, was inspired to create the AFL; Dungy, who remembers watching NFL football every Sunday at the age of 5 in 1960, says it “catapulted” the NFL.

The perfect symmetry of time is mentioned: fifty years after this greatest game, the Colts and Giants have won the last two Super Bowls.

Thank yous and appreciative handshakes are exchanged.

And then Berman shows up again, and he’s really killing this with his total inability to be understated. He traces the legacy of the game, from Unitas to Lombardi, Ewbank to Landry.

If you missed this the first time around, it will be on again, twice on the 16th, then again closer to Christmas. If you’re a sports fan, you owe it to yourself to see it. (Feel free to read this again, too.)

This was not just the greatest game ever played, but one of the most momentous for American sports. Many thanks to ESPN and NFL Films for putting together this majestic retrospective.

12 Comments

Filed under ESPN, Live Blogs, NFL

12 responses to “Revive Blog: The Greatest Game Ever Played

  1. I for one don’t see any difference, for I am Technicolorâ„¢blind.

  2. placekickerholder

    FUCK WHERE’S THE YELLOW LINE?

  3. Slothrop

    Yankee Stadium? is that in New Jersey too?

  4. Adonis

    @ Suss: You don’t see any difference because you put a huge fucking Bowling Green Logo over your tv.

  5. Slothrop

    Neil Leiffer is a god among sports photographers. And among toads that walk upright.

  6. OnBiasPercentage

    I’m worried that too much of this is going to be comparisons of the NFL then and now.

    But then I see Pat Summerall and I’m content.

  7. thebloglebowski

    You didn’t mention how Leifer got into the game — that was one of the best parts. He was a sixteen-year-old kid at the time, and photography was just a hobby. He would get free admission to the games by pushing in fans in wheelchairs. Then, to get down onto the field, he’d bribe a security guard with a hot cup of coffee. He could be seen periodically throughout the telecast, leaning in to snap a photo, before the accredited photos banished him back from their area. He was able to get the close-up shot at the end while all the other photographers were focused on the sidelines and the security guards were keeping fans off the field. He sold that photo to Sports Illustrated, and that’s how his career (which includes over 150 SI covers) was launched.

  8. @lebowski: It wasn’t discussed in the documentary, though Leifer did say something about wheeling in the veterans. Thanks for the anecdote, though.

  9. Anonymous

    does anyone know where one could get a copy of the still photgraph shown at the end of Unitas splayed accross the hood of his corvette?

  10. No2toNo3

    Enjoyed. You’ve got a wry knack or a knack for wryness.

  11. Cool post dude. Really enjoyed it. Keep up the good work!

  12. There’s good info here. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog. Keep up the good work mate!

    I’m Out! :)

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