It was the game of the year in a season made tingly by great games. None of the 63,192 wildly excited fans who sat through the two and a half hours in icy Yankee Stadium while a feathery snowfall sifted down on them would deny that. It was an afternoon to test their nerves and their loyalty to their grimly courageous New York Giants.
And yet, before the game, the player who was to send them home hilariously happy through the early darkness doubted seriously that he could play at all.
Warming up, specialist Pat Summerall tested his injured right leg gingerly, trying field goals at varying distances, wincing a little as he kicked. "You better warm up," he told Don Chandler, the New York Giants' No. 2 place kicker. "I don't think I'm going to be able to kick."
Four and a half minutes before the game ended, with the score then tied 10-10, he tried a field goal from the Cleveland 31-yard line, and the ball slithered to the side of the target.
December 22, 1958
Now, with two minutes left and the snow interposing a cottony fog between him and the goal posts 49 yards away, Summerall tried again. Charley Conerly cleaned the snow from a spot on the Browns 49 and stretched his hands for the snap. Summerall took the mincing steps which precede the kick and lifted the ball high and far into the whiteness and then looked up to watch its flight. Conerly looked up prayerfully from his kneeling position. The ball, like a sliced golf ball, bored to the right of the goal posts as it took off, then curved and went cleanly through, and the New York Giants, a team which has lived with adversity all season, beat the Cleveland Browns to gain a tie for the Eastern Conference championship of the National Football League.
The field goal, as dramatic an ending for a football game as any script writer could devise, was a fit climax to this game and to the tenacious fight the Giants have made all year to overhaul the Browns. Indeed, tenacity is the quality of this Giant team. It is not, in individual personnel, one of the great pro teams of the decade. There are defects in its armament, and some of them are defects which should have been disastrous on this Sunday on this icy field against a team like the Cleveland Browns. The Giant running attack is built around the ability of backs like Frank Gifford and Alex Webster to cut inside or outside of a quick block, and uncertain footing makes these darting, slicing tactics almost impossible. The Browns, depending nearly entirely on the incredible power of their great fullback, Jim Brown, were not so seriously handicapped by a hard field made slippery by a thin powdering of snow.
The Cleveland advantage was made startlingly apparent on their first play from scrimmage. Milt Plum, the Brown quarterback, faked a pitchout to Lew Carpenter, forcing the Giant end wide. Then he handed off to Jim Brown, who ripped into the Giant line with the instant acceleration which is so surprising in a 228-pound back. A Cleveland tackle wheeled across to cut off Giant Linebacker Sam Huff; the hole gaped briefly and Brown was through it, running very strongly in his odd upright stance. Another Giant linebacker, cutting across, seemed to have him pinned, but Brown accelerated again and flashed suddenly into the Giant secondary, streaking by the startled backs before they could react. The play covered 65 yards and put the Browns ahead before the fans had finished wrapping themselves in blankets against the cold.
For a long time that play was the story of the game. Time and again the indefatigable Brown went churning into the Giant line, whacking through narrow holes, ricocheting off linebackers and finally disappearing under a mass of blue jerseys—a mass that usually surged for an extra yard or two under the impetus of his charge. The Giant line was playing off the line of scrimmage during the first half, but as the footing grew worse, it moved up, charging more quickly; in the second half the Giant tacklers often reached Brown before he got under way. The Giants finally contained the Brown attack with this tactic.
Meanwhile, the Giant attack, denied the wide sweeps which are its most effective weapon, sputtered. Alex Webster, a great halfback who is neither exceptionally fast nor exceptionally elusive, gained most of the New York ground yardage. Webster's greatness lies in his quickness on cutbacks, and even on this field he wheeled and sliced into the Brown line with surprising impact. He is an extraordinarily audacious runner, but he alone was not enough during that first half, and the Browns led 10-3 when the teams left the field.
The seed of the Brown defeat was sown in that first half, however, in a play which was probably forgotten immediately by the fans. Conerly handed off to Frank Gifford, who ran wide to his right, then threw on the run to Webster. Gifford has had an injured elbow for the last three weeks, and he babied the throw, missing Webster. But Kyle Rote came back to the huddle and told Conerly, "I noticed something. Maybe we can use it in the second half."
Rote and Gifford worked out the mechanics of Rote's strategy during the half-time intermission. Rote had noticed that the Brown secondary had overshifted to the right, toward Gifford's run on the first half pass. In the final quarter, after Andy Robustelli recovered a Brown fumble on the Cleveland 45, Conerly called the play. Gifford swung wide to his right again, threatening a run, and the Brown defensive backs moved with him. Rote, feinting a block at the Brown tackle on the other side of the line, suddenly swung away and down the sideline, and Gifford stopped and lofted a high, long pass through the snow diagonally across the field. Rote caught it and was down on the Cleveland six. Two plays later, Conerly called the same pass, and this time Gifford threw to Bob Schnelker in the end zone for the tying touchdown. ("I told Schnelker just to get loose and wave his arms at me," Gifford said later. "He did.")
The Browns made the mistake, then, of trying to protect the tie, which, to them, would have been as good as a victory, since the Giants had to win to force the playoff for the division title. "We knew what they had to do," Giant Defensive Coach Tom Landry explained. "We jammed up the middle and charged hard, and Grier broke through a couple of times and that helped." The Cleveland team, walloping away into that impregnable middle, could not control the game in the closing minutes and twice had to punt to the Giants. A bad punt which sliced out of bounds set up Summerall's first field goal try.
Jim Lee Howell, the Giant coach, debated with himself momentarily before sending Summerall in for the 49-yard game-winning field goal. "I started to call for a pass to try to get a little closer," he said. Conerly, the graying 37-year-old Giant quarterback who was the architect of this victory, had missed on three passes just prior to the field goal. One of them, which traveled some 55 yards in the air, had slipped through Webster's arms on the goal line, but Conerly blamed himself for not moving the ball closer. And then came Pat Summerall and the fateful fourth down.
"I looked up when Pat hit the ball," Conerly said in the dressing room later. "It looked real good and it made me feel good, too. There was a lot of guilt riding on that one."
"I didn't think about anything much when I went in," Summerall said. "I could have cried when I missed the one just before, but all I thought about was that I would have to hit it good since it was a long kick. Then when I was waiting for the snap, I kept reminding myself to lock my ankle. Sometimes I forget and let it waggle, but I remembered this time."
Earlier in the second half, Harland Svare, who saved the game against Detroit the week before by blocking a late field goal, figured in another game-saving play. Leading 10-3, Coach Paul Brown called for a fake field-goal attempt from the Giant 20, a debatable decision at best. Svare, who had benefited from Andy Robustelli's help in Detroit, this time swung wide to pull a blocker out and clear a path for Robustelli. When the Browns' Bobby Freeman, who was the holder for the field goal, suddenly leaped up to try a pass, Svare was directly in his path and dumped him for a loss.
The victory, of course, did not give the Giants the Eastern title. Already twice victors over Cleveland, New York must beat the Browns yet again in the playoff game in Yankee Stadium, December 21.
Since their loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 16 in Pittsburgh, the Giants have had to win each Sunday to keep their hopes alive. This continuous strain lent Coach Jim Lee Howell a spurious calm in the Giant dressing room after the game. "How can a guy get excited the way we've been playing 'em the last few weeks?" he asked. "Next week? I don't know. This is a great team, emotionally. But how many times emotionally can you do this?"