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Turning 40, game still has great hold
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.
"I think it had a good deal to do in helping me to stay here all these years," says Thompson, who called the overtime period. "I became recognized with the Colts and then the Orioles. People ask me about that '58 game more than they do about any other. Doing that game, it helped make my acceptance a lot easier."
In Philadelphia, Johnny Sample owns a radio station and does a radio sports talk show. In 1958, he was a rookie out of Maryland State College (now Maryland Eastern Shore). He got in the game in the historic overtime, when cornerback Milt Davis was forced to the sideline with a broken foot.
Davis says now that he doesn't believe Sample "ever got enough credit" for the way he played that day. But that game was Sample's steppingstone.
He went from the Colts to the Jets with coach Ewbank, became the Jets' defensive captain and played a major role in what is perhaps the second-most-important game in pro football history, Super Bowl III, in which the Jets upset the Colts and smoothed the merger between the NFL and the American Football League.
"Every week, someone calls and asks about the 1958 game," says Sample. "They ask about players. 'Where's Big Daddy? How's Gino Marchetti? How's Don Joyce?' It was an amazing game. There were so many legendary players on both sides. It had TV ratings for the last four minutes triple any ratings pro football had ever had. I remember thinking 'If they catch a TD pass, I'll be a goat the rest of my life.' "
In the 1950s, football was personal. Players could be found in local pubs, having a beer with the fans. They made about the same amount of money as the guys down at Bethlehem Steel. They were part of the community.
Donovan remembers fans invited players to bull roasts, "and we'd go. They got to know us."
The players lived right down the block. Some still do.
"Now, we're just old guys who happened to play," says Moore, who -- like Ordell Braase, Unitas, Donovan, Jim Mutscheller, Art DeCarlo, Andy Nelson, Madison "Buzz" Nutter, Parker, Jack Call and Fred Schubach -- still lives in the area.
"I work in juvenile justice, and I seldom bring up that I was a pro football player, unless it is to make a point about values," Moore says.
A point was made about values last month. The Colts reunion drew 1,600 and raised nearly $250,000 for Johns Hopkins University research in the fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease. And, at Berry's suggestion, the team stayed for an additional four hours, signing autographs and trading memories.
It was in keeping with their era.
"That game," said linebacker Don Shinnick, in rare revelation of the emotions felt by his teammates and the community, "has meant everything to me."
What it was about
The lasting legacy of the game appears to be the memories it created. Braase says: "That game gave us stories to tell, and it elevated our community pride."
Louis Grasmick, a Baltimore businessman who helped organize the anniversary party, says it "created a cohesiveness among the fans and ballplayers that doesn't exist today."
It was a game that gave Baltimore a joyous moment. City residents can still remember where they were that day when the Colts won the city's first major championship. Men who were boys then can still hear car horns blowing and people cheering.
Nelson Fox, an 11-year-old in 1958, still gets chills when he remembers that night. He, his older brother Michael and his parents watched the game on a small black and white television set in their home on Strathmore Avenue in Northwest Baltimore.
Fox, now 51, remembers how excruciatingly happy they all were when the Colts won. He and his brother had immediately begun making welcome-home posters.
"It was total excitement," says Fox, payroll manager for a human services agency in Dedham, Mass. "We went to the airport. It was freezing cold, and we stood out on the tarmac for about an hour hoping to see them.
"We never actually saw them -- but just being there, it was euphoric. Even as an 11-year-old, I could sense the civic pride everyone felt after that game."
Pub Date: 12/27/98