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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 the New York Jets deserve the controversy, dysfunction surrounding them

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1. I think the Jets architecture job is not the one to take if you want to run a franchise, Peyton Manning. To be charitable, the Jets are not close to contention.

2. I think I won’t be the first to use this rationale for my opinion about what happened when Mike Maccagnan got dismissed the other day as Jets GM, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me: The Jets truly deserve this controversy. A few points:

• I have no sympathy for Maccagnan, who lorded over a 14-35 team since New Year’s Day 2016. Only Cleveland and San Francisco have won fewer games since then. But by my math, Maccagnan just spent $235 million in free agency this offseason, a gargantuan sum. He just had the keys to the draft and, apparently with minimal input from the head coach, made Quinnen Williams the third overall pick in the draft. He was fired 19 days after the draft. What owner in his right mind allows a GM he figures he may well fire run a crucial off-season? Christopher Johnson, that’s who.

• Adam Gase is going to have a major say on who becomes the next GM of the Jets. Gase was 23-26 in his three-year stint coaching the Dolphins, and, though the quarterback position was plagued by injuries while he was there, he’s supposed to be a quarterback guru, and the Dolphins, again, are starting from scratch at the position after firing Gase four-and-a-half months ago. I like Gase well enough. But what exactly has he done, first, to earn a head-coaching job after his three years in Miami … and, second, to play a significant role in picking the architect of the new Jets?

• I assume the reports of Gase not wanting Le’Veon Bell for $13.5 million a year are true. (I don’t blame him.) But the leaks in that building are never-ending, and in this case, the leaks could drive a wedge between a guy who doesn’t seem very happy to be a Jet in the first place, Bell, and the guy who’s going to be calling his number this fall. Gase better figure a way to tamp that down. I don’t know if he can.

• How do you have faith in the Jets to get this GM thing right now? And what smart GM-candidate type (Joe Douglas or Louis Riddick or Daniel Jeremiah) would want to take his one shot—because most GMs get one shot at running a team—working for Christopher Johnson?

• If I were Mike Greenberg, I’d be burying my head in my hands this morning, wondering why oh why did I get stuck loving this franchise? How can season-ticket-holders send in their money this year thinking they’re going to see the turnaround season of a team that’s won 5, 5, and 4 games the past three years?

• Sam Darnold doesn’t coach.

Read more from Football Morning in America here

The lessons Chris Long learned from playing with Patriots, Eagles, Rams

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Chris Long, who retired over the weekend after an 11-year NFL career that ended with two Super Bowl rings (in 2016 with New England and 2017 with Philadelphia), and an NFL Man of the Year Award (in 2018) for his work in U.S. social justice and building fresh-water wells for thousands in Africa, on the lessons he takes with him into retirement:

“I learned to never make a decision based on just one thing. The decision to retire was complicated. It was based on health, which is still very good, and family, we have two small children, and football fit, which includes a chance to win and my role and geography. Philadelphia is where I wanted to play a couple more years. I love Philadelphia. But as a player I learned the most important thing to me is Sunday, and having a chance to be a big part of it. It seemed like player-coach was kind of the role that was going to be carved out for me—maybe playing 10, 12, 15 plays a game. I’m a rhythm player. I need to set people up, I need to be in the flow of the game. If I sit on the bench for three series, I can’t get rhythm, and I’ll get cold and maybe I’ll hurt myself. Some people think that’s great—play less and you won’t get hurt. Man, I want to play ball. In Philadelphia, it didn’t seem there was much of a chance to compete there. But they were honest with me the whole time. I appreciate the honesty. I’ll always love Philadelphia and the Eagles, but I didn’t want Week 4, 5, to come around and people think, Whoa, where’s Chris? Did Chris retire? I’d rather do it this way than just fade out. And I didn’t want to start over again across the country somewhere.

“I learned so much in my career. Getting drafted second overall, and going to St. Louis, and the fact that we were losing, I just thought, I am not gonna fold. I am not a loser. I am gonna be a bright spot. I am gonna give these fans, who I deeply appreciate for their dedication, the respect they deserve . Anyone playing in that era in St. Louis knows how bad it was at times. It was carnage, in so many ways. It was a test of my will. Do I get irritated by the no-Pro Bowl thing, never making a Pro Bowl? Yeah, I do. Fifty sacks in the first six years, with no one watching, on a bad team. I just felt the narrative should be, That kid panned out. But that’s okay—it was a labor of love. I have zero regrets.

“In New England, I learned so much about football. I always thought I was a smart player, even though I never thought about anything but the six inches in front of my face. In New England, I was forced to learn so many schematic concepts. In my career playing football, nobody asked me to do as much as Bill Belichick did. I might be 3-technique, or a linebacker, or a linebacker dropping into coverage more than ever, or playing inside more than ever. I’ll always remember how much I learned watching Bill in practice. He can coach any position as good as any position coach in league. He can walk around the field and stop drills and coach each position—at the highest level. And the quality of the dudes. Solid men. The right kind of people.

“Tom Brady blew me away. Who’s the most famous athlete of our generation: Tom Brady? LeBron? Messi? Ronaldo? Serena Williams? Maybe I haven’t been around enough to know how the biggest stars really act. But Brady is a normal guy. When I got there, here comes Tom. ‘Hey Chris, I’m Tom, nice to meet you.’ Well, yeah, I know you’re Tom. A lot of people want to hate him for all the success, and I understand how you can dislike the Patriots, but I cannot understand how you can dislike Tom.

“That Super Bowl against Atlanta … when we were way behind, I’m thinking, ‘I waited my whole life to be here, and this is a nightmare. This is the worst nightmare I have ever had.’ If we lost that night, I very possibly would have retired a bitter man. But winning it breathed life into me.

“Going to Philadelphia, I felt I found a home. Best sports city in America. But how different my situation was. I went from team captain with the Rams two years before that to winning the Super Bowl in New England to starting on the bottom in Philly. I was an average Joe. I was challenged. I learned how much being a team, being together, really means. We were a case study for whatever you believe. Either we were an anomaly or we proved you could do good things and win in pro sports. We happened to have guys who were good players who cared. I remember winning a Monday Night Football game, falling asleep at 4 or 5 o’clock, and waking up for a train to Harrisburg to work with state legislators on policies. It just showed how much we could make changes in things that matter, and play really good football too. You can be a football player and a citizen. It’s gratifying when young players come up and say they’re inspired to do more because of things that Malcolm Jenkins or Torrey Smith have done, or me.

“I’ve always tried to be me first and a football player second. When I came into football, I didn’t want to be this piece of wreckage who couldn’t move or have a normal life. But I learned you can’t predict the future. I thought I’d play eight years. I thought I’d retire at 30. But I played 11, and now I’m 34.

“NFL Man of the Year … I never felt deserving of it. I am not the best person in the NFL. I never want to get up there promoting myself as some infallible person. I was very honored. But I was also conflicted that people saw me as this community service guy, not a player. Nobody saw me as the player I was in my prime. I don’t want to be known as Community Service Guy; I want to be known as a guy who busted his ass for 11 years at his craft. But I do appreciate the fact that people saw that I played for free for one year, that I was part of a group that built 61 wells for people to get fresh water in Africa, and that we’ve got 220,000 people drinking from our wells. I will not downplay that stuff. But I am not some angel, believe me. I don’t have a brand. My brand is me.

“Retirement is interesting. It is something I feared for a long time. It is an existential crisis. I’ve been doing something since high school, working toward a goal. I fantasize about crossing the threshold, but at the same time it’s something you can be deathly afraid of.

“I am excited about the next phase of life. I’m launching a digital media company. I will have my own pod. I’m just excited about being able to control the narrative. I like to create. Maybe I’ll work at a network. Whatever I do, I’ll be me.”

Read more from Football Morning in America here