Turning 40, game still has great hold Colts: The 1958 NFL championship has worked overtime for its place in the hearts of players and fans alike.

December 27, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Every time Gino Marchetti takes a step, he remembers The Game. It was Dec. 28, 1958. Marchetti's Baltimore Colts were playing the New York Giants in what is now known as The Greatest Game Ever Played.

It was fourth down. Marchetti had just made the tackle on Giants running back Frank Gifford, when his Colts teammate, Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, fell on him, breaking the ankle that still bothers him today.

By the time Marchetti was carried off the field and the ball was marked, the Giants found themselves short of the first down. The stage was set for quarterback Johnny Unitas' two-minute drill. Unitas would take the Colts down the field, into the first overtime in pro football history and on to the franchise's first championship. The Colts won, 23-17.

It was 40 years ago tomorrow.

Last month, 27 players from the 1958 team returned to the city for a reunion. If you just glanced at them, you might not have recognized a championship football team. Most of them are in their mid-60s now, with graying hair. Some are out of shape, with heavy jaws. Some suffer various illnesses. Several walk with canes. Marchetti limps.

Their coach, Weeb Ewbank, and seven of their teammates have died.

But a closer look leaves little doubt about the identity of these massive men. Their backs are straight, their shoulders broad. Their eyes are sharp and their pride palpable.

The Brooklyn Dodgers may have been the Boys of Summer, but the 1958 Baltimore Colts? A Team for All Seasons.

They played not for a lot of money, but for their own esteem and that of their city. They were rugged men in a rugged era who played a hard game.

"I never saw so much love between a group as I saw back then," says Cecelia Lipscomb, Big Daddy's widow. "They wanted to play for each other. They still have that camaraderie."

Yvonne Ameche-Davis, the widow of Alan "The Horse" Ameche, recalled that no one cared who scored, so long as someone scored.

"It was a different time," she says.

A time when ballplayers lived next door and ate at the same restaurants their fans did. A time when they signed autographs for nothing, before and after making history.

"The longer I live," says Raymond Berry, the still-svelte Hall of Fame wide receiver, "the more amazed I am by what an absolutely special time it was."

They still represent a special kind of athlete. As Cecelia Lipscomb says, there are stars among them now -- six Hall of Famers -- Marchetti, Berry, Unitas, Lenny Moore, Jim Parker and Art Donovan. But they still deflect individual glory with the same ease Milt Davis used to deflect passes from a receiver's grasp.

Ask them: "What has that game meant to you over the years?" And the answers come back redirected, fuzzy or, if personally applied, with a touch of disbelief.

"That game, all it has meant to me was winning a championship," Unitas says. "It meant a lot more to the National Football League. This game put the NFL on the map. But to us, it was just another game. Baltimore had never had a championship. We just wanted to win, that's all."

It was a game for the ages. A game that still mesmerizes when watched on film for the first time.

It was a game that mattered to the NFL, in a big way, as Unitas says. But to this day, it is a game that matters to the Colts, and to the broadcasters who called it and the city that celebrated it.

The Colts will tell you, as football games go, it wasn't the greatest game they ever played. Moore says the greatest game was two weeks earlier, when they rallied from a 27-7 halftime deficit against the San Francisco 49ers and won, 35-27, to qualify for the title game.

But in historic terms, no one argues its importance.

And Marchetti expresses what it meant at that moment to him and his teammates.

"That game made such a tremendous difference," he says. "After that game, there was tremendous enthusiasm for the sport. Fans were everywhere. Stadiums filled up. And in Baltimore, I was able to open my first restaurant. That game made that possible. It also made it possible for the guys on our team to go out and find jobs in the off-season."

L Definitely different times. Pro football was part-time work.

Marchetti would eventually make a fortune when his one Gino's restaurant mushroomed to 500 and he sold them to Marriott Corp.

"Winning that game, it was just such a great feeling," Marchetti says. "The game became so popular, and we became prosperous."

Meaning for all

Chris Schenkel, the voice of the Giants, and Chuck Thompson, the Colts play-by-play man, formed the broadcast team at Yankee Stadium that day in 1958.

"That game made pro football and gave everyone who played in it an everlasting legacy," recalls Schenkel, 75.

"Before that game, people would ask me, 'What do you do?' And I'd say, 'I broadcast Giants games.' And they'd say, 'Oh, baseball.' It would make me mad. But after that game, that never happened again."

Thompson, the longtime voice of the Colts and Orioles, also benefited.

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