The New York Giants faced the Baltimore Colts, and the winners would be the champions of the National Football League. But while it was a championship game, it did not sell out, meaning television was blacked out in the city where it was played. The Giants had the better record so the game was played in New York. Since the Giants didn’t have their own stadium, built for their game, they played in Yankee Stadium. Baseball was the American pastime. In the mind of the public, football was a college game, played by amateurs. Professional football was still a sort of orphan of the sports world, getting by on hand-me-downs. But that was all about to change. It was 1958.
The ground was hard and the air was cold and the game, by any strict measure, was a sloppy affair. Six lost fumbles and an interception made it something less than a masterpiece. Still . . . a few hours after the Colts had won, it was being called “the greatest game ever played.” Henry Luce didn’t know much about sports but he knew what Americans liked. So he had created a magazine that would cater to what he had spotted as an American passion for sports and hired a very shrewd editor named André Laguerre who knew the game had been big. Knew it right away and made sure that the readers of Sports Illustrated knew it, too, in the issue published immediately after the game and then, again, two weeks later in a piece called “Here’s Why It Was the Best Football Game Ever.”
Many of the 45 million who watched the game on television knew, too, even though the game was broadcast during the barren time between Christmas and New Year’s Day and in the afternoon. Professional football was not yet ready for prime time. That would come later. New Year’s Day was, of course, reserved for those college bowl games that were, in those days, the highest expression of the football arts, so much so that Red Smith, who knew sports almost as well as he wrote about them, turned in a newspaper column the next day on the firing of Notre Dame’s head coach. The pro game did not yet interest him.
Those who were interested enough to watch the broadcast saw something that looked, in the essentials, like the college game. But these teams were playing a different game. What the viewers saw was not spirit and emotion and “win one for the Gipper,” but professionalism—what Santiago saw in “the Great DiMaggio” and his creator famously called “grace under pressure.”
This was especially true with less than two and a half minutes left in the game and the Giants up 17-14. The Colts had the ball on their own 14 yard line, and after two incompletions, their quarterback hit Lenny Moore for 11 yards and a first down. Then it began.
Another incompletion, then it was Johnny Unitas to Raymond Berry for 23. Unitas to Berry for 15. Unitas
to Berry for 22. The time was ticking away as Unitas huddled the team and brought them up to the line for these plays. But there was no sense of panic. To the contrary. He looked serenely confident until, with the ball on the Giants’ 13 yard line and seven seconds left in regulation, the Colts’ kicker came out on the field and put it through to tie the score. The suspense had been exquisitely unendurable for the viewers, and this was made more so by the composure of Unitas.
There was something so precise and disciplined and professional about the drive, about the way Unitas would throw to the spot and the ball would be in the air before Berry made his cut, and the almost cold-blooded way that Unitas did it. Like John Wayne in the movies.
And then came overtime. It was a first. No championship game had ever gone into overtime. When the college teams, playing in their bowl games, finished tied, that was it. Nice game, see you next year. But this was professional football. There was money at stake and the winners, of course, got the bigger share. Enough to make a down payment on a house.
The Colts lost the coin toss. But they held the Giants, who punted on fourth and one. Unitas went back to work. By now, the millions watching—and probably a lot of the players on the field—just knew he was going to do it. The only question was . . . How was he going to do it?