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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.

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Former Chargers center Nick Hardwick taking proactive approach to post-NFL brain health

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Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Nick Hardwick, former Chargers center and current San Diego radio analyst.

This has been anything but a typical NFL offseason for me. If you follow me on either Instagram or Twitter, you know I recently undertook an intensive, six-week brain treatment protocol at the Brain Treatment Center where I live in San Diego. It’s an affiliate of the USC Center for Neurorestoration, a progressive brain health clinic focusing on the intersection of physics and neuroscience.

Upon retiring in February 2015 after 11 seasons as an NFL center, all of them spent with the Chargers, I did my best to follow the counsel I received from coaches, the players union, and former teammates who had smoothly transitioned into the next phase of their post-playing lives.

For starters, I almost immediately lost a good chunk of my playing weight. It wasn’t necessary to carry 295 pounds on my 6-4 frame, because I no longer was tasked with routinely fighting some of the baddest humans on the planet for three hours-plus. I dropped the weight fast and got down as low as 208 pounds at one point, but my wife, Jayme, didn’t really favor that version. So I regained some muscle and currently weigh a very comfortable 230 pounds or so.

To keep busy and stay close to the game, I went to work almost immediately on the radio in San Diego, including at iHeart Radio, where I’ve hosted my own show since 2016. As part of the gig, I got to serve as the Chargers radio sideline reporter in 2015, and I spent the following two seasons in the booth as the team’s radio color analyst.

Those roles kept me engaged, and helped me challenge myself mentally. I felt as healthy as I had ever been since my freshman year of college, the year before I walked on and made the football team at Purdue. But I still felt I had more cognitive ability left untapped, because my brain wasn’t necessarily firing on all cylinders.

Fortunately I was able to function because over the years I had hard-wired my mentality to continue to persevere through pain, discomfort, less than ideal situations and, to be honest, some states of depression I now recognize. I knew a certain amount of mental endurance was required after playing the game so long.

But I also realized toughness alone wasn’t the answer. I came to realize and accept my fate that as a former football player, I had accumulated somewhere around 25,000-plus head hits over the course of my playing career, all at least equivalent to boxing jabs, with the occasional straight punch and uppercut thrown in for good measure.

How did I get to that 25,000-plus estimate? I played 11 NFL seasons, for about 1,000 game snaps per year. Add in another 1,000 snaps during training camps, not counting our offseason practices. And don’t forget the three years of college football I played, with similar snap totals, but rougher practices.

It’s easy to see the hits accumulate quickly at the position I played. I was diagnosed with six verified concussions in the NFL, but I still never missed a game due to one of them, a gut-it-out approach I would not recommend to kids or anyone else. During the 2008 season in Kansas City, I was knocked out cold on the field for about 12 minutes, waking up on the X-ray table at Arrowhead Stadium with the technician asking me to turn on my right side for reasons I didn’t understand.

“What?!’’ I thought for a moment I had broke my neck, but it turned out I had caught a hip to the head, delivered courtesy of Chiefs linebacker Rocky Boiman, whom I was blocking on a screen pass to Chargers fullback Jacob Hester.

While I accepted the damage that came with playing football for a living as part of the price paid, something hit home and came to a head for me at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta this past winter. I was there covering the weeklong event for my radio station, XTRA 1360, and despite being at the NFL’s glamor event, surrounded by the league’s football community, I found myself in one of those emotional troughs that occasionally came.

I knew then that I had a decision to make and some sort of action to take. While there was no erasing the time I had spent banging heads and colliding with defenders—and I wouldn’t take it back if I could any how, because it was the time of my life with so many lessons learned—it wasn’t enough just to plow through the low ebbs in life.

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Sunday Night Football’s executive producer reveals how show is created each week

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Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football telecast.

By Fred Gaudelli

One thing I appreciate about being the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football team is that we’re a lot like a football team. The very good NFL teams enter the next season thinking, What can we do to get better? This isn’t corny, and I don’t want it to seem chest-puffing. We’ve been the highest-rated and most-watched prime-time show for eight straight years—a network TV record—but we’ve got that same feeling about improving this offseason that we have every year.

One of the things we’ve been discussing: expanding the use of the Skycam in live play-by-play situations during games. We might add a second Skycam to give viewers a totally different look this year. When NBC did the Notre Dame Blue and Gold Spring Game this year, the Skycam was moved from down the middle of the field to the sideline view, which is the view almost every play is now covered from. We wanted to see the impact of having the play-by-play camera on the line of scrimmage, from the sideline, via Skycam for every snap. We’ve studied the tape at length and hope to try this on our second preseason game in August, Pittsburgh at Tennessee. We’ll actually have two Skycams: the normal one that shoots from behind the offense in the middle of the field, and this new one, positioned on the line of scrimmage, on the sideline.

My initial reaction is this will make all fourth-and-one attempts better viewing experiences for the fans. But we’ll see how it works in Nashville in August for that game. If we like it, we’ll probably use it on live plays on fourth-and-short (and maybe others) in the first game of the NFL’s 100th season, Green Bay at Chicago, on NBC on Sept. 5. It’s new and fun—and it could make the viewing experience much more interesting.

That’s the techie in me, trying to get better. But in 30 years of producing games at the network level, one of the most important things I’ve learned—from John Madden—is so incredibly basic, as old as the game itself.

Watch pre-game warmups.

We have a team of 175 in front of and mostly behind the cameras that puts on the Sunday games, and we have every technical and modern convenience any TV crew could ask. But you’d be surprised how often we use something we learned just watching pregame warmups, the same way the fans in the stands do. Either Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth might use something on the telecast, or maybe director Drew Esocoff or I will see something and have a graphic built for use during the game. Maybe we’ll use it, maybe not. John taught Drew and me that intently watching warmups is really the final piece of game preparation. So much information is gleaned by rituals and warmups. Madden was the first to do this and the best ever at it. I love this part of the process.

Perfect example: Three years ago, before a Chiefs-Broncos game in Denver, linebacker Justin Houston came out before the game wearing an altitude training mask; he had a coach with him, with what looked like two extra-large catcher’s mitts. The coach set up some pylons and wore the two big mitts. Houston then began working his hands in all kinds of different pass rush moves much like a boxer would work before a title bout. Houston systematically went through his entire repertoire of moves. So, halfway through the second quarter, Houston was wrecking the game. He had three sacks and Denver tackle Ty Sambrailo had no answer for the quickness of his hands. We ran a package of the three sacks and ended it with video from the pre-game ritual, showing the hand movements in pregame that were used on the sacks. The Chiefs won the game, and Houston’s impact on the game was a huge reason.

So the modern technology like the sideline Skycam is great, and I mean that. I think it’ll make us better this year. But there is something crucial about the simple human element too—in this case watching pre-game warmups for an hour. If you watch our games and see really cool images and really great story-telling, I think we’ve done our job.

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