Here's why it was THE BEST FOOTBALL GAME EVER

High drama, nerve-twanging tension and great athletes performing at their best created a classic of sports history when the Colts beat the Giants for the world championship
January 19, 1959

No one who saw the Baltimore Colts win the world professional football championship from the New York Giants by 23-17 on Dec. 28 (SI, Jan. 5) will ever forget the game—and some 50 million people did watch, in person or on television. 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 a national audience.

The principal architect of excitement was a lanky, crew-cut castoff quarterback named John Unitas, who operated the wonderfully proficient Baltimore team with the cool sang-froid of a card-sharp. Of course, he was far from the whole show. A magnificent Baltimore offensive line blocked savagely all afternoon; a myopic end named Ray Berry, who wears contact lenses, caught 12 passes, most of them unbelievably; and a thick-set fullback named Alan Ameche thundered into the good Giant defense with an impact often audible over the continuing roar of the crowd. Later, reflecting on the biggest day in his life, Unitas said, "You have to gamble or die in this league. I don't know if you can call something controlled gambling, but that's how I look at my play-calling. I'm a little guy, comparatively, that's why I gamble. It doesn't give those giants a chance to bury me."

No one buried Unitas in this very nearly perfect game, and his controlled gambling brought victory. Here are details of how and why the Colts won.

Key to nearly impregnable Colt blocking was perfect job Tackle Jim Parker (77) did on Giants' fine end, Andy Robustelli (81). "Greatest I ever played against," said Robustelli, who couldn't get past Parker.

"Any time I can get three seconds to throw, we're in good shape," says Colt Quarterback John Unitas. He had his three seconds with time to spare in this game, behind this strong blocking pattern. Parker (77) took Robustelli (81); Tackle George Preas (60) was on Jim Katcavage (75), the other Giant end. Art Spinney (62) and Alex Sandusky (68), the Colt guards, handled Giant Tackles Dick Modzelewski (77) and either Frank Youso or Roosevelt Grier (76). So strong and precise was the Baltimore blocking that time and again Unitas was able to wait well over his three seconds before throwing a pass and very often he had a clear route if he chose to run.

FIRST QUARTER

In the early testing and probing the Colts failed to score, but two developments affected their eventual victory. First, a long pass to Halfback Lenny Moore established him as the Colts' most dangerous receiver, so the Giants assigned two men to him, sometimes covering Berry with only one man, a fatal mistake. Second, a Colt field goal was blocked when Spinney turned out instead of in, leaving Linebacker Sam Huff a clear route. This was corrected when they kicked the game-tying last-seconds field goal. Late in the quarter a 36-yard field goal by Pat Summerall gave the Giants a 3-0 lead.

Moore (24) makes a leaping catch of Unitas' pass on the Giant 40 as Defensive Halfback Lindon Crow (41) barely misses deflecting the ball. Play made Giants gun shy, set up later completions to Berry which won the game.

On 38-yard run which set up New York field goal, Halfback Frank Gifford (16) is tipped off balance by near miss by Colt Defensive Halfback Mill Davis. Lost step cost Gifford possible touchdown, so Giants settled for field goal.

Halfback Alex Webster, in the clear deep in Colt territory on same drive, slips as accurate Conerly pass sails over his head. Had he retained his footing, play would probably have been a touchdown. This was the turning point of first half.

SECOND QUARTER

The great pass-protection blocking of the Colt line became clearly apparent now, and it became apparent, too, that two players who had been keys to the Giant success were off form. Frank Gifford, carrying the ball like a loaf of bread, fumbled twice, and the Colts recovered both; Roosevelt Grier, the anchor of the Giant defensive line, was too crippled to be effective. Unitas' canny play-selection kept the Giant defense scrambling and, with the line unable to break through the Colt blockers, the Giant secondary could not cope with the varied Baltimore pass patterns. Two Colt touchdowns now brought them a 14-3 lead.

First Colt touchdown comes on simple wedge as Ameche follows thumping block by Parker (77) from two yards out. Parker blasted Grier (76), the big Giant tackle, back two yards on this play and it was clear then that Grier, who had been wonderful during the regular season, was too lame to be useful to Giants in this game.

Unitas' deceptive play-calling shows here. First (left) he calls fullback slant off tackle, Giant Halfback Jim Patton (20) stopping Ameche (35). Then off same pattern he fakes to Ameche, throws to Berry (82) as Patton makes false step.

THIRD QUARTER

The Giant defense, which had leaked in the first half, changed the complexion of the game with a great effort which denied the Colts a touchdown in four tries from the Giant three-yard line. Later, when the Colts lost the toss in the overtime period, Coach Weeb Ewbank, given his choice of goals to defend, decided to defend this same goal, taking the wind in the face of his team in order to make sure the footing would be good should Baltimore penetrate inside the Giant 20. Ewbank felt that the poor footing at the west end of the field had helped the Giants stop the Colts; in the overtime period, Ameche had no trouble getting traction at the east end of the field. Now, early in the third period, the stand ignited a strong Giant rally good for two touchdowns. The first of these at the end of the quarter cut the Colts' lead to 14-10.

As Colts moved early in period, End Jim Mutscheller made a fine catch of a perfect pass. The ball and Giants' Patton hit Mutscheller at the same moment.

Patton, who played a strong game on defense for the Giants, sends Moore (24) out of bounds on the Giant three, setting up goal-line stand on next series.

Unitas (19) churns vainly at the Giant line on a quarterback sneak (above), one of four plays inside Giant three-yard line which failed. Ameche carried the ball on other three plays but found the tight-packed Giant defense impenetrable, the footing not good enough for his power running. Even so, on the final play of the series, a wide pitchout to Ameche, the Colt fullback might have gone in for the touchdown except for a fine effort by Giant Linebacker Cliff Livingston, who knifed through the Baltimore line and hauled Ameche down from behind for a four-yard loss which gave the Giants the ball.

End Kyle Rote (44), a step ahead of Davis (20), takes a long pass. He fumbled on the Colt 25-yard line but Alex Webster, who played with bad knees, had trailed the play for 62 yards, picked up the fumble and went to Colt one, setting up the first Giant touchdown. Play covered 86 yards, temporarily demoralized the Colts.

FOURTH QUARTER

The trend set by the Giants' defensive effort in the third period lasted until only two minutes were left. The Colts had played technically perfect football before, but now, with time running out, they looked to be confused and nearly helpless. The Giants scored easily as the quarter began, Quarterback Charley Conerly (42) throwing off a fake reverse which broke End Bob Schnelker loose for a 46-yard pass to the Colt 15. Wellington Mara, Giants' secretary, had taken some Polaroid camera pictures of the first half, which showed that the Colts overshifted their secondary to the right when the Giants were strong right, and Conerly threw on the next play to Gifford to the left and the Giants were ahead 17-14. For along time it looked like enough—but the Colts rallied.

The long pass to Schnelker (85) (left) set up the Giant score. Off the fake reverse, the ends crossed, Ken MacAfee (80) shallow to bring a halfback in, Schnelker deep. This Conerly pass was complete behind Left Safety Andy Nelson, but he caught Schnelker from behind. Then, with the Colts overshifted, Gifford had only to beat Steve Myhra (65), the linebacker, to get loose on a short pass, which he did to score the go-ahead touchdown.

Giant defense again. Huff (upper left), Modzelewski (upper right) and Robustelli take turns dumping Unitas. For a change Parker was not on Robustelli.

INCHES FROM VICTORY

It was third and four with the clock running out. The Giants lined up in a balanced T and Conerly called a sweep to the right. A first down here would almost surely have meant victory. Gifford swung to his right, trying to go around the mighty Colt End Gino Marchetti (89). Marchetti fought off Schnelker, moving to the sideline; then, when Gifford cut in, Marchetti lunged awkwardly away from Schnelker's block, got his hands on Gifford and slowed him. Tackle Gene Lipscomb (76) piled on and the impact broke Marchetti's ankle, but it stopped Gifford inches away from the vital first down.

The Giants had to punt. Don Chandler is one of the best and a missed fourth-down try would have left the Colts in range of a tying field goal on the Giant 43. Sound strategy.

TIME AND TIED

With some two minutes to go, Unitas calmly marched 73 yards to field-goal range. The Giants, worried about a long bomb to Moore, gave away the short pass, and Unitas threw three times to the best end in the league, the three passes good for 62 yards. Ray Berry (82) on each catch made the play count for more yardage by superb running. His second completion (above), made on a spectacular flying catch, was good for a first down on the Giant 35, and his third carried to the Giant 13 with only seconds to play. No offensive end in history ever made three more important plays; they won a championship.

These three passes helped put the Colts into the sudden-death period. All went to Berry. Unitas shuffled the routes of Berry (82) and Halfback L. G. Dupre (45) just enough to confuse the Giant defense. On the first pass Berry took one step to his left, then broke in over the center as Linebacker Harland Svare (84) could not recover. Huff (70) was pulled out of the area by Dupre going deep. On the second play Svare and Corner Back Carl Karilivacz (21) were on Berry, but Svare had to leave Berry to pick up Dupre swinging wide to the left. Berry took three steps downfield, then cut into the territory vacated by Svare, and Unitas hit him before Karilivacz could cover. On the third pass, which set up the field goal, Berry ran five strides straight down toward Karilivacz. Svare, backing to watch both Berry and Dupre, finally turned to pick up Dupre, and Berry, as Svare turned away, hooked in front of Karilivacz to catch the pass, then spin loose down to the Giant 18-yard line.

QUICK, STRAIGHT KICK
With only seconds left, the Colts did not huddle before this tying field goal by Myhra. The field-goal team hustled in; Guard Spinney, who had turned the wrong way on the blocked field goal in the first quarter, remembered and cut off the route up the middle, and Myhra rather calmly kicked the 20-yard field goal which sent the game into a sudden-death overtime. The clock showed seven seconds to play when the referee raised his hands, but time had run out for New York.

SUDDEN DEATH

Now, for the first time in the history of football, a game would be decided in a sudden-death overtime. Unitas made his only bad call of the day on the flip of the coin (above) with Giant co-captains Kyle Rote (right) and Linebacker Bill Svoboda. So the Giants chose to receive the kickoff. And now the gallant, season-long effort of this courageous team finally foundered. You felt, watching the Giants' last three offensive plays following the kickoff return, that this wonderful team had run out of gas. Gilford gained four yards, and then, with Schnelker breaking away deep enough for a first-down pass, Conerly missed him. With third down and six yards to go, Conerly tried to pass again, but the Colt secondary blanketed his receivers and the 37-year-old quarterback ran for it. He came close, too, running hard outside the Colt right end, but he was hit first by Linebacker Bill Pellington as he neared a first down and then by Middle Guard Don Shinnick, the second tackle coming in from the side and slewing his body suddenly sidewise, killing his forward momentum and bringing him to a stop only a foot short of the first down. The rest of the overtime belonged to the Colts; they were now the better, fresher team, and their winning drive had an inexorable quality.

Had this pass been accurate, the Giants might have won. Conerly faked a draw play, pulling linebackers in, and Schnelker circled not too deep, getting clear; but Conerly's pass was off. Schnelker here makes tremendous diving lunge for ball but is just short.

...AND THE 13 PLAYS TO GLORY

SEVENTH PLAY
The great Colt blocking and a Giant slip kept Baltimore moving. With third and 15, Unitas (19) called for a pass to the right to Moore, but Lenny was covered. Robustelli had spun inside, trying to get-away from Parker, but the big Colt tackle bottled him up. When Unitas looked to his left, the Giant line had been swung away from him so that he had time to wave Berry (82) deep when he saw that Carl Karilivacz (21), covering Berry, had slipped. Berry caught the pass, whirled away from Karilivacz, and carried to a very important first down for the Colts. The play was called from a formation used for the first time in the game—a slot right, with Moore the slot back.

EIGHTH PLAY
Unitas here took advantage of the hard-charging Modzelewski (77). "He was blowing in too fast to suit me." Art Spinney (63) cut across behind center, felled Moe with a great trap block; George Preas (60) cut off Huff (70), who was playing too deep, and Ameche was away for 23 yards.

11TH PLAY
Unitas (19) calls for a fullback slant off right tackle. Ameche (35) took a step toward right tackle but saw daylight in the middle and cut in, but Huff (70) slipped away from Buzz Nutter (50), the Colt center, and Modzelewski (77) cut in from the side to close the hole for one-yard gain.

12TH PLAY
Unitas catches the Giants off-balance with a completely unorthodox call—a dangerous pass to Mutscheller (84), which, had it been intercepted, might have meant a Giant touchdown. Unitas lofted the ball high over Cliff Livingston (89), a perfectly thrown pass which carried to the New York one.

13TH PLAY
The same play as the 11th, but the Giants are in a goal-line defense, closing the middle. Two great blocks, by Mutscheller on Livingston, the corner linebacker, and by Moore (24) on Halfback Emlen Tunnell (45), coming up from secondary, opened a gaping hole outside tackle for Ameche.

SUMMARY
Unitas' play selection and execution in his drive to victory was nearly perfect; his icy calm let him direct his team as steadily as if he were on the practice field. The drive itself was a blend of the ingredients which make pro football such a heart-wrenching drama for the spectator: some luck and the precise implementation by a great team of the inspirational leadership of a quarterback who ranks with the best in the history of the pro game. It was just the right climax for the best game of football ever played.

TWENTY FIVE ILLUSTRATIONSROBERT RIGER DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER19
20
35
45
82
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER82
20
19
35
45
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER20
65
80
42
16
33
24
23
85
80
17
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER80
89
16
85
33
29
42
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER23
89
85
80
36
17
66
76
42
29
33
16
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER70
19
35
45
82
84
84
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER70
21
84
82
19
35
45
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER70
19
35
45
84
82
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER24
60
75
77
35
45
19
63
72
81
89
70
21
84
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER70
19
35
45
24
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER19
35
45
84
24
89
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER20
70
89
35
45
19
24
84
41
45
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER84
24
89
41
45
75
77
70
72
81
35
19
25
20
21
84
82
DIAGRAMROBERT RIGER* TASEFF TAKES CHANDLER'S PUNT
1 DUPRE ON SWEEP TO RIGHT-FIRST DOWN
2 MOORE ON DEEP PASS—INCOMPLETE
3 DRAW TO DUPRE
4 SWING PASS IN LEFT FLAT TO AMECHE-FIRST DOWN
5 SAME AS PLAY 1 DUPRE CUTS INSIDE
6 MOE SMEARS UNITAS FOR 8-YARD LOSS!
3RD AND 15
7* KEY! HOOK PASS TO BERRY KARILIVACZ SLIPS-FIRST DOWN
8* KEY! QUICK TRAP BY AMECHE FIRST DOWN
9 DURPE OFF RIGHT TACKLE—NO GAIN
10 SLANT PASS TO BERRY
11 AMECHE RIGHT TACKLE SLANT—CUTS TO CENTER
12 PASS TO MUTSCHELLER IN RIGHT FLAT
13 AMECHE SLANT OFF RIGHT TACKLE FOR WIN!

THE 13 CALLS OF JOHNNY UNITAS

1 Unitas chose his plays deliberately. "I wanted to move on the ground to minimize loss of the ball. I didn't give a damn about the clock. It was our pace to set."

2 "This could have busted up the overtime real quick. Crow barely tipped the ball and Moore was going so fast he couldn't recover to handle it."

3 This was a special play for this game. "Huff followed Ameche everywhere. This draw to Dupre took advantage of that. An inch or two and he might have broken."

4 "Just a flare to Ameche. Svare forgot to pick up the flare man, staying with Berry, so I just hit The Horse."

5 This was a good first-down call. "They hadn't adjusted too well to our running stuff. So we stuck with it."

6 Modzelewski slipped block, ran by Moore to dump Unitas. "I had a pass play called but Moe just wrapped me up."

7 This was one of the game-turning plays, giving the Colts a tough first down. "This was a new formation for this game. Our steady slamming into the line had helped set things up, and when Ray shook loose I unloaded."

8 This 23-yard gain by Ameche on a trap play really sealed the Giant doom. "We'd run this once or twice in the game. It's not a long gainer. Usually we figure it four or five yards. But Huff had been playing to his left and back. This made an easy blocking assignment for our tackle. Huff was playing for a pass, and the way Moe had been crashing I figured they were right for a trap. I hit it right."

9 "No recollection of this play at all."

10 "Just a plain old slant pass is all."

11 This was the same play as the one which Ameche scored on later, but Ameche turned into the center. "Huff was waiting and just closed Alan off."

12 This call has been criticized as an unnecessary gamble here. "They were playing for the run, one on one on Moore, the linebacker head-up on Mutscheller. I told Jimmy to get out there real quick. All I had to do was flip it up in the air and have him catch it."

13 "Our only call, a power play. We got the halfback blocking ahead of Ameche with a double team on the tackle. When I slapped the ball in Al's belly and saw him take off I knew nobody was going to stop him with one yard. They couldn't have done it if we'd needed 10 yards."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)