The greatest game nobody remembers

1959 NFL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Fifty years ago next Sunday, the Colts and Giants met at Memorial Stadium in a reprise of their 1958 classic

December 20, 2009|By Mike Klingaman | mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Fifty years ago, the Baltimore Colts rallied to win a world championship over the New York Giants before 57,545 jubilant fans at Memorial Stadium.

Go on, scratch your head. The 1958 title game is burned into our brains: 23-17, sudden-death, Ameche's plunge, the stampede at the airport. But the sequel, on Dec. 27, 1959? Half a century later, who can recall the cast, the Colts' comeback, or the score?

Not even the players, it seems.

"Don't remember it at all," said Hall of Famer Lenny Moore, who caught a 60-yard touchdown pass in the 31-16 victory that day. "Man, oh man. Can you believe that? I don't remember me."

Ditto, say many of Moore's teammates, who helped build Baltimore's first football dynasty.

Come on, guys. After 50 years, there's no buzz about the only NFL championship ever played in Baltimore?

Nope, said defensive end Gino Marchetti, then the Colts' captain: "That game is lost in space."

Pity, that. Because the city's second football title was, in some ways, as sweet as the first. Roused by a partisan crowd, the Colts rallied from a 9-7 deficit with a 24-point blitz in the fourth quarter to quiet Giants fans who had called 1958 a fluke.

On its own, the 1959 game had legs. But it pales beside the Colts' first championship, dubbed "The Greatest Game Ever Played."

"You couldn't come up with a scenario to beat the '58 game even if you stayed up all night to plot it," said Raymond Berry, the team's star receiver. "My memories of it are vivid. But the second one? I've hardly given any thought at all to that."

It is, players said, The Game That Time Forgot.

It wasn't always so.

In 1959, Christmas week in Baltimore was less about holly than horseshoes. Folks stood in line for hours, not to purchase gifts but tickets to the title game. In Govans, a homeowner trimmed his outdoor tree with lights of blue and white.

Downtown, construction workers putting a new wing on the city jail unfurled a 42-foot banner that read "Go Colts Go" from atop the crane's 130-foot boom.

With one title in tow, Colts fans wanted more, especially if it meant another shot at the haughty Giants. When New York gamblers started a rumor, a week before the game, that Johnny Unitas had broken his leg, club officials cried foul and pondered hiring bodyguards to protect their 26-year-old All-Pro quarterback.

Unitas led the Colts (9-3), who had the NFL's No. 1 offense, against the Giants (10-2), who had its No. 1 defense. Oddsmakers installed Baltimore as a 3 1/2 -point favorite even though New York, earlier in the season, had defeated two teams (the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Browns) against which the Colts had stumbled.

The Giants fueled the pre-game rancor. Dick Lynch, a newly acquired defensive back, promised to give Berry, a hero of the '58 championship, a licking.

"The only way to stop hotshots like Berry is to really blast them," Lynch said.

New York linebacker Sam Huff all but promised victory for Gotham.

"If we can score 21 points, we'll win," Huff said. "They won't get more than that against us."

Right up to the kickoff, the Giants strutted their stuff, said Charley Winner, 85, then Baltimore's defensive coordinator. During warm-ups, he said, the Colts' Johnny Sample, a brash young defensive back, sidled over to Frank Gifford, New York's star runner who had written columns that season for a New York newspaper.

"Hey, Gifford, when are you going to write an article about me?" Sample asked.

Gifford looked up.

"Kid," he said, "I don't even know your name."

The game changed that.

The Colts struck first. On their sixth play from scrimmage, Unitas fired to Moore, who split two defenders and raced 60 yards for a touchdown.

"He was running so hard, bringing his legs up so high, that one of his knees hit [defensive back] Lindon Crow in the head and left him groggy," Giants assistant Tom Landry said later.

Then Baltimore's attack fell silent. Three field goals by Pat Summerall put the visitors ahead 9-7, which is where it stood late in the third quarter with New York again on the move.

But on fourth-and-inches at the Colts' 27, the Giants gambled and sent Alex Webster, their 215-pound halfback, straight ahead. Colts tackle Ray Krouse latched onto one of his legs and refused to let go. Webster was caught, the Baltimore News-Post wrote, "like an animal in a trap." Loss of 1. Memorial Stadium rocked.

At that point, The Evening Sun reported, "the ballgame began to explode in the Giants' collective face."

Quickly, the Colts marched 55 yards for the go-ahead touchdown as Unitas - sprung by a crushing block from Moore - scuttled around right end on a bootleg for the last 4 yards.

Then, on three consecutive New York possessions, Baltimore proceeded to intercept the Giants "like harvesters picking currants," wrote Red Smith, the premier columnist of the day.

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