'Greatest game' ignited NFL legacy

Few understood at time how spectacle would fuel growth

December 28, 2008|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,childs.walker@baltsun.com

The image did not add up in Raymond Berry's mind. There he was, sharing a moment of purest fulfillment with his Baltimore Colts teammates as they left Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, 1958. World champions! They could call themselves that after beating the New York Giants in a tense overtime before a huge national television audience.

And yet, there stood National Football League commissioner Bert Bell, quietly weeping.

"I didn't comprehend why, but the memory stuck with me," Berry said recently from his home in Tennessee. "It struck me years later that he knew his baby just got born. I think he was by himself in understanding that."

What Bell knew was that 45 million people had just watched Berry and John Unitas create something beautiful on the most dramatic stage possible. What he suspected was that the NFL would never have to fight for attention again.

One can easily argue that dozens of games have been better, pass for pass and tackle for tackle. But consider the collection of famous names involved, the debut of sudden-death overtime, the expansion teams that formed in the game's aftermath, the record audience that tuned in and realized how perfectly pro football fit America's favorite new toy - television.

How many games can claim all those components? How many pulled together, in one day of drama, all the factors that transformed pro football from small time to the nation's most popular sport?

Author Mark Bowden was skeptical of the "Greatest Game" tag when he began research for a book on the contest. By the time the former Baltimore resident and News American staffer finished writing The Best Game Ever early this year, he was convinced.

"Off the field, you had the mounting interest in pro football, the extraordinary growth of television, and then you had the serendipity of a dramatic overtime game that spilled into prime time," he said. "Some game was going to ignite the interest in pro football, and that turned out to be the game."

In America's Game, his history of the NFL's rise to power, Michael MacCambridge pinpointed the game as a seminal moment. "In the 1958 title game," he wrote, "pro football had arrived as a viable alternative to baseball, not merely as the most popular sport, but the one that best defined America."

Such grandiose notions were far from the minds of players on that chilly evening. Maybe Tex Maule, in Sports Illustrated, was the first to stand back from the whole spectacle and say it to the world.

"Never has there been a game like this one," Maule proclaimed in a Jan. 5, 1959, article titled "The Best Football Game Ever Played."

Trade "best" for "greatest" and you have the title by which the game is known 50 years later. Surviving players have trouble looking past the multiple fumbles and other sloppiness to call it the greatest game, but they understand why Bert Bell had tears in his eyes.

"People saying it's the best game, I don't know if I agree about that," said Colts Hall of Famer Gino Marchetti. "But it was the most important game."

In a pure football sense, the game brought together names that would loom over the NFL for decades - Unitas, Sam Huff, Frank Gifford, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry. And that just scratches the surface of the talent involved. Berry, Marchetti, Lenny Moore and Rosey Brown were just as great. Fifteen Hall of Famers played or coached that day.

The spectacle led directly to growth.

A Texas businessman named Lamar Hunt watched those great players go to the first sudden-death overtime and decided once and for all that he had to own a football team.

"Clearly, the '58 Colts-Giants game, sort of in my mind, made me say, 'Well, that's it. This sport really has everything,' " Hunt told MacCambridge.

Rebuffed by the NFL, Hunt and seven others formed the American Football League. That bold expansion led to the first Super Bowl in 1967 and the league structure we know today.

But more than anything, the Colts-Giants game revealed the potent chemistry between pro football and television. As the game went to overtime after sundown, millions of fans dropped in to watch Unitas craft his drives on the grandest stage in American sports, Yankee Stadium. The players looked like mythic figures, wearing capes and billowing steam, their deeds illuminated starkly against the dark backdrop of the stands.

Many baby boomers remember the game as one of the first big events they watched on television.

"A lot of people tell me that was the first time they had any interest in pro football," said Pat Summerall, who kicked for the Giants and went on to broadcasting fame.

The league signed its first national television deal in 1962. No other professional league's ascent was so closely tied to the medium. And no league has a stronger financial underpinning than the NFL's current television contracts.

"Clearly, that was the match that lit the flame," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said of the game.

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