NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fifty years ago the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts took the NFL title game to sudden death and launched pro football on a ride to the top of U.S. sports with what came to be known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
The golden anniversary of that 23-17 upset win on December 28, 1958 by a Colts team led by young quarterback Johnny Unitas has inspired a passel of books this holiday season, a television retrospective and musings on how far football has come.
“A crowning moment at the right time,” Pro Football Hall of Fame spokesman Joe Horrigan told Reuters about the 1958 title contest in a telephone interview from Canton, Ohio. “It lifted the game to new heights.”
Television networks saw football’s potential as entertainment on the small screen, entrepreneurs figured there was room for expansion and the game went on a dizzying growth spurt that matured into a business with $7 billion in revenues last year.
“That was the game that definitely put professional football on the map,” Super Bowl champion coach Tom Coughlin of the Giants said in an ESPN show in which modern-day Giants and Colts reflected on the game with men who played in it.
That contest showcased 15 future Hall of Famers, including Baltimore’s Unitas, wide receiver Raymond Berry and running back/receiver Lenny Moore, and New York halfback Frank Gifford, linebacker Sam Huff and defensive end Andy Robustelli.
Baltimore coach Weeb Ewbank, who later led the underdog New York Jets to a 1969 Super Bowl triumph over the Colts, also ended up in the Hall, as did the Giants’ offensive and defensive coordinators Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.
The see-saw struggle at Yankee Stadium produced the first “fifth quarter” in pro football, which ended with fullback Alan Amache’s one-yard plunge into the end zone, and coincided with the blossoming of television.
Network rights to broadcast the 1958 game fetched $100,000. The NFL now gets some $3.7 billion a year from TV contracts.
Despite a slew of fumbles, the game had drama, controversy and a unique ending, grabbing attention at a time when baseball ruled and pro football was secondary to the college game.
“Sometimes things just align,” Horrigan said. “It just brought everything into alignment.”
The NFL brought Moore, Berry, Gifford and New York placekicker team mate Pat Summerall together to reminisce about the game in a conference call.
“More TV sets turned on to see a football game played in the fifth quarter,” Gifford said. “All the New York newspapers were on strike that week so it got more attention nationally. More national papers sent reporters.”
Unitas drove the Colts 86 yards in the closing minutes, throwing repeatedly to Berry to set up a 20-yard field goal with seven seconds left that tied the game 17-17.
“It was kind of like the advent of what teams call the two-minute drill that Johnny U perfected,” Moore said. “The way he kind of took over for us to get that tying score.”
Baltimore staged that drive after stopping Gifford short of a first down on a controversial play.
Gifford felt he had made the first down but was denied an accurate spotting of the ball when Baltimore’s huge defensive lineman Big Daddy Lipscomb dived into the pile and fell on team mate Gino Marchetti, who howled in pain from a broken leg.
“The referee came over, took the ball from me and went and helped Marchetti up,” recounted Gifford. “Then he came back and spotted the ball.”
The ball was placed short of the first down and New York punted back to Baltimore. “That just increased the aura around this game,” Gifford said.
Gifford and Summerall both enjoyed long careers in sports broadcasting after their playing careers.
Summerall said the ‘58 game underlined the NFL’s appeal.
“A game that was almost designed for TV, with timeouts, a halftime and huddles that allowed for people to talk about the strategy for the next play. It was made for television.”
Gifford noted that the NFL had 12 teams with 35-man rosters compared to 32 franchises with 53-man rosters today, and said the game inspired others to want to get involved.
“Lamar Hunt at age 27 went to the NFL wanting an expansion franchise. When he couldn’t get a franchise he went out and built one. He knew there were plenty of players.”
Hunt helped to form the American Football League that began play in 1960.
“Lamar was a team mate of mine at SMU (Southern Methodist University),” recalled Berry. “I had no idea his father was a rich oil man.”
Bidding wars for players led the leagues in 1966 to agree to merge by 1970 and stage a title game at the end of the 1966 season that became known as the Super Bowl.
By then, the NFL had already begun its current 43-year run as the most popular sport in the U.S., according to the Harris Poll.
Berry remembered an indelible moment after the ‘58 game.
“I think back to Bert Bell after the game,” the great possession receiver said. “He had tears in his eyes.
“I had been in the league for four years and I was looking at the commissioner of the NFL and wondered what chord had been struck. I think he had understood what a tremendous thing had happened to the league he had run for so long.”
Editing by Clare Fallon