Povich Rewind: The Colts-Giants Game

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Povich Rewind: The Colts-Giants Game
Jan 3, 2019

It’s been more than 60 years since the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants in 1958 in overtime to win the National Football League title (there was no Super Bowl in those years).

Shirley Povich covered the game in Yankee Stadium; his column and precede from the Povich anthology (published in 2005) appear below.

Baltimore’s 23-17 overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship game at Yankee Stadium put the now-dominant National Football League on the same playing field as Major League Baseball. Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas led the Colts on a late fourth-quarter drive resulting in a field goal that tied the score. Alan Ameche’s short touchdown plunge in overtime won the game. Povich understood the importance of the game and often said it was one of the greatest pro football games he’s ever seen.

Here ‘tis two days later and the Colts-Giants game is hard to let go of. It is being replayed wherever as many as two football fans assemble. Like a precious experience before it is yielded up to that torrent of workaday affairs, the inclination is to fondle this one for a while.

Yankee Stadium with all its World Series epics and heavyweight championships never rocked with the excitements provided by Sunday’s pro football gladiators. The Giants and Colts served up one to quicken the breath of a cast-iron gargoyle and make him emote. As art form, it had an aspect of Greek tragedy with sudden death the inexorable ticket of one of the antagonists. And it launched a million debates.

Were the Giants too faint-hearted in the late minutes when they twice elected to punt instead of going for the big first down that was less than a yard away? Was Johnny Unitas of the Colts gambling recklessly with the fate of all Baltimore when in the sudden-death period he scorned the close-up field goal in favor of three more tries for a touchdown?

The better team for 57 ½ minutes lost the football game. The Giants were the magnificent fellows who held the Colts for downs on the 1-foot line, then slashed away at their 14-3 lead and went in front with two touchdowns in 5 minutes. And then, with 150 remaining seconds showing on the clock, the Giants were to learn that for them the 1958 season was 150 seconds too long.

Unfairly, the Giants at the finish became victims of the massive second-guess game. They had their 17-14 lead with 2 ½ minutes to play when they gambled that they could punt and restrain the Colts thereafter instead of going for 2 feet on fourth down. Against the dissent with that strategy of the Giants is the argument that the greater gamble would have been a running play. This was a day when ball-carriers weren’t always getting back to the scrimmage line, so fierce was the combat.

It came up again in the sudden-death prologue when the Giants chose to punt instead of the try for a yard on fourth down at their own 29. From their own 21, the Colts drove to the winning touchdown but if the Giants were over-sure of their own defense, that was pardonable. All season, the Giants’ defense had been winning football games for them, not losing them. A Giants’ line that had stopped the Colts on four downs from the 1-yard line earlier seemed to have excellent credentials.

If there was one play that turned the game, it was Johnny Unitas’ maneuver with his fellow conspirator, Ray Berry, the Colts’ superb pass-catching end. The Colts were needing 8 yards on third down near midfield with time running out before the Regulation game ended when Unitas rolled out to pass. He had time, and he was blessed because the Giants’ defender nearest Berry had slipped to the ground. Unitas calmly withheld the throw the play called for, motioned Berry farther down field like a cop directing traffic, and then threw the big one that helped the Colts within field-goal kicking distance.

The field goal that reprieved the Colts with 10 second left and gave them a 17-17 tie was a splendid contribution by Steve Myhra from the 20-yard line. At that late hour, he was the only man who could do the Colts any good. He was talking about it later, in the dressing room.

“I tried to shut the noise out of my ears and the crowd out of my view,” Myhra said. “I tried to think this was just another practice kick like a thousand others. It was useless. I heard all that noise and I saw every one of those 64,000 people. I prayed for a good snap, and a good hold by George Shaw, and when both of those things happened, I prayed for a good kick.”

They were asking Unitas about the fancy stuff he tried in the extra period after scrounging a place kick that would get the game over when the Colts had first down on the Giants’ 10. He was taking a chance on fumbles or interceptions with his passes to Ray Berry and Jim Mutscheller down near the goal line, they said. “I don’t expect my passes to be intercepted,” Unitas said, simply.

For the Giants, there was nothing merciful about the sudden-death episode. It was a cruel thing. They were losing to a team they had licked once before. They had put miracles back to back by beating Cleveland twice. They scored first on Sunday and had reason to dream they had the Colts licked when only an 85-yard scoring drive crowded into the last 2 ½ minutes could get the Colts out of the trap.

The Giants were acting on their reputation as the team of destiny. They threw the Colts back from first down on the Giants’ one. They moved in front after trailing the Colts, 14-3, and the threat of a rout confronting them. They were proving to be the opportunist team.

The Giants got their big break when Kyle Rote’s fumble was converted into an additional 25-yard gain that took the Giants to the Colts’ one-yard line and paved the way for a big touchdown. At that point, the Colts could curse their own luck. But if the Giants were guilty of exploiting the Colts’ miseries, the Colts might have patiently remembered Sophocles warning that time catches up with guilt; justice is never out of breath.

December 30, 1958

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