'The Greatest Game Ever Played' an ESPN triumph

Brian GaylordCorrespondent IDecember 13, 2008

Even the trombone player in the Baltimore Colts marching band wound up bloodied from what is referred to as the NFL's greatest game ever played, the 1958 championship game at Yankee Stadium won in sudden-death overtime by the Baltimore Colts over the New York Giants, 23-17.

"The Greatest Game Ever Played" -- an ESPN Films presentation in association with NFL Films -- aired on Saturday was a treat, with perspective from a variety of people who were directly involved in the game. The game has held the "greatest" designation for 50 years. 

I was barely old enough to say “New York Football Giants” when that historic 1958 game was played. A number of players on that 1958 Giants team were still on the team when I cut my teeth as a Giants fan.

The trombone player in question? He said in the ESPN broadcast that he bloodied his own lips by playing the Colts marching song 56 times on the train ride back from New York City to Baltimore. The horn’s mouthpiece kept banging his lips on the bumpy -- but glorious -- train ride home. 

In spots ESPN’s colorized broadcast might have benefited by showing lengthier stretches of the game without the constant interruption of present-day interviews to describe the action. Nonetheless, the interviews were integral to the presentation, matching current-day New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts players and coaches with Giants and Colts players and others who played a role in the 1958 game.        

As former Giants halfback Frank Gifford pointed out in one interview, the game itself was fairly sloppily played. Gifford himself fumbled the ball away twice and the Colts converted both turnovers into touchdowns. But the game is hailed largely for its over-arching impact in launching the NFL on its path to mass popularity. The game also laid the seeds for the launch of the American Football League in 1960 and more. A young Johnny Unitas picked the Giants defense apart and displayed leadership skills in a coming out party of sorts on his way to becoming one of the greatest players of all time.

Of all the ESPN interview pairings, it was the relatively low-key pairing of Dwight Freeney with Baltimore Colts offensive lineman Alex Sandusky that may have been the most satisfying. Both men appeared to have a genuine respect and liking for each other and their warmth shined through.

There was a nice though brief moment before the camera cut away when a seemingly moved Brandon Jacobs -- with a slight catch in his voice -- thanked Baltimore Colts flanker/halfback Lenny Moore for his small part in helping lay the foundation for what has become a broadly popular and lucrative league.

There was Tom Coughlin with near boyish admiration and delight in listening to Gifford and Baltimore Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti reminisce about the game. There were light-hearted moments between Michael Strahan and Baltimore Colts defensive tackle Art Donovan.

There was something else in the air in the ESPN broadcast, as well: a lack of real warmth between the Colts and Giants players who battled against each other in that 1958 game. An ESPN in-studio interview with Baltimore Colts wide receiver Raymond Berry and former Giants kicker Pat Summerall leading up to ESPN’s tribute to the game  betrayed as much. On camera at least, a stiff Berry barely acknowledged Summerall’s presence. Summerall, generally a difficult read, was nearly as stiff and seemingly uncomfortable.

In one interview on the tribute show, Berry comes off as a bit of a scold in talking about Gifford’s fumbles in the championship game, despite the Colts having benefited from the muffs. As much as anything, it was the combo of Unitas to Berry that lifted the Colts to a comeback victory that day. 

The following year was a rematch for the NFL championship, only this time the Colts beat the Giants handily, 31-16.

I think I understand the sentiment of Berry and other players. In the mid-1960s, the Aurora company marketed plastic models of sports figures such as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Jim Brown and Unitas that you pieced together with glue. Ever a Giants loyalist, upon completing my Unitas model I blew it up with a firecracker. Greatest game, my ass.