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The Best Football Game Ever Played

Jan. 31, 1994
Jan. 31, 1994

Table of Contents
Jan. 31, 1994

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Point After

The Best Football Game Ever Played

This SI Classic from January 1959 recounts the overtime championship game in which the NFL came of age

Never has there been a game like this one. When there are so many high points, it is not easy to pick the highest. But for the 60,000 and more fans who packed Yankee Stadium last Sunday for the third week in a row, the moment they will never forget—the moment with which they will eternally bore their grandchildren—came with less than 10 seconds to play and the clock remorselessly moving, when the Baltimore Colts kicked a field goal that put the professional football championship in a 17-17 tie and necessitated a historic sudden-death overtime period. Although it was far from apparent at the time, this was the end of the line for the fabulous New York Giants, eastern titleholders by virtue of three stunning victories over a great Cleveland Browns team (the last a bruising extra game to settle the tie in which they had finished their regular season), and the heroes of one of the most courageous comebacks in the memory of the oldest fans.

This is an article from the Jan. 31, 1994 issue Original Layout

This was also a game in which a seemingly irretrievable loss was twice defied. It was a game that had everything. And when it was all over, the best football team in the world had won the world's championship.

The Baltimore Colts needed all their varied and impressive talent to get the 17-17 tie at the end of the regular four quarters. Then, for eight and one quarter minutes of the sudden-death extra period, in which victory would go to the first team to score, all of the pressure and all of the frenzy of an entire season of play was concentrated on the misty football field at Yankee Stadium. The fans kept up a steady, high roar. Tension grew and grew until it was nearly unbearable. But on the field itself, where the two teams now staked the pro championship and a personal winner's share of $4,700 on each play, coldly precise football prevailed. With each team playing as well as it was possible for it to play, the better team finally won. The Colts, ticking off the yards with sure strength under the magnificent direction of quarterback Johnny Unitas, scored the touchdown that brought sudden death to New York and the first championship to hungry Baltimore.

This game, unbelievably, managed to top all the heroics of the spectacular Giant victories that had led up to it. The Colts won because they are a superbly well armed football team. They spent the first half picking at the small flaws in the Giant defense, doing it surely and competently under the guidance of Unitas. The Giant line, which had put destructive pressure on Cleveland quarterbacks for two successive weeks, found it much more difficult to reach Unitas. Andy Robustelli, the fine Giant end, was blocked beautifully by Jim Parker, a second-year tackle with the Colts. Unitas, a tall, thin man who looks a little stooped in his uniform, took his time throwing, and when he threw, the passes were flat and hard as a frozen rope, and on target. He varied the Baltimore attack from time to time by sending Alan Ameche thumping into the Giant line.

The Giant defense, unable to overpower the Colts as it had the Browns, shifted and changed and tried tricks, and Unitas, more often than not, switched his signal at the last possible second to take advantage of Giant weaknesses. Once, in the first quarter, when the New Yorkers tried to cover the very fast Lenny Moore with one man, Unitas waited coolly while Moore sprinted down the sideline, then whipped a long, flat pass that Moore caught on the Giant 40 and carried to the 25.

Then the Giant defense blocked a field goal attempt that followed, and Charley Conerly, the 37-year-old Giant quarterback who played one of the finest games of his long career, caught the Colt linebackers coming in on him too recklessly. He underhanded a quick pitch-out to Frank Gilford, and Gilford went 38 yards to the Colts' 31; a couple of plays later the Giants led 3-0 on a 36-yard field goal, by Pat Summerall.

In the second quarter, with the probing and testing over, the Colts asserted a clear superiority. They had gone into the game reasonably sure that their running would work inside the Giant tackles, and sure, too, that the quick, accurate passes of Unitas to receivers like Moore and Ray Berry could be completed. The first quarter reinforced that opinion, and the second quarter implemented it. A Giant fumble recovered on the Giant 20 by Gene Lipscomb, the 288-pound Colt tackle, set up the first touchdown. Unitas punctured the Giant line with Ameche and Moore, and sent Moore outside end once when the Giant center clogged up, and then Ameche scored from the two and it all looked easy.

It looked easy on the next Colt foray, too. This one started on the Baltimore 14 and moved inevitably downfield. The Colt backs, following the quick, vicious thrust of the big line, went five and six yards at a time, the plays ending in a quick-settling swirl of dust as the Giant line, swept back in a flashing surge of white Colt uniforms, then slipped the blocks to make the belated tackles. Unitas passed twice to Berry, the second time for 15 yards and the second Colt touchdown. The Giants, now 11 points behind, looked well whipped.

The feeling of the game changed suddenly and dramatically late in the third quarter on the one accomplishment that most often reverses the trend in a football game—the denial of a sure touchdown. The Colts had moved almost contemptuously to the Giant three-yard line. After the half the Baltimore team, which had manhandled the New York defense to gain on the ground for most of the first half, switched to passing. Unitas, given marvelous blocking by the Colt offensive line, picked apart the Giant defensive secondary with passes thrown so accurately that often Colt receivers snatched the ball from between two Giant defenders who were only a half step out of position. When the irresistible passing attack carried the Colts to the Giant three-yard line, first down and goal to go, even the most optimistic Giant fans in the stands must have given up.

But the Giant defense, which, more than anything else, brought this team to the championship game, again coped with crisis and stopped Baltimore cold.

Now, for the rest of this quarter and most of the fourth, the Colts were surprisingly limp. The Giant stand keyed the collapse, but an odd play, which set up the first Giant touchdown, underlined it and so demoralized the Baltimore team that for some time it was nearly ineffectual. Conerly, quick to capitalize on the letdown, sent Kyle Rote, who usually spends his afternoon catching short passes, rocketing far downfield. Rote, starting down the left sideline, cut sharply to his right, and Conerly's pass intersected his course at the Colt 40. Rote carried on down to the 25 and ran into a two-man tackle, which made him fumble. There was a paralyzed second when a little group of Colt and Giant players watched the ball bounding free without making a move, then the still life broke into violent motion and Giant halfback Alex Webster picked up the fumble and carried it to the Colt one-yard line. Mel Triplett hurdled in for a touchdown, and the Giants, fans and all, were back in the game. The crowd roared as if the Giants had taken the lead. And they did, quickly.

The Colt offense, until now clean and quick and precise, began to dodder. The protection, which had allowed Unitas to wait and wait and wait before he threw, broke down, and Robustelli and Dick Modzelewski ran through weak blocks to dump the Colt quarterback for long losses. The Giants, on the other hand, were operating with the assurance of experience and a long intimacy with the uses of adversity.

They took the lead on the second play of the fourth quarter. Conerly, who had been throwing to Rote and Gifford. suddenly switched targets. He zeroed in on end Bob Schnelker once for 17 yards and repeated on the next play for 46 more and a first down on the Baltimore 15. Then Conerly befuddled the Colt secondary with Schnelkcr and threw to Gifford on the right sideline, and Gifford ran through a spaghetti-arm tackle on the five to score, sending the Giants into a 17-14 lead.

The Colts now seemed as thoroughly beaten as the Giants had been at the half. Unitas's protection, so solid early in the game, leaked woefully. Only a Giant fumble slowed the New York attack, and when the Giants punted to the Colts with barely two minutes left in the game, not even the most optimistic of the 20-odd thousand Colt fans who had come from Baltimore would have bet on victory.

Baltimore started from its 14, and the hero of this sequence was, of all the fine players on the field this warm winter day, the most unlikely. He has a bad back and one leg is shorter than the other so he wears mud cleats on that shoe to equalize them. His eyes are so bad that he must wear contact lenses when he plays. He is not very fast and, although he was a good college end, he was far from a great one. On this march, he caught three passes in a row for a total of 62 yards, the last one for 22 yards to the New York 13-yard line. His name is Ray Berry, and he has the surest hands in professional football. He caught the three passes with two Giant defenders guarding him each time. He caught 12 passes for 178 yards in this football game, and without him the Colts would surely have lost.

After Berry had picked the ball out of the hands of two Giant defenders on the New York 13-yard line, Steve Myhra kicked a 20-yard field goal with seven seconds left to play for a 17-17 tie, which sent the game into the sudden-death overtime period. The teams rested for three minutes, flipped a coin to see which would kick and which receive, and the Giants won and took the kickoff.

The tremendous tension held the crowd in massing excitement. But the Giants, the fine fervor of their rally gone, could not respond to the last challenge. They were forced to punt, and the Colts took over on their own 20. Unitas, mixing runs and passes carefully and throwing the ball wonderfully true under this pressure, moved them downfield surely. The big maneuver sent Ameche up the middle on a trap play that broke him through the overanxious Giant line for 23 yards to the Giant 20. From there Unitas threw to the ubiquitous Berry for a first down on the New York eight, and three plays later Ameche scored to end the game, 23-17.

Just before the touchdown a deliriously happy Baltimore football fan raced onto the field during a timeout and sailed 80 yards, bound for the Baltimore huddle, before the police secondary intercepted him and hauled him to the sidelines. He was grinning with idiot glee, and the whole city of Baltimore sympathized with him. One Baltimore fan, listening on his auto radio, ran into a telephone pole when Myhra kicked the tying field goal, and 30,000 others waited to greet the returning heroes.

Berry, a thin, tired-looking youngster still dazed with the victory, seemed to speak for the team and for fans everywhere after the game.

"It's the greatest thing that ever happened," he said.

PHOTOAPAmeche's one-yard plunge gave Baltimore a 23-17 sudden-death win and its first ever NFL title.PHOTOHY PESKINThe Colts stymied the feared Giant rush, giving Unitas time to work.PHOTOHY PESKINSeconds after Ameche scored, delirious Colt fans rushed the field.