Badger football fans probably know that today, Dec. 28, is the 50th anniversary of the famous 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants. It’s relevance to Wisconsinites is that native son (Kenosha) and 1954 Heisman Trophy winner Alan “The Horse” Ameche scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime for the Colts.
This game has always been referred to as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Several years ago, while working on my master’s degree at UW-Madison, I took a journalism course that required a paper on a significant historical event that had something to do with journalism. I did my paper on the ’58 NFL Championship game.
ESPN has over the past couple weeks been showing a pretty cool colorized version of the telecast of the game. I’ve also seen several stories written about the game recently. Most of the coverage continues to perpetuate the notion that it was “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” My paper for that journalism class argued that the game was nothing of the sort.
First of all, for those who don’t know, the game got its moniker because of Sports Illustrated’s story about the game. SI’s headline for the story was: “The Best Football Game Ever Played.” Apparently “Greatest” was changed to “Best” by an assistant managing editor who felt the word “great” was overused by the media.
No doubt the game was exciting. Going to overtime in an NFL title game would have to be thrilling. But the game has taken on legendary status and is often credited with essentially making pro football the game it is today and sort of kicking off the sports television era. My Journalism 919 paper argues instead that then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who negotiated the league’s first TV contract with CBS in 1961, and ABC’s creative Roone Arledge, were the two people primarily responsible for launching the NFL’s dominance on TV and, subsequently, its popularity.
As for the game itself, it must be included on the list of significant events in the history of the NFL. It was the league’s first overtime title game. It was played in New York City, the center of much of the nation’s media and advertising community. It had clutch plays and clutch players, notably Colts QB John Unitas. But I argued in my paper that it wasn’t the greatest game ever played. In fact, John Steadman, author of a book called "The Greatest Football Game Ever Played," wrote that “most of the Colts are in agreement that the game was not the pure classic it has been made out to be but they aren’t about to refute their given place in history.”
I guess that’s one of the great things about sports. As fans we label games as the best or worst and we make lists of the top 10 this or that. It keeps the conversation going and it helps to keep us interested.