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"The Greatest Game Ever Played"

The Giants and Colts battle it out in the 1958 NFL Championship Game

Six fumbles lost. Missed field goals. An interception. The 1958 NFL Championship between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts was a terrible game technically and artistically, as the late Frank Gifford described it, but the people were extraordinary. So much so that the 17 Hall of Famers who had a role in the contest attracted a national television audience, many of them newcomers to the league, and the game became known in football lore as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

“You can ask people which teams played in the Super Bowl three years ago, two years ago -- they’d have a hard time telling you,” Gifford said. “Five years ago, they wouldn’t know. But you ask most football fans who played in the championship in 1958 – Baltimore and New York. Johnny Unitas and Charlie Conerly. Try that 10 years ago, who played in the Super Bowl? People remember that game.”

The heights reached today by the NFL can be traced to that game. Professional football was on the rise in the 1950s, and just as importantly, so was television. The result was an explosion across the country, and by the middle of the next decade, professional football had become the nation’s favorite sport to watch. And it still is today.

“All this spread the magic because at the same time television was erupting and these games were not just being televised at home – they used to block out our home games – they were being shown all over the country,” Gifford said. “Every 21 miles a television station had to be built. It finally got to where they could show games all across the United States. It had everything people wanted. It had timeouts, quarters, halftimes, you get the commercials in, you didn’t have to stop the action. It was perfect for television. And it still is.”

The drama built as the ’58 championship game reached the end of regulation. Gifford scored on a 15-yard pass from Conerly and the Giants took a 17-14 lead, but Baltimore’s Steve Myhra kicked a 20-yard field goal to send the game to overtime, which was to be decided in sudden death for the first time in league history. The Giants won the coin toss but went three-and-out on the first possession. Unitas then marched the Colts 80 yards down the field on 13 plays, and fullback Alan Ameche punched it in with a one-yard touchdown to win the title.

Out of the game grew these larger-than-life figures. The game featured 17 future members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For the Giants: Gifford, Roosevelt Brown, Sam Huff, Tom Landry (asst. coach), Vince Lombardi (asst. coach), Tim Mara (Owner), Wellington Mara (Vice President and Secretary), Don Maynard, Andy Robustelli, and Emlen Tunnell. For the Colts: Raymond Berry, Art Donovan, Weeb Ewbank (coach), Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, Jim Parker and, of course, Unitas.

“I think everything building to 1958 was the rebirth of pro football,” Gifford said. “Television made pro football. It was perfect for television. It was almost made for television as opposed to other sports, and it was emerging. And we were emerging with it. And it just captivated the country, particularly New York. We just walked around the town like we owned it.”

CHAMPIONSHIP GAME NOTES

TV announcers: Chris Schenkel (Giants), Chuck Thompson (Colts)

Radio announcers: Les Keiter (New York, WCBS Radio) and Bob Wolff (Baltimore), Bill McColgan and John Boland (NBC Radio)

Public address announcer: Bob Sheppard

Player salaries: According to David J. Halberstam in the Sports Broadcast Journal, “Unitas made $17,500 in 1958 for leading the Colts to the league title. To appreciate today’s equivalents, $10,000 in 1958 is worth roughly $87,000 today. For playing in the title game, each of the Colts earned $4,718 and each Giant got $3,111. Considering the relative pittance players were paid then in salary, the winner’s and loser’s shares were fairly significant.”

STARS FROM THE 1958 NFL CHAMPIONSHIP