Donovan McNabb was about 50 years too late in his ignorance of the rules.
McNabb, the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback who confessed last month to not knowing that regular season NFL games can end in a tie, would have been right in place in Yankee Stadium on December 28, 1958. That’s when the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts played for the league championship in a game dubbed as the greatest ever. But first, it was the most mysterious ever.
“I remember turning to one of our captains, Kyle Rote, and asking him, ‘What do we do now?’,” comes the recollection of Pat Summerall, the Giants’ kicker in 1958.
The fourth quarter ended with the teams tied, 17-17.
“Kyle said, ‘I think we have to play some more. Let me find out from the coaches’,” Summerall added, chuckling.
Summerall and Frank Gifford were the Giants representatives as the NFL held a media conference call on Friday to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of that game, which ended when the Colts’ Alan Ameche bulled into the end zone from the two-yard line, punctuating the first sudden death overtime in NFL history. The Colts were represented in the call by running back Lenny Moore and receiver Raymond Berry.
But it wasn’t that game, as historic as it was, that piqued my interest. It was the long-standing legend that the Giants were a team split right down the middle: offense vs. the defense.
“It wasn’t friendly at all. They (the defense) didn’t like us,” Gifford said when I raised the issue.
The Giants of the 1950s were the first pro football team that truly became more known for its defense than its offense. And with good reason. Andy Robustelli. Jim Katcavage. Dick Modzelewski. Sam Huff. These are names that are cherished in New York. And often it was they, not the offense, who provided the points, enabling the Giants to win another ballgame. It got so much that the P.A. announcer at Yankee Stadium introduced the defense before games – something unheard of prior.
“I remember one day in Cleveland we kept going three-and-out, three-and-out,” Gifford recalled. “Then we come off the field after having to punt again, and there’s Huff standing on the sidelines, waiting for us.
“’Can’t you guys hold them off for a little while?’, he says.”
“I wouldn’t say it was friendly at all,” Summerall said about the in-fighting between the proud Giants defense and the beleaguered offense. “I remember we were about to play the Cardinals in Buffalo, and this was after a stretch where all we were doing was scoring by field goals. And someone comes up to me and says, ‘What does it feel like to be the whole Giants offense?’ So there was a lot of that stuff going around.”
The feeling was mutual, according to Gifford, a double threat back and receiver in those days.
“We didn’t much care for them, either,” he said flatly. “At times it got pretty heated.”
The divide even spread to the coaching staff. The head coach was Jim Lee Howell, but his two top assistants would end up in the Hall of Fame. Coaching the offense was Vince Lombardi; coaching the defense was Tom Landry.
“There was a rivalry between the two units, no question about it,” Summerall said. “And the rivalry carried over to Lombardi and Landry. They would be congenial and everything, but when Vince would look at Landry…there was a mutual feeling of hostility, let’s put it that way.”
Giants offensive coach Vince Lombardi with Frank Gifford
Yet the Giants were winners in those days, as they’re winners now – fractious relationships among the ranks and all. Another example of why all that rot about chemistry and mutual admiration is a bunch of horse manure. If you have the talent, you’ll win. Like the Oakland A’s of the 1970s, who battled themselves in the clubhouse almost as much as they battled the Orioles and the Tigers on the diamond. Yet all they did was win three straight World Series. They even hated their owner. Actually, that might have been the common denominator that pulled them through: their almost universal disdain for Charlie O. Finley.
But this is indeed the 50th anniversary of the game that many say put the NFL on the map. It was televised nationally, and a local labor dispute added to the national exposure, according to Summerall, who like Gifford is now 78.
“There was a newspaper strike in New York at that time,” he pointed out. “And because of that, I think more papers sent their own writers to cover the game, instead of just taking the New York feeds. So that added to the coverage, as well.”
There was some controversy on the field, which added to the game’s lore. Gifford was stopped short on a key fourth quarter play – when all the Giants and their fans thought that he made the first down. And Baltimore’s Steve Myhra kicked the game-tying field goal that Summerall, among others, thought was no good.
And, maybe even more astounding, was the moment when what appeared to be a drunken fan wandered onto the field, holding up play for several minutes. The story goes that the “drunken fan” was actually an NBC employee, who was told to “stall” while the network frantically tried to repair a cable that had been kicked out of its socket by overzealous fans. Not sure if it’s true, but when order was restored, so was NBC’s signal, so there you have it.
Like any anniversary of any length, the participants can never seem to believe it’s actually been that long.
“Frank called me this spring and told me this year was the 50th anniversary of that game,” Summerall said. “I didn’t believe fifty years had passed.
“But then we were in New York this summer, a bunch of us, and when we all tried to get out of the van we were being driven around in, I realized that it indeed had been fifty years,” Summerall added as we all howled.
“We were a band of brothers,” Gifford said. “And we all kept in touch. It’s very, very special.”
Divided and all.