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Sudden Life

In the murky gloaming of old Yankee Stadium exactly 50 years ago, on Dec. 28, 1958, Alan Ameche burrowed through a chasm over right tackle at the goal line to climax the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” the historic moment captured in a photograph from the end zone that is famous in football lore.

My perspective from a press box seat in the mezzanine level of the stadium was different.

The “sudden death” victory of the Baltimore Colts over the New York Giants, 23-17, for the NFL championship propelled professional football past baseball as the national pastime. This was sitting in on history -- well, sports history -- before my eyes.

As a young sportswriter getting immersed in the pro football of the 1950s -- it lagged far behind baseball and even college football in public interest -- I had a special kinship with the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts. I was not a fan. The word “fan” derives from “fanatic,” and I never felt that way about sports. I admired athletic achievement under pressure and was thrilled by the competition.

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The star performer of the Giants was Frank Gifford, a versatile running back who came out of the oil field country near Bakersfield and married the campus beauty queen at USC. During the season, they (like many Giants) lived at the Concourse Plaza Hotel near Yankee Stadium, and Frank invited me to postgame parties in his apartment. Gifford received the Jim Thorpe Trophy (my creation) as the NFL’s most valuable player in 1956.

The next year John Unitas, the young quarterback of the Baltimore Colts, came to New York to be awarded the MVP trophy. Just two seasons earlier, the crew-cut passer in the quaint high-top shoes was picked up from the semi-pro western Pennsylvania Bloomfield Rams, who paid him $6 a game. Unitas was the dominant player on the frozen turf of Yankee Stadium in that 1958 classic (and got a brand-new Corvette for his MVP performance).

My first extensive travel with a pro football team was the two weeks annually I was invited to spend with the Colts on their season-ending West Coast trips. Heading to Southern California for the Rams game, the Colts moved into the staid Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, where a covey of little blue-haired old ladies who lived there clucked over the football behemoths and wanted to know where they had gone to school.

“The Ohio State University,” said burly tackle Jim Parker. “Penn State,” said speedy Lenny Moore. (Both played their ways into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.) “And you, young man,” one lady asked guard Alex Sandusky as he walked with me through a flower-laden parlor, “where did you matriculate?”

“Harvard College, ma’am,” answered Sandusky.

I asked Sandusky as we walked on, “How could you say that?”

“Shucks,” he blushed. “I couldn’t tell her I went to Clarion State Teachers.”

Sandusky was a key blocker in clearing the wide swath through which Ameche plunged for the historic “sudden death” touchdown, his forward momentum taking the fullback to the ground in the end zone without having been touched. The play was called “16 power” that in football argot means the “1" back (Ameche) goes through the “6" hole between tackle and end.

On a gray day that started out unseasonably warm at 45 degrees for wintry New York, the Colts built a 14-3 halftime lead as Unitas kept hitting a wide-open Raymond Berry, who was to catch 12 passes during the afternoon.

In the third quarter, after a long drive, the Colts had second and goal on the Giants’ one-yard line and were on the verge of putting the game away. On three straight plays, they tried to power into the end zone and failed.

The Giants’ gray-haired quarterback, Charlie Conerly, retaliated by passing to gimpy-kneed Kyle Rote in the open field; as he reached midfield, Rote was hit and lost the ball. Halfback Alex Webster, trailing the play, picked it up on the dead run and reached the Baltimore one-yard line. Fullback Mel Triplett bulled into the end zone, and the game’s momentum had changed.

The next time the Giants got the ball, they marched 81 yards, capped by Conerly’s pass to a slithery Gifford, who ran 15 yards into the end zone to put them up, 17-14, early in the fourth quarter.

The Colts missed a field-goal try to tie the score, and with little more than two minutes to play, the Giants had the ball on third down at their 40-yard line, needing only three yards for a first down to run out the clock and clinch the championship.

On a patented Vince Lombardi-designed sweep (he was the club’s offensive coordinator), Gifford ran right and, cutting inside behind his blockers, was met by All-Pro defensive end Gino Marchetti. Big Daddy Lipscomb of the Colts, all 288 pounds of him, jumped on the pile of bodies and broke Marchetti’s left ankle.

As they untangled, with Marchetti screaming in pain, the referee, famed Ron Gibbs, spotted the ball just short of the first-down marker. Gifford swears to this day he made the required yardage.

Coach Jim Lee Howell turned to Don Chandler, the best kicker in the NFL, and ordered a punt that was fair caught at the Colts’ 14-yard line. The clock showed 1:56 to play, perfect for a classic two-minute drill by Unitas, whose passes to Moore and Berry moved them to the Giants’ 13-yard line with 15 seconds to play and the clock running. Steve Myrha came in to boot a tying 20-yard field goal that mandated the first overtime in football history.

By this time, the stands in Yankee Stadium were smoke-filled. From the exhaled frozen air of spectators’ lungs as the temperature dropped below freezing in approaching dark and from the many cigarettes that were lighted in those Marlboro days. (Conerly with his rugged look was the original Marlboro Man on Times Square billboards.)

In the extra period, after the Giants won the toss but were stopped short of a first down in three plays, Chandler punted again deep into Colts’ territory. Unitas, calm as ever, inexorably found the open man. A swing pass to fullback Ameche for eight yards and a first down. A throw to Berry alone down the left side for 20 yards and another first down past midfield.

Then he mixed in a trap play up the middle by Ameche -- remember, the quarterbacks called the signals in those days -- that stunned the Giants for 24 yards. The Colts were already in field-goal range. A slant-in pass to Berry took the ball to the eight-yard line and another first down.

Current-day strategy would have called for Coach Weeb Ewbank to send in Myrha for a field goal to end it right there. But Ewbank didn’t have that much faith in his kicker, who had made only four of 10 three-point attempts during the regular season and, in fact, had missed three extra points.

So Ameche plunged for two yards. Then Unitas crossed everyone, including his coach, with the most controversial call in pro football annals. He improvised and sent tight end Jim Mutscheller into the right flat, away from a linebacker, then lofted a pass that Mutscheller grabbed just before he skidded of bounds on the one-yard line, unable to turn on the icy ground into the end zone.

Forget the risk of a Giants defender intervening to intercept the dangerous cross-field throw, maybe return it all the way for a touchdown.

“When you know what you’re doing,” Unitas later explained to writer Dave Anderson, “you don’t get intercepted.”

Forget the postgame rumination of a New York sports columnist that Baltimore owner Carroll Rosenbloom, a gambling man, ordered them to go for a touchdown to cover the point spread. This was strictly Unitas boldness. On third down, he sagely handed off to Ameche on “16 Power” for the winning touchdown in what Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated immediately dubbed “The Best Football Game Ever Played.” SI shunned the usage of the word “greatest,” but that has since become the descriptive adjective for the 1958 classic.

Was it the greatest? There have been other equally dramatic games. Take, most recently, Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, Ariz., last February when the Giants beat the New England Patriots in the last minute, an astounding upset. I was in the press area for that one too, anticipating the Patriots might culminate a record-setting 19-0 won-loss season. I prefer to call the thriller of a half-century ago “Most Significant.”


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