Documentary Revisits 'The Greatest Game Ever Played'

Baltimore Colts fullback Alan Ameche, on ground at left, lies in the end zone at Yankee Stadium after his overtime touchdown defeated the New York Giants, 23-17, on Dec. 28, 1958.
Baltimore Colts fullback Alan Ameche, on ground at left, lies in the end zone at Yankee Stadium after his overtime touchdown defeated the New York Giants, 23-17, on Dec. 28, 1958. (Neil Leifer - AP File Photo)
By Leonard Shapiro
Special to
Tuesday, December 9, 2008; 12:26 PM

Both casual fans and fanatical followers of professional football would be wise to do themselves a favor and set aside two hours Saturday starting at 9 p.m. to savor a goose-bump inducing ESPN documentary focusing on the historic 1958 NFL Championship game.

"The Greatest Game Ever Played" will air fifteen days short of the 50th anniversary of that stirring contest between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants played on Dec. 28, 1958 in Yankee Stadium. On a chilly winter day of pulsating drama, it also marked the first and last time an NFL title game ever went into sudden death overtime -- words (and the concept they represented) many of the players on the field had never even heard.

"I thought the game was over and we were tied," Sam Huff, the Giants fearsome and future Hall of Fame middle linebacker that day, recalled in an interview last week. "Hell, I was tired, we all were. I was thinking at least we'd get half of the money, and that was okay with me. Then the referee comes over and says 'captains out on the field, we're going into sudden death.' I said 'what the heck is sudden death?' Honestly, it was the first time I'd ever heard the expression. I mean the game was over. It was a surprise to hear those words. I thought maybe somebody died."

Artistically, the game was not exactly well played over the first 30 minutes, what with five turnovers in the first two quarters and a blocked 27-yard field goal before intermission, when the Colts took a 14-3 lead. The Giants came back in the second half and held a three-point advantage with just over two minutes to play, but couldn't prevent Hall of Fame Baltimore quarterback John Unitas, the early master of the two-minute offense, from leading his team to a tying field goal with seven seconds left in regulation.

When the gun sounded after 60 minutes of play, the score was 17-17, but not for long. The Giants won the overtime coin toss, but had to punt the ball away after three plays gained nine yards. Once again it was Johnny U., lacing up his high-top cleats and aiming often at crafty Hall of Famer receiver Raymond Berry, once again marching the Colts 80 yards to a touchdown in 13 overtime plays. It ended with Alan Ameche scoring from the one-yard line to provide a 23-17 Baltimore victory.

The players on that often dusty, mostly dirt field pocked with patches of ice (there were 12 future Hall of Famers in uniform that day) had no idea the game would become an all-time classic, as well as a definitive moment in league history. But they did get the first whiff of such a notion the following week when Sports Illustrated football writer Tex Maule wrote a story that began "Never has there been a game like this" under a headline that read "The Best Game Ever Played."

"To call it the greatest game ever played...I don't think any of us who participated realized it would be labeled that," Pat Summerall, the veteran sportscaster who played tight end and was the Giants kicker that afternoon, said in a conference call last week. "The first time I heard it was a week later. But we had lost the game, and I was still dejected about it."

Summerall and 10 other players who took part 50 years ago are featured in ESPN's fast-paced and thoroughly riveting production, along with a dozen members of the most recent two Super Bowl championship teams, coincidentally also the Colts and Giants, including both teams' modern-day head coaches, Tony Dungy and Tom Coughlin.

ESPN executive producer John Dahl paired up all of them in groups of twos and threes to watch the film of the entire contest one day last spring in Indianapolis and New York. Berry sat with Dungy. Hall of Fame Colts running back Lenny Moore watched it with the current behemoth back of the Giants, 265-pound Brandon Jacobs. Coughlin was joined by two other Hall of Famers, Frank Gifford and Gino Marchetti, both involved in one of the '58 game's most critical and controversial plays. As all of them sat there transfixed by what they were seeing, Dahl also taped their unrehearsed observations from first quarter to final Ameche run.

He also brought in other witnesses that day, including long-time Washington Post sports columnist Bill Gildea, a Baltimore native who watched the game from the upper deck as a 19-year-old sitting next to his father. Former Washington Senators play-by-play man Bob Wolff, also in the film, did the radio broadcast that afternoon with a young spotter by his side named Maury Povich.

And another Baltimore native, Barry Levinson, the brilliant Hollywood director, watched the old game film with acclaimed sports photographer Neil Leifer, a Bronx boy and long-time Sports Illustrated shooter who took one of the classic black-and-white pictures of Ameche's game-winning run from the back of the end zone.

Leifer was only a teenager at the time, a young prodigy with a camera in his hand. He'd been slipping into the stadium all season pushing handicapped fans in wheelchairs to their viewing area at field level. Once the title game began, he moved to the sidelines with the rest of the photographers and started to click away on the same day he also celebrated his 16th birthday.

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