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3 thoughts on 60th anniversary of the “Greatest Game Ever Played”

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You’ll hear quite a bit this week, probably, about the 60th anniversary of the NFL Championship Game that Sports Illustrated called “the best football game ever played,” between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, 1958. The NFL gamely tried to capitalize on the anniversary by scheduling the Colts and Giants to play Sunday, near the anniversary, but the Giants aren’t at Yankee Stadium anymore, and they play in New Jersey, and the Colts moved west to Indianapolis, and Sunday’s game was in a dome in Indiana. But I’m writing today to try to put in perspective exactly what the game meant to football, and the significance it has to today’s game.

I think pro football would very likely have grown to the biggest sport in America. That game was in the NFL’s 39th season, so there would have been plenty of time for the game to explode, and it would have.

But I believe there are three things about Colts 23, Giants 17, in overtime, that should be everlasting. They might not be in the order you’d think.

First, about the game, one of the first seen by a national TV audience and played before about 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium: The Colts blew a 14-3 halftime lead and were down 17-14 when they took the ball at their 14-yard line with 1:56 left. Johnny Unitas drove the Colts to the Giants 13, where Steve Myrha kicked the tying field goal with seven seconds left. Now the first overtime game in NFL history was set. The Colts won the toss, and Unitas drove them the length of the field in the gathering Bronx darkness, in the (at the time) cathedral of American sport, and running back Alan Ameche rushed the final yard through a huge hole. Huge Colts fan Ernie Accorsi—later the GM for both teams—has a photo in his Manhattan apartment today of a slump-shoulder Unitas, always emotionless on the field, walking with his back to the end zone off the field. Just another day at the office for him. But those two drives cemented his legacy as one of the greats.

It played a huge role in the immediate growth of the game. In 1958, there were 10 pro football teams. In 1960, there were 21, with the birth of the American Football League, and by 1968, there were 26. In a decade, pro football experienced 160 percent growth. As Michael MacCambridge would write later in the book America’s Game, Lamar Hunt, the son a billionaire Texas oilman, was searching for a sports team to buy in 1958. When he watched that championship game in a Houston hotel, that clinched it. The college game, with an ethos on physical running games, was king at the time, but the drama of an overtime game coupled with Unitas’ passing mastery and a more wide-open offense in pro football sold Hunt. As he told MacCambridge: “But clearly the ’58 Colts-Giants game, sort of in my mind, made me say, ‘Well, that’s it. This sport really has everything. And it televises well.’ “ He was a key to formation of the AFL and became a driving force behind so many key pro football things: revenue-sharing of TV money, renaming the title game the “Super Bowl,” and growing the game internationally. The AFL was vital because it was a maverick league in a restive time in America, the sixties. Joe Namath became a look-at-me American icon; Al Davis got his start in the pro game in Oakland. Those people, and the game itself, were huge growth engines.

America loved stars, and this game had them, in a Hollywood setting. As Accorsi said: “The setting—you just can’t contrive it. Yankee Stadium was the cathedral. When the Giants walked into the stadium, their status went up about five levels. That day, the aura of the twilight of that scene, with the famous Yankee Stadium background, people all over the country seeing it, was huge. The Giants’ quarterback, Charley Conerly, was the Marlboro Man on ads everywhere, Frank Gifford and Pat Summerall of the Giants were on the radio in New York, Johnny Unitas was about to be a star.” Seventeen Hall of Famers were on the field that day. It was Vince Lombardi’s last game as a Giants defensive coach. After the game, for the first time, the top-rated TV show in America, The Ed Sullivan Show, had a football player on the stage live in New York—Ameche, who score the winning touchdown. “At the time, the big games in football were Army-Navy and Notre Dame-Southern Cal,” Accorsi said. “The ’58 Championship Game changed that.”

Nationally, the game felt like the first pro football game to have buzz. President Dwight Eisenhower watched from Camp David. Vice president Richard Nixon watched from Arizona—and wrote Gifford a letter after the game empathizing with him on the tough loss. There are varying estimates about the TV audience nationwide, but it appears that at least 24 million Americans in a country of 175 million were watching at least some of the game on the Sunday afternoon between Christmas and New Year’s, with no sporting competition on TV that day. It was a good advertisement for the product. At the game, an emotional commissioner Bert Bell said he never thought he’d see a day when his sport was as big in the country.

Today, most of those things—the stars, the TV, the public love of the game—are taken for granted. They trace back to a gloomy afternoon in the Bronx 60 years ago this week.

Read the rest of Football Morning in America by Peter King

Why Texans need to trade for Redskins’ Trent Williams now

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Three Things I Think

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Three quick thoughts:

1. I think my everlasting memory of this trip will be watching J.J. Watt steam in from Aaron Rodgers’ left side on a live pass-rush drill (well, full-speed, but no hitting the quarterback in a camp practice) in the Texans-Packers joint practices. He jousted with left tackle David Bakhtiari, dipped to the outside, got half a step on the left tackle, and sprinted at Rodgers. Watt meant it. As did Rodgers, who sprinted up the right side and evaded Watt. First time Watt ever stepped foot in Wisconsin to play pro football (though a practice), and he got emotional about it, and it meant a lot to him. Two Hall of Fame players going at it on a Monday morning in northeast Wisconsin. Loved it.

2. I think the Texans need to trade for Washington left tackle Trent Williams, who is unhappy in Washington and threatening to not play this year. Houston’s time is now. Watt turns 30 this year. So much of this team is in its prime. They could get three or four more years out of Williams, who turns 31 next Monday, and he’d strengthen the only true weak point of this team.

3. I think I marvel at DeAndre Hopkins and found it compelling to just watch him practice in Green Bay. He even dropped a pass over the middle. Consider that last year he became the first receiver since drop stats were kept—at least 13 years—to catch at least 110 balls without a drop. “Why do you think people don’t really know that?” he asked me after practice, a bit annoyed. I don’t know, but I do know Hopkins is the best wideout in football by almost any measure. “There are games, like against Philly last year, when he gets his jersey ripped off,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “Teams are so physical with him. What makes him special is so many plays are contested. People are draped on him, and he comes down with it.” With wideout injuries last year, Houston saw a weird three-man coverage at times on Hopkins, “cut coverage,” O’Brien called it, with a linebacker undercutting him near the line of scrimmage before he would get out in the open field and face two cover guys. I asked Hopkins how he worked on his hands as a kid. Jerry Rice tossed and caught bricks with his dad, a mason. Hopkins: “This is something I haven’t told many people, because it’s embarrassing,” he said. “We always used to catch flies with our hands. I was the only one who could catch ‘em. One-handed, two-handed. I actually studied flies. I’d watch ‘em. How do you catch flies? They fly up. If I can catch that, I can catch anything.”

Why Antonio Brown is crazy to fight NFL over helmet issue

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Regarding the Mike Silver/Adam Schefter-reported stories Friday about the melodrama surrounding the Oakland receiver—or, I should say, the receiver employed by Oakland who is not currently playing for Oakland—the overriding thought I have is a simple one. The NFL and the NFLPA have teamed up to research helmet safety and helmet technology through exhaustive, independent studies since 2016. All players were told in 2017 they’d have to wear new helmets—league and union-approved—by 2018, with a one-year grandfather period pushing the absolute deadline to don correct helmets to 2019. I did a podcast about the helmet in May, and over the previous seven months talked to 14 players about the helmet issue. Several of the players weren’t crazy about making the change, including 49ers tackle Joe Staley, who’d worn the same model of helmet for 15 years (though it had been updated at least once) and admitted to me he would not have changed unless forced.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Staley told me last fall, “and I think I’m a perfect case study of why it needs to be done. I wouldn’t have changed my helmet unless they made these rules changes.”

For Brown to be fighting this is just crazy. According to Schefter, Brown had a two-hour grievance hearing Friday with an independent arbitrator, arguing that he should be able to wear a helmet he has been wearing for more than 10 years. (That, in itself, makes the helmet illegal; the NFL mandates that helmets worn for at least 10 years be replaced, regardless of their condition.)

There isn’t much the league and players union agree on without reservation, but the current helmet protocol, the outgrowth of a $60-million investment by NFL owners in 2016 to improve helmet technology and reduce head trauma in players, is one of those things. If Brown wins, he would be the lone player out of 2,016 active and practice-squad players in the NFL this season who would be wearing a helmet—the Schutt Air Advantage, in his case—not approved for use by NFL and NFLPA testers. And this helmet is so old that it’s not even been tested by the league and the union. I’m told unquestionably it would fail any test for helmet safety, as would virtually any helmet not made in the last four or five years.

A few other thoughts on this nutty story:

• Brown has to grow up, or he’s got to get some help. Someone in his life, if anyone has a scintilla of influence over him (and that is in doubt), needs to say to him: The Raiders could void your contract for this behavior, and you’d be out $30.1 million in guaranteed money, and what team would pay you even a fraction of that after? You walked out on the Steelers and then turned into a child on the Raiders and boycotted them too—in the span of nine months!

• The Steelers have to be the happiest team in the league right now. They don’t have a great player, but they do have a sane, undivided training camp.

Jon Gruden has to defend Brown, which he did Saturday night after the Raiders’ preseason win over the Rams. But anyone who knows Gruden knows he’s got to be frustrated over his best offensive weapon being disabled because of the freaky frostbite injury and fuming at Brown being AWOL because the NFL is trying to make football safer for him.

• To be a fly on GM Mike Mayock’s wall. He’s a football purist, and his first season piloting a storied franchise might be sent over a cliff by the weirdest controversy in years that has incredibly little to do with real football.

• Mike Silver’s 20-tweet thread detailing the Brown story Friday was exquisite. Best football thread I’ve seen, full of rich detail and information about the dysfunctional Brown/Raiders/helmet thing. What was great about Silver’s long social screed: It was essentially an 800-word news story, broken in real time on Twitter instead of being broken on NFL.com with a Twitter link to the story. Whatever the reason for doing it that way (NFL.com I’m sure now regrets the loss of traffic on a heavily read story), I found it easy to digest just by scrolling up on my phone. Silver had the helmet stuff solid, and this piece of information that can’t go on in team meetings: “Brown, according to witnesses, typically glances at the screens of several tablets and his smart phone during meetings, distracting himself by engaging in activities which include perusing his bank accounts and ‘liking’ photos on Instagram.” Social media is still the Wild West, but Silver showed you can break news with a story broken into 20 easy bites.

• “Hard Knocks” is either going to show a slice of this Brown story this week, with some real video and team reaction, or it’s Pravda. And I know Ken Rodgers of NFL Films, the curator of this show. He will want to show the real story, very much.

I’ve been around a lot of crazy stories in the NFL in my 35 years covering the league. But the last nine months in the life of Antonio Brown is right up there.


One more thing from Kearse: “The NFL changed the rules to prevent more head injuries and more head contact. But at the end of the day it’s a full-contact sport and guys are kind of making quick decisions, and you want to be able to have a product that’s going to be able to protect you. I think the NFL wants this league to last. They’re going to have to continue to keep digging deeper to improve. It’s an uncontrolled environment where things can happen and for me personally, I want to have the best protecting me out there.”

Someone’s got to get to Brown, and fast.