By Leonard Shapiro
Special to Washingtonpost.com
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.
The production opens with a stand-up introduction on the Yankee Stadium field delivered by properly toned down and pleasantly reverential Chris Berman, providing context at the start and then again at the finish. The film also includes newly colorized game film, as well as angles from about 30 plays in the contest that had never before been seen by the public.
NBC had handled the national telecast that day, but the archived copy of the broadcast somehow had gone missing over the ensuing 50 years. Dahl managed to fill in the gaps with the raw game footage he had discovered in 1998 while interviewing Colts head coach Weeb Ewbank at his home in Oxford, Ohio, for another ESPN documentary.
Ewbank had a number of old cans of film from his tenure in Baltimore and later as the coach of the N.Y. Jets strewn around his home office, including the clearly-labeled reels from the '58 title game taken by the Colts game-day cinematographer. Dahl borrowed the film with Ewbank's blessing and made copies, hardly imagining that one day he might be producing what now surely will be remembered as the definitive video study on the game.
The back and forth between past and present players caught on Dahl's own ESPN cameras also is often priceless. Without giving away too much, at one point, recently-retired Giants defensive end Michael Strahan tells Hall of Fame Colts defensive tackle Art "Fatso" Donovan that "I'm so lucky I didn't play back then, oh my goodness." To which Donovan responded "you woulda' loved it!!!"
Later, talking salaries, Donovan told Strahan he had a clause in his contract that called for a $3,000 bonus if he could keep his weight under 275 pounds for the season.
"You don't think I stayed under 275 for that kind of money?" Donovan said. "I was fat when I was born. I weighed 17 pounds...I was out of shape from the beginning."
There are other delightful touches throughout the production. Early on, Unitas and current Colts quarterback Peyton Manning are shown throwing the football side by side in a split screen sequence. Their mechanics were uncannily in virtual similar sync -- the same cock of the arm, the same release and the same follow through.
Ewbank's old film even included footage of the halftime show that day. There were no fireworks, no mega-stars on a concert stage at the 50-yard line, not even Up With People in the house. At intermission, the Colts' marching band simply performed on the field along with the Colts female "Cheer Leaders." In one obviously lightly rehearsed dance routine, the women are dressed in black leotards sprouting reindeer antlers on their heads. The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, they were not.
Some of the band members and "Cheer Leaders" at Yankee Stadium that afternoon, still peppy and properly proud senior citizens, also were interviewed for the film. One of the band's trombonists said he played the Colts fight song 56 times that day, including the trip back to Baltimore on the train, despite a bloody mouth and some very sore lips.
Another intriguing sequence revolves around the most controversial play in the game. Late in the fourth quarter with the Giants nursing a three-point lead, Gifford carried the ball on a third-and-four situation and was tackled close to the first down marker by Marchetti. Trailing the play, Colts defensive tackle Big Daddy Lipscomb fell on the pile and broke his teammate's leg.
As Marchetti lay on the field screaming in pain, line judge Charley Berry spotted the football. Finally, after the Colts captain was carried off the field, the actual measurement was taken, and Berry's questionable spot indicated the Giants had not picked up the first down. New York was forced to punt, and on the ensuing drive, Unitas led his team to Syeve Myhra's tying 20-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining.
To this day, Gifford and every other Giant player on the field insists there was no question New York's golden boy running back had made the first down. The Colts, to the man, of course, have always said it wasn't even close.
With the words "instant replay" also not yet part of the language back then, ESPN brought in a forensic scientist to examine the play for this new production. After freezing the frame and drawing lines and angles here, there and everywhere in a computerized analysis, it was ultimately determined, by ESPN at least, that Gifford went down nine inches short of a first down.
Over the two-hour production, 80 percent of the game plays are shown in chronological order, with lots of fascinating talk throughout about why this game, witnessed by 45 million television viewers and 65,000 in the seats, was so significant in propelling the NFL into the juggernaut of a sports enterprise it soon became. Almost from that day forward, a 12-team league lagging far behind baseball and college football in popularity, began the journey to its lofty perch as the most widely-viewed team sport in the country, if not on the planet.
That day in 1958, a wealthy young Texas oil and silver mogul named Lamar Hunt also was watching the game on his hotel room television. Hunt had been trying to buy a baseball or pro football franchise at the time without any success. So enamored with what he had witnessed that day, he started thinking about forming a new league. Two years later, the American Football League was born, with Hunt the proud owner of the new Dallas Texans, later to become the Kansas City Chiefs.
"The Mercury astronauts knew they were doing something very different," Chris Berman said in a conference call with reporters last week. "They (the players) didn't know it at the time, but in this game they became the Mercury astronauts of professional football. It's what allowed the pro game to become what it is today.
"I'm a history major...If you take a step back...if you put on the film of this game, it looks like modern football, even if the players are a little smaller. It looks like the game you're seeing today, and it really does begin with this football game."
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.