Everything changed after The Glory Game of 1958
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Frank Gifford and Peter Richmond's new book "The Glory Game: How the 1958 NFL Championship Changed Football Forever," copyright 2008 by Frank Gifford and Peter Richmond. Reprinted by permission from HarperCollins Publishers.
It was third down and four yards to go, the ball on our own 40-yard line, less than three minutes to go in the fourth quarter. We huddled up on the bare dirt, where the field had been worn down by a season's worth of football, and waited for our quarterback, Charlie Conerly, to call the play that could win us the 1958 championship.
The stadium, to a man and woman, was on its feet -- men in coats and ties, in fedoras and overcoats, screaming their lungs out next to guys in hooded sweatshirts and ski caps, and women in fur hats and overcoats. Colt fans in Colt jackets. Colt banners being pulled through the packed stands, dueling with Giant banners, exhorting their respective teams.
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Semi-circular red, white and blue bunting hung from the facades of every deck. The winter sky was a fading blue, the stadium lights bathing the field in an eerie, early dusk. The steam rising from plastic foam cups of coffee mingled with frozen breath and with the pall of the smoke of the cigarettes and cigars that thousands of fans were nervously puffing.
The whole crazy afternoon -- the fumbles, the tremendous swings in momentum, the spectacular plays, the artistry, the fights, the injuries -- had come down to one play. If we got the first down, we'd run out the clock, and we'd win the title: "world champions of professional football," as they called it back then.
I didn't care what they called it. I just wanted the ball. I knew I'd get it. The Colts knew I'd get it, and I didn't care. I knew I'd make the first down. Everything in my career had prepared me for this play.
"Power 47," Charlie said in the huddle, in that calm, Mississippi drawl: the four back, going off right tackle, with our fullback, Mel Triplett, leading the way into the hole. But I thought the 49 sweep would work better. This was a once-in-a-lifetime play, everything on the line, and the way I figured it, our off-tackle power plays hadn't had much luck all day long against the Colts' huge defensive line: Artie Donovan, the round tackle from the Bronx who'd grown up forty blocks to the north of the stadium, now playing the game of his life in front of -- and against -- his hometown; Gino Marchetti, the undisputed best defensive end in the league; Don Joyce, the combative, right end who was always itching for a fight; Big Daddy Lipscomb, the astoundingly agile giant who loomed at the line of scrimmage as big as his legend.
The sweep was our bread-and-butter. The play would give me a chance to slide outside and pick my hole. That was always my strength: not the head-on stuff, but the chance to slide, look for an opening, slip into a crack for a few extra yards. They always said I had "deceptive speed." To be honest, I'm not sure I had much speed at all, but what I did have was a way of finding a hole. Vince Lombardi, our offensive coordinator, called my running "fluid." I just called it running, and sometimes I did it well.
The Giants were exhausted, physically and mentally. We were hurting: cracked ribs, bad knees, chipped bones. We'd just played two of the most emotional games of our careers: a dramatic last-second win in the snow against the Cleveland Browns two weeks before to force a playoff, and an inspired shutout of the Browns the Sunday before to get to this game. We'd come too far to lose it now.
"How about the sweep?" I said. That was the way things always were in our huddle: we could tell Charlie what we thought would work -- and what we thought wouldn't -- and he'd listen. The cotton farmer from Mississippi -- my roommate, my best friend -- wasn't in it for his ego. Charlie just wanted to win. And so the old goat changed the play: "Brown right, over, 49 sweep": both guards pulling, leading me around right end, just as Vince Lombardi had designed it.
Across the line, the Colts lowered into their stances, breath visible beneath their white helmets, ready for one final defensive stand. Man for man, they were the best team in the NFL. They were rested. They were primed.
Could these Colts snatch away our title? We didn't think so. I didn't think so. There was no doubt in my mind that I'd get the first down.
Then, as we broke the huddle, we didn't think that the next few minutes of the game would change the professional football's history forever.
On December 28, 1958, the National Football League grew up, from Madison Avenue to small-town living rooms where fans began to pay attention to our weekly battles on their small-screen televisions. On that long Sunday afternoon, a nation began to recognize the unique appeal of a sport in which any one play could bring extraordinarily athletic feats, or grimace-inducing collisions. Or both.
It wasn't complicated, our game, and this was a big part of its appeal. Professional football had speed, and it had brutality. We didn't have a legion of reverential sportswriters covering the game, as the national pastime did. Covering the Giants were off-season baseball writers, guys who didn't understand the nuances of the offenses, or the defenses -- or even some of the rules. But you didn't need to know about nuances or rules when you saw a man carrying a football, looking for running room -- and then watching our linebacker Sam Huff meet him head on, pick him up and slam him to the ground.
Sam, of course, wasn't the only man on the field that day who began to capture a nation's imagination: Kyle Rote, Johnny Unitas, Big Daddy, Rosie Grier, Donovan, Marchetti, Conerly -- these were guys who did things on a football field that the common fan could understand. Could feel. Could get excited about. The hypnotizing rainbow passes, the open-field sprints ... these were exciting, but just as compelling was the violence: the hits, the man-to-man contact that echoed into the rafters -- all interwoven with the highest level of individual athleticism any sport could offer.
And after that day, the advertisers and the television programmers could feel it, too: how, in a very real way, the men who brought beauty to brutality every week on a football field could be seen as a new breed of the old American frontier idea of ruggedness, and individuality, and -- above all -- toughness and resilience. We were men who made a living on physical contact, who could endure pain of some sort -- a blow to the face, a cleat crushing your hand, a limb being twisted in a way that nature never intended -- on just about every play, and then rise to our feet and do it again. And again, and again.
Crowds began filling stadiums across the country, in cities whose stadiums had loomed half-empty in the years before. Television ratings began to climb. Athletes who'd once labored in a lunch-pail league were now the stars of prime-time television shows, and graced the covers of the weekly magazines.
On December 28, 1958, everything changed.
But for the Giants, the final day of the old era began for us the way it always did, game-day or practice day: by going to work down the hill, in a working-class neighborhood in a working-class borough of a mighty city -- a fitting starting point, for a team that really was a band of brothers. Star running backs, obscure linemen, punters and kickers, the oldest quarterback in the league and a couple of brand-new rookies -- we all lived in a big, red-brick hotel planted on a wide, ambitious avenue called the Grand Concourse.
In the late-Fifties, the Bronx was a pretty vibrant place -- and the heart of a working-class football team was camped right in the middle of it, five months of the year. Most of us were making just about as much money playing professional football as the electricians, cops and subway drivers who lived all around us. A lot of us were making less. The rest of the year, we lived back home, working at our other jobs: Teaching. Selling insurance. Working as plumbers. Bert Bell, our colorful commissioner -- a Philadelphia and Jersey Shore guy -- used to tell the new crop of rookies every summer: You are not going to make a living playing pro football, so don't quit the day job.
For me, the off-season before '58 had meant a brief movie-acting career that was winding down, and a broadcast career that was just starting up. I'd always had my eye on the next thing I might do with my life. I'd always known -- as any football player knows -- that one blind-side hit on a planted leg, one searing jolt of pain as you feel the ligaments tear from your knee, could mean the instant end of a career.
But during the football season, we were residents of a proud borough, living in a giant, friendly boarding house, surrounded by our parks, our restaurants, our coffee shops, our subway stop -- and our stadium. There was no disconnect between where we lived and where we played. We didn't have to fight traffic, or leave a suburban gated community, to drive to some stadium with an Internet-company sponsored name that would change as soon as the company declared bankruptcy. Our home and our workplace sat side by side. Our commute was by foot: down the hill a few blocks, past the shops, under the rumbling El, through the glass doors.
I'd stop for a cup of coffee at a deli on my walk to the stadium, like any other guy on his way to work, and walk through the players' entrance, down the stairs to the locker room. After the game, I'd take a shortcut home: I'd walk back up through the dugout, across the scarred field, flanked by empty stands still smelling like beer and liquor and cigar smoke, then leave the stadium through a door tucked underneath the bleachers, and back up the hill to the hotel, maybe stopping to pick up a pack of cigarettes, a quart of milk.
Perhaps a fan would stop me and say hello; more often not. None of us played football for the fame, and none of us had much; celebrity hadn't really attached itself to professional football back then. The Giants were beginning to grab attention, but the individual players were still pretty faceless. Hell, half the time our friends back home didn't even know what we were doing during the fall. During my first few seasons, when I'd go back home to Bakersfield, California, after the season, people would ask me where I'd been all those months.
Until 1956, games weren't even locally televised. In Charlie Conerly's first few years, in the early Fifties, when he'd disappear from Clarksdale, Mississippi, for months on end, his wife's friends would wonder whether Charlie had left her, or maybe gone back into the military. In the early years, Perian Conerly remembers now, the public equated us with professional wrestlers. What kind of guy would graduate from college, then find work playing in a sport that paid less than working as a master plumber?
There were some perks to being a Giant in the Bronx, of course. If you were our starting left guard, Al Barry, for instance, you could enjoy your own squad of bodyguards on your walk to the stadium. But Al's bodyguards weren't like the bodyguards who surround today's players; Al had his own private escort of dead-end boys. "This one local kid got about three or four other kids, about 10 or 12 years old, and they formed the 'Al Barry Guards Club'" Al told me. "I don't know why, but at some point, this group of kids started walking down to the stadium with me. Then they'd sneak into the games. They used to send me postcards at the hotel, stuff like, 'Saw you play in Cleveland. Signed, the Al Barry Guards Club.'"
History remembers the bold-faced names from the game that day. But most of the men who played in that game, in that glory game, in the glory years -- the men who made up the small, blue-collar fraternity of the National Football League -- weren't bold-faced guys. They were men of their time: war veterans, Depression small-town kids. They were the down-to-earth Al Barry, and the always-laughing rookie lineman Frank Youso, the tough coal-town tackle Dick Modzelewski: men who had unexpectedly discovered in college that they possessed a talent for a game that they loved, and who'd been lucky enough to find someone who would pay them to keep playing it -- as long as they could find gainful employment during the off-season.
It wasn't fancy by New York City, standards, but the Concourse Plaza had some class. When the place opened in 1923, governor Al Smith cut the ribbon at the dedication. New York governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned for the presidency at The Concourse Plaza. Its ballroom ceiling soared 28-feet high. I didn't spend much time in the ballroom.
Our rookie kick-returner that year, Don Maynard, merited only modest lodgings at the hotel -- "a couch made into a bed, a bathroom, and the kitchen on the other wall" -- but still found the place a little overwhelming. "When I got to the city," Don told me from El Paso, the town he's never really left, "the first building I saw was the Concourse Plaza Hotel. That hotel had more bricks than some of the towns I lived in."
When I think about the men on that field that day, some of them remembered among the best football players who ever played the game, I picture guys whose talent was all the more remarkable considering how humble their roots had been -- and how few of them ever expected to find work in our equally humble league. None of us thought we'd end up in the pros.
Well, check that: one of us did. Maybe that's why Raymond Berry was destined to dominate this game. He'd been preparing for it in his mind -- and no one prepared for a football game like Raymond Berry -- for a long, long time.
"I don't think any of us knew in those days that we might end up playing in the pros," Raymond told me. "Games weren't nationally televised. But I'd thought about it -- in a movie theater in Paris, Texas. I'll never forget the movie. It was a movie about Crazy Legs Hirsch. It was released after the Rams won the championship. I'm sitting in a movie theater, spring of 1952. I've never seen televised pro football or college. Elroy came into my brain, and I was thinking, 'Man I'd like to catch passes like that guy.'"
I took it outside, until I saw a gap, planted my right foot and turned it up, knowing exactly what I needed for the game-winning first down.
I'd gained about three yards when Marchetti shed Jack Stroud's block, lowered his head, and hit me waist-high. "I hadn't had a lot of people running right at me during that game," Gino told me. "So I kind of figured you'd cut in. A back was coming at me, and I was able to elude him, and when you cut back in I was in real good position with my feet, and I was able to hit you solid."
But I had momentum, and I fell forward. Now Donovan came in, over Barry's block, and threw a big right arm. I ducked under it. Then Lipscomb came in, and landed on Gino -- and Marchetti started screaming. His ankle was broken.
Everyone started to yell, "Get off him! Get off him!" It was chaos. Marchetti remembers those next few seconds, as he reached for his leg: "Some Giant said to me, 'You can get up now, Gino -- the play is over.' I could have cared less. I was in so much pain, if I wasn't a grown man, I'd have cried."
They carried Marchetti off on a stretcher, but he insisted the trainers put him down so he could watch the outcome. So there he sat, on the ground, his leg wrapped in ice, a Colt jacket draping his shoulders.
Ordell Braase remembers the play well: "Why would you want to run at Marchetti?" he asked me. The answer, to me, is obvious: You go with what you got you there, with the sweep and all its options.
Referee Ron Gibbs had picked the ball up at the end of my run. He held onto it, and didn't put it back down until all the chaos had subsided, and Gino had been removed from the field. Then they brought out the chains. And it was a few inches short. It turned out that the best play Big Daddy made that day, on a day when he made the biggest plays of his career, was on a late hit on his own man.
I wasn't happy about the spot. And I told Gibbs about it. As Artie recalls it now, "You were shouting, 'I made it, I made it!' I told you, 'Shut up, and get back to the huddle.'" I don't remember ever shouting in any game, but I do recall being dead certain I'd made the first down.
Decades later, soon after Ron Gibbs passed away, I would get a letter from his son. It included this passage: "Dad told me a few days before he died, 'You know, Joe, maybe Frank was right ... maybe he did make that first down ... we shouldn't have ever picked up that ball before the measurement.'"
I'll say it again for the last time. I still feel to this day, and will always feel, that I got the first down that would have let us run out the clock. And given us the title.