Remembering the ‘The Greatest NFL Game Ever Played’
December 28th is a significant date for football fans, and it’s not just because it marks the birthday of Cedric Benson or clutch field goal kicker “Automatic” Adam Vinatieri. Today is the 51st anniversary of the 1958 NFL Championship between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, or what is often regarded as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The showdown in Yankee Stadium featured 13 Hall of Famers, including Frank Gifford, Johnny Unitas, Don Maynard, Ray Berry, and Vince Lombardi. The game was the first NFL game to go into sudden-death overtime. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the 1958 Championship is celebrated as the catalyst for launching the NFL’s explosive growth and widespread popularity. Just in case you’ve never caught the clips of this momentous football moment on ESPN Classic, let’s get things rolling after the holiday hiatus with a quick look back with the help of Youtube and selected pull quotes.
The 1958 NFL Championship is perhaps the one football game that your grandparents still talk about and your parents wish they were old enough to remember. Just a few days after the game, Tex Maule, Sports Illustrated’s football correspondent at the time, predicted an enduring fascination with the game:
“When there are so many high points, it is not easy to pick the highest. But for the 60,000 and more fans who packed Yankee Stadium last Sunday for the third week in a row, the moment they will never forget — the moment with which they will eternally bore their grandchildren — came when, with less than 10 seconds to play and the clock remorselessly moving, the Baltimore Colts kicked a field goal which put the professional football championship in a 17-17 tie and necessitated a historic sudden-death overtime period.”
According to Maule, the on-field drama at the end of the game was so intense that one Baltimore fan ran his car into a telephone pole after hearing that Myhra kicked the tying field goal on his radio. Ray Berry, who chalked up 12 passes for 178 yards as a receiver for the Colts, famously exclaimed to Maule that winning the game “Is the greatest thing that ever happened.” Maule’s “Sports Illustrated” article helped cement the importance of the game in gridiron mythology.
When the game celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1998, a “New York Times” article mentioned each winning player for the Colts received a modest $4,718.77 for the victory. The post-game celebration involved a shower of orange soda, rather than a downpour of champagne commonly seen today. In the meantime, the late Johnny Unitas told Frank Litsky, the Times sports columnist, that the Baltimore Colts had played better games.
“We came back once from 28-7 at halftime against San Francisco and scored 28 points and beat them. But I think this game accelerated football into what it is now. It was
going to happen anyway, but the way the game was tied and then with the first overtime ever played, all the things added up.”
Frank Gifford also weighed in to the NYT:
“It was a great game and had a lot of drama to it. It brought great focus to pro football that wasn’t there before. And maybe it had the best personnel ever acc*mulated on a football field at once until that time.”
Unitas also waxed philosophically about the game’s hype for an ESPN.com piece:
“I’ve always felt that it (the ’58 championship game) wasn’t a real good football game until the last two minutes, and then the overtime … Just the fact that it was the first overtime in championship play and it happened in Madison Avenue’s backyard, that was enough to make people feel they had seen something fantastic.”
“They always forget that the month before, in the game we clinched the division and put us into the playoff, San Francisco had us down 27-7 at the half and we came back to beat ’em 35-27. That was a much better game.”
NFL.com has a great video re-cap of the game available here. “