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Book Review

The game that changed professional football

Alan Ameche's touchdown won the 1958 NFL championship game for the Baltimore Colts. Alan Ameche's touchdown won the 1958 NFL championship game for the Baltimore Colts. (Courtesy of Neil Leifer)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Shribman
August 9, 2008

The Best Game Ever:Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly, 279 pp.,

illustrated, $23

There are lots of best games ever, and lots of books about them. There's the one about the Pittsburgh Pirates beating the New York Yankees in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series ("The Best Game Ever," by Jim Reisler). There's the one about the 1957 triple-overtime NCAA championship basketball showdown between North Carolina and Kansas ("The Best Game Ever," by Adam Lucas). There were at least four others before Mark Bowden's new volume published this spring (you can guess the title).

This latest "Best Game Ever" is about the legendary sudden-death NFL championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts in 1958, and it isn't even the first one of the genre about this game, won in dusky overtime by the Colts. (John F. Steadman wrote the earlier version, in 1988, with the title "The Greatest Football Game Ever Played.")

But Bowden is an important American writer, the author of "Black Hawk Down," and in this volume, so different from his chronicle about warfare in Somalia in 1993, he writes an elegy for an era - an era when television (and thus the NFL, which flourished with television) was young, when football players celebrated their championship wins with swigs of Coke and Nehi Orange, when it was possible for a quarterback to be on the Pittsburgh sandlots in one minute and in an NFL uniform in another.

The latter is a description of Johnny Unitas, one of the stars of the 1958 game and of Bowden's book. But one of the reasons the 1958 classic has a compelling claim on best-ever status is that Unitas isn't alone in making a star turn in Yankee Stadium that late December day. How many stars can you fit on one gridiron? Start counting: Raymond Berry. Gino Marchetti. Lenny Moore. Art Don ovan. Charley Winner. Don Maynard. Frank Gifford. Sam Huff. Roosevelt Grier. Jack Kemp. Pat Summerall. Andy Robustelli.

And that's before we mention Alan Ameche, whose TD in OT on TV gave the championship to Baltimore and won him a walk-on on "The Ed Sullivan Show." (Memo to younger readers: In 1958 reaching "The Ed Sullivan Show" was arguably more meaningful than reaching the end zone in a professional football game.)

It was, Bowden writes, "the greatest concentration of football talent ever assembled for a single game."

The story of this football game is, of course, well known. But Bowden's achievement is to place it in its proper perspective in (popular) history. In 1958, the NFL was nowhere, or at least nowhere near what it is today. This was baseball's era, and the people who knew and appreciated the gridiron game followed college football. (That year Dartmouth won the Ivy League championship in football. People actually cared about that.)

Until 12/28/58, pro football was not quite - not quite obscure but not quite important either, and certainly not quite as shimmery as college football. "Many of the viewers . . . were not regular watchers of pro football, and they were seeing something starkly different than the traditional college games played on sunny autumn afternoons," Bowden writes. "This was more like mortal combat from some dark underworld. As in some medieval rite, the players on both sidelines were draped in long capes."

All that changed that December day. Some 45 million people watched something unfamiliar, something thrilling, something utterly exhilarating. It was the end of the dark era of pro football, the moment it walked into the sunlit uplands of mass culture, network television, huge salaries, unrivaled celebrity. On the sidelines that afternoon were two assistant coaches for the Giants. One was Vince Lombardi. The other was Tom Landry. They were, it is fair to say, present at the creation.

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe's Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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