Football's Founding Fathers

Mark Bowden discusses the legendary Giants-Colts game of 1958 and reflects on how the sport and its players have changed in the past half century.

book cover

The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL
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by Mark Bowden
240 pages

Next spring, 85-year-old Yankee Stadium will meet the wrecking ball and be replaced by the sleek new ballpark rising across the street. The old haunt of Ruth and Gherig saw its share of memorable sporting moments, most of which have been replayed in continual rotation during the park’s season-long swan song. But often lost amidst the tidal wave of baseball nostalgia is the fact that perhaps the greatest game ever played at the Stadium involved not a single Yankee.

On a Sunday afternoon in December 1958, the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts squared off for the NFL championship in front of 65,000 fans in the Bronx—and some 50 million more watching at home. The game featured some of the greatest players of all time—men like John Unitas, Sam Huff, Frank Gifford, and Art Donovan—and it came to a thrilling and unprecedented conclusion: the first and only overtime in an NFL championship. Fifty years later, the matchup is still known as “the greatest game ever played,” an honorific that football fans confer with some degree of unanimity, and it’s widely credited for almost single-handedly propelling football toward its current position atop the summit of the American sporting world.

Though the game’s mythology persists, very few people have ever actually seen it; the original television broadcast appears to be forever lost to history. But Mark Bowden, an Atlantic national correspondent, tracked down an old coach’s film of the game while researching his latest book, The Best Game Ever. Curious about how football had changed in the intervening years, Bowden sat down with Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid to dissect the film, and to assess the play-calling from a modern coach’s perspective. Bowden’s resulting article, “Distant Replay,” appears in this month’s Atlantic. We spoke by phone last week.

Mark Bowden
Mark Bowden

In the 50 years since that championship, there have been a lot of great games. And as you note in your article, the ’58 game was actually a pretty sloppy one, and the coaches made use of some pretty simplistic strategies. Why do you think this has game endured so long as the greatest of all time?

Well, I think there are a number of reasons. First of all, a sloppy game doesn’t necessarily mean a bad game—fans want to see exciting, dramatic football. And when you have two really good teams playing against one another, they force each other to make a lot of mistakes, so that’s pretty much par for the course. The game was a great football game first and foremost, where the lead changed hands back and forth throughout, and it was won in a dramatic field-length drive by the Colts. It was actually tied in the final seconds and went into the first overtime in history—and that’s still the only overtime that’s ever been played in an NFL championship or Super Bowl. So for those reasons alone it was a great football game to watch. But it also pitted the best offense in the league at the time against the best defense, and it was fitting perhaps that they initially fought to a tie.

It’s remembered as well because it drew the largest audience to ever watch a football game, and that was because of television. An estimated 45 to 50 million people saw the game, which spilled over into primetime on Sunday night—which was a much bigger deal back in 1958 than it is today, since there were only two or three television channels to choose from. And so it introduced pro football in a particularly exciting and dramatic way to a vast audience.

And in fact, no one knew this when they were watching it at the time, but this game became the impetus for the subsequent dramatic success of professional football. Within two years, the American Football League started up to take advantage of the growing interest in the game. Johnny Unitas was paid, I believe, $17,000 for the 1958 season. Within three or four years, Joe Namath was being paid $250,000 as a bonus just to sign with the New York Jets—I mean, the fortunes of the league and its players began to increase exponentially right after this game. So it’s universally recognized as sort of the spur to the modern success of the league.

It was also the largest assembly of talent on the field at the same time in football history. There were 17 future Hall of Famers involved, both on the field and on the sidelines, and while I think there have been games since that have rivaled or equaled that number, for 1958 it was definitely the highest-powered collection of talent ever assembled.

Lastly, one of the reasons why it was such a seminal moment is that you had the strategic architects of modern football on the field all coaching at the same time. Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry were the assistant coaches for the Giants and Weeb Ewbank was the coach for the Colts, and they were implementing offenses and defenses that were new then and relatively primative, but which have evolved into the standard offenses and defenses that you see today.

In a Sports Illustrated article that came out shortly after the game, Tex Maule wrote, “The classics of the pre-television era have been perpetuated only in the minds of the spectators on hand and by the newspaper accounts; this for the first time was a truly epic game which inflamed the imagination of the national audience.” Television plays a big role in your book, and this game comes across as one of the first truly national sporting experiences of the kind that we now almost take for granted.

Well, yes, with the possible exception of the World Series, which had become a national event by the 1950s—everything stopped and everyone watched it on television. This was the first time that happened for football. And given that it was on prime time on Sunday night, it really was one of the first of the sort of communal national events that we all have come to—if not take for granted—accept as part of modern life. In part, this was because television was itself a new phenomenon. But to me, at its most basic, it introduced the game to a generation of football fans who had never really seen it before. And it sort of carved out Sunday afternoon as the football space for America.

But even with 50 million people watching, television hadn’t yet assumed a central place in the game itself—and you mention that the style of play was a lot different as a result.

Yeah. The most important difference now is the game is a lot slower, and part of that is directly the result of television. They’ve imposed time-outs to allow for commercials, so there are various incentives to slow the game down. And the consequence of that has been—as Andy Reid noted—that coaches have become a far more important part of the game itself, because there’s actually time now for coaches to do things like quickly evaluate snapshots of the opponent’s offense or defense, and look at replays and devise tactical adjustments, and—literally, nowadays—call in the offensive plays or change the defense, change the personnel on the field. There wasn’t any time for that in the pre-television era, and so everything moved very quickly. Once the ball was kicked off, the game really was in the hands of the players on the field. I actually think if there’s one reform I would like to see to the game, it would be to get back to that. Although I doubt that’s going to happen.

One of the most interesting storylines you bring out in your book is that the play-calling in this game came down to a battle of wits between Sam Huff at linebacker and Johnny Unitas at quarterback. Do you think we’ll ever see players measure up to that performance—especially now that coaching staffs have so much more control over what happens on the field?

Well, you certainly have players with the same level of ability, but I think in terms of their importance to the team, probably not. Because if you look at John Unitas, he had the ability to make adjustments during the game based on what he was seeing and evaluating in the players across the line of scrimmage from him, and he was extremely skilled at noticing small things—little changes in formation, or players who were winded, or somebody who’s injured. And he was authorized to structure the sequence of plays that he called to take advantage of those things. If you lose someone who’s plugged into the game like that, and who has that much control, that was an enormous set-back in 1958.

But as you say, in today’s NFL the coaches are basically orchestrating, and the player is to a much greater extent just someone who implements what the coaches call. So in that sense, as long as you have a guy with decent mechanincs who can execute the plays as designed, you don’t lose that much when, say, Tom Brady goes down.

You talked to more than a dozen players who were involved in this game, and you note in your book that the NFL at that time was generally “the haunt of brawlers, boozers, and big-time gamblers.” But you also mention that all these guys playing in the ’50s had to hold down real careers off the field, since they were making so little money. How much do you think the character of pro football players has changed in the last few decades?

Well, first of all, pro football is no longer, to my knowledge—and I spend a lot of time around it—made up of brawlers and boozers and big-time gamblers. I think the brawlers and boozers are mostly in the stands. And I think the big-time gamblers are doing their own thing apart from the game, at least to my knowledge. But football players themselves are highly professional. Some of them are dopes, but nevertheless, they don’t last very long in the NFL if they aren’t kind of grinds—hardworking guys. They are smart and focused and in tremendous shape, and they make so much money that they’d be out of their minds to take a poke at anybody. So there aren’t too many brawlers anymore. There are a few. But it’s a big league.

And another interesting thing: the football players back then weren’t as prepared either physically or mentally to play the game as players are today, because they had other responsibilities, other jobs. As Andy Reid noted in our interview, these guys didn’t have time to spend hours and hours every day studying film and implementing complex offensive and defensive systems. It was a part-time job. So in that sense they were rawer than today’s football players. I think they were much more like common folk than they are today.

And one of the interesting things that I’ve written about in the past is the way that that success sometimes estranges these young men from their families and friends. I mean, today’s professional football player is at an elevated socio-economic level just from the day he starts to play. It is such an enormous leap that he takes, in some cases from real poverty to relative affluence. He’s more likely to live in a gated community or McMansion than down the street in a row house carrying a lunch pail off to work. In that sense, players of the past were much more approachable. They were neighbors in the communities where they played football. And to some extent it made them far better prepared for life after football.

Did you get that sense talking to some of the older guys—that they had been able to put together normal lives and careers after their playing days were over?

Yes. And even some of the best players were torn, from year to year, about whether they should even continue to play football or pursue some other line of work where they could make just as much money but have more promise in the long term. Sam Huff nearly walked out of training camp with the New York Giants because he thought he could make more money teaching in West Virginia. Alan Ameche retired after about five years at the top of his game because he didn’t like his coach. In part, that was because players couldn’t easily move from team to team in those days—they couldn’t become free agents—so they were stuck. But also, the amount of money Ameche was making was not a huge thing to walk away from. I think that today most players had better hope they’ve saved and invested their money wisely when they leave football. Because they’re never going to make that sort of money again.

How would you say the old-timers you interviewed felt about today’s players, and the way the game itself has changed?

Well, with some of them, there is genuine bitterness about the way that the League has neglected them. They’re the people who created—and who really laid the groundwork—for the modern NFL, for these enormous salaries and billion-dollar franchises. A lot of people have gotten very rich in pro football, and these guys did not, for the most part. I never got the sense that they felt like they were owed reimbursements for being paid so little when they played. But things like health benefits, pension supplements—many of these guys feel that the League has really neglected taking care of the older players.

And at the same time, watching the game, they are not as impressed by how great the League is today as many of us are. They feel like the game in their day was just as tough and the players were just as good. They tend to think that modern players are overrrated by comparison.

When you interviewed Sam Huff, it seemed like he had never fully gotten over losing that game.

Yeah, I think so. In a good natured way, I think he was far more bitter about the way the Giants treated him down the road when they traded him. But I think it’s a lasting disappointment to him that they failed to win that game. And when you get right down to the particulars of him trying to out-think John Unitas, he still gets frustrated when he thinks about it. Because he really got out-played, and he knows it. And he admits it.

Raymond Berry—who had one of the great performances of all time in this game—was so deeply shaken that he had what almost seemed like a religious experience sitting alone in the locker room afterward. How did he react when you started talking to him about the game?

Well, he bowled me over with his memory, in part because he had kept such copious notes, and in part because of the kind of guy he is. But he was delighted to talk to me about it, even given the level of detail I was after. And it was really, suprisingly, perhaps the first time that he had ever really had the chance to explain in detail exactly what was going on and exactly why he was able to be so successful and how he had prepared for that moment. Raymond’s never written a book about himself or his career. I don’t believe anyone ever has. If someone did, it would have been a sort of hagiography that isn’t interested particularly in the nuts and bolts of his preparation and performance. But I think Raymond is all about preparation and performance. And I think to describe all that was great fun for him. It was one of the easiest interviews I ever did. All I had to do was take notes and listen. Raymond answered questions I would not have even thought to ask.

I think the experience that he had after the game was personal. The most important thing for him was how far he had come, and how fast. I wrote a bit in the book about his sense of desperation just two years earlier—when he felt sure that he was going to be cut from the team, and he was just hanging by a thread, and how he had applied all these very unorthodox ideas about preparation and play to his game, and how just astonishingly well it had all worked. And then I think the thing that really shook him was how it had all come together at the most significant moment of the most significant game.

You know, it wasn’t like he had been preparing to play Carl Karilivacz [the Giants’ cornerback] in some regular season game, and then at some point in the second quarter he just beat him like a drum and the Colts won the game and moved on to the next week. I mean, this was the most important football game that he had ever played in his life, this was the team’s most important game, this was in some sense the league’s most important game. And it came down to the final moments, the critical moments, in the final drive. All of that advance preparation—right down to the play that he and Unitas had scripted years earlier and had filed away for future use in the event that somebody ever did something as crazy as pull a linebacker all the way out to line up nose-to-nose on a wide receiver—it meant that they looked at each other and they knew exactly what to do.

And I think the feeling that that came as the clock was ticking down in the final seconds of this championship game with the whole world watching was overwhelming to him. He eventually came to feel that it wasn’t just a coincidence. But at the time, he says, he just was shaken by how powerful the moment was.
You mentioned earlier that the coaches on the sideline for this game were some of the architects of modern football strategy. And one of the important historical aspects of the game was that this was really where the 4-3 defense that Landry developed hit the big time. Why do you think the 4-3 still dominates the NFL as the standard formation, even as offenses have grown so much more complex than the ones used in the ’50s?

I actually think defenses have also become dizzyling complex, and while the 4-3 is the basic defensive formation, they change it from down to down. Defenses have made very innovative and sophisticated adjustments and they’re still doing so. Right now there’s a big controversy in Philadelphia because Andy Reid hung on to three Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks and one of them is pissed off because he’s a traditionalist and he thinks he should be starting. But the fact is, they do face teams with just incredibly difficult passing games—witness the Cowboys the other night—where you really need three blue-chip cover guys to try to keep up with them. So I think the game continues to evolve.

But the reason we remember the 4-3 defense, and the reason it’s become the foundation, is that it was football making the transition from being primarily a running game to becoming as much a passing game as running game—and to where now I think we’re at a point where it’s more a passing game than a running game. And so back then defenses were struggling to figure out how to cover all these receivers coming out in the pass routes and yet not give up easy five, six, seven yard runs every time they handed the ball off. So they had to come up with that flex position, the middle linebacker, where you could go both ways, and where you relied on the wits of a Sam Huff in the middle to make it work. And I think, you know, it was successful and that’s the key to understanding anything in pro football, just as it is in evolution: if it works, it survives. And if it doesn’t, they get rid of it fast.

In your book, you tell the story of Neil Leifer, a 16-year-old amateur photographer who snuck into Yankee Stadium and ended up taking the most famous picture of the final touchdown with a borrowed camera. Can you talk about what’s happened to him since?

He went on to become one of the most famous sports photographers in history. Some of the really iconic images that all of us know from sports were shot by Neil Leifer, for Life and Sports Illustrated. One that comes readily to mind is the picture of Mohammed Ali standing over Sonny Liston shouting, “What’s my name, what’s my name?” One of the most famous pictures in sports—that was Neil Leifer. You know, he’s a great photographer and he still works for Sports Illustrated. I interviewed him at his office there, and he’s still as busy as could be. He was annoyed, actually—he didn’t really want to be bothered when I interviewed him, and I had a lot of questions. I think he’s told that story a few times.

You spent a lot of time with Andy Reid, and you got to see his peculiar genius at work. Why can’t he win a Super Bowl?

Because I think Andy Reid is not a genius—he’s a smart man who has turned himself into a very successful professional football coach. And he’s up against about 20 or 30 other guys who are similarly dedicated and have varying levels of talent to work with. You know, I used to cover football and I’ve written about it over the years, and I think it’s really, really hard to be successful in the NFL. Frankly—although Eagles fans would string me up for saying it—I think a far more accurate measure of the capability of a coach is whether or not his teams are right in the mix and have the potential to win every year, or just about every year. And I think you can say that of Andy Reid—the Eagles have been a contender every year that he’s coached them. Once you get into the playoffs, or once you get into the Super Bowl, anything can happen, especially when you’re playing against a great team. You know. The ball bounces funny.