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Everything on the line

The Colts-Giants in '58 was a door between two eras

Posted: Tuesday July 17, 2007 10:47AM; Updated: Tuesday July 17, 2007 10:47AM
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Fullback Alan Ameche barrels in from 1-yard out to seal the Colts' 23-17 win over the Giants in the 1958 title game.
Fullback Alan Ameche barrels in from 1-yard out to seal the Colts' 23-17 win over the Giants in the 1958 title game.
Best Game I've Ever Seen
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By Frank Deford

Editor's note: We asked SI.com writers to share their memories from the best game they've ever seen. Here are their stories:

The greatest game I ever saw is not just my opinion -- it's titled that in lore, the 1958 championship between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, which the Colts won 23-17 in what is still the only NFL overtime title game.

Actually, in chronicling the game for Sports Illustrated, Tex Maule's headline called it merely "The Best Game," but people wouldn't settle for that. Soon it was "the greatest." And it is yet.

I'm something of an elitist when it comes to these utmost assessments. For any competition to be truly great, I believe it must be in the championship realm. Some guy pitches a perfect game against the Kansas City Royals in July. This is a nice achievement, but great? No way. Greatness can only be achieved with everything on the line.

The Colts-Giants game is all the more distinguished because it improved as the game progressed. It was nothing all that special for much of the way. Indeed, the Colts should have locked up the game in the third quarter, but they let New York off the hook, and, to the Giants' credit, they came back and took the lead late in the fourth quarter, 16-13, before the Colts tied it in the last seconds and won on their first possession in overtime.

In a very real way, this game was a door between two eras. On the one hand, before this game, the NFL was still the poorer football cousin. College football reigned. Baseball had no national rival. Many of the so-called "professional" football players still had to hold second jobs during the season to make ends meet. Everybody played. There were no coddled specialists.

When Johnny Unitas led the Colts to the touchdown in overtime there soon arose the legend that he and Weeb Ewbank, the Colts coach, kept the drive going to end with a third-down touchdown instead of taking an short field goal because the point spread was 3 1/2 and the Colts' owner, Carroll Rosenbloom had a lot of money on the game and needed four points to cover. Unitas would laugh at that tale. The truth was, he didn't have all that much faith in the Colts' kicker, Steve Myrha, who was also a linebacker and had to play a lot at scrimmage. Indeed, in the final series, Unitas even threw a dangerous down-and-out pass to his tight end, Jim Mutscheller, on second down, and then he handed off to Alan "The Horse" Ameche, who went over right tackle for the score. The Giants were sure the Colts would go left, to better gain position in the middle of the field should they not score and need to try a field goal on fourth down.

But, of course, Unitas so often did things counterintuitively. And it was this game that not only advanced the NFL to the sports forefront in the nation, but which established Unitas as an heroic figure. His drive in the waning seconds to tie the game essentially created the two-minute drill. The modern position of quarterback was born in the gloaming at Yankee Stadium that late December afternoon. For that matter, nothing in the NFL was ever the same again. The game was not merely fabulously competitive with extraordinary performances at the end. It changed football and sport in America.

A sad postscript: Because this one game was both so exciting and significant, David Halberstam's next planned project was to devote a whole book to the game and its implications. Sadly, he died in California in a traffic accident, going to his first interview at the start of his research.

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