Saturday, December 13, 2008
A Game That Changed Us
ESPN tonight broadcast a thoroughly engaging documentary/commentary about the 1959 NFL championship game, popularly called "The Greatest Game Ever Played" and, though the definition of "great" has to be clarified here, it certainly represented a turning point for in this country.
It was the game that made the NFL a television sport because of a combination of circumstances and elements, most prominently the overtime that resulted in the Baltimore Colts and Johnny Unitas beating the New York Giants (Sam Huff, Frank Gifford), 23-17. It was a game in which 17 future NFL Hall of Fame players and coaches took part. But it was basically sloppy football, full of fumbles, bad passes, missed tackles and dirt where grass should be (Yankee Stadium was, after all, a baseball field and this was late December after the grass was dead).
Still, the game produced a superstar in the unlikely Unitas, a guy who'd recently been playing semi-pro ball in Pittsburgh, because Unitas (who had the same haircut I wore at the time: a blond flattop) invented the two-minute drill--which led to the win--on the spot.
There was a lot of football in the game, but its significance was far more than the details of the game. The game became a social turning point of sorts, one that began the elevation of professional football to its place at the top of all American athletic ventures. At the time, pro football stood was a distant second to college football in popularity. Boxing, horse racing and baseball were more popular. Many of the men playing in this game earned $5,000 a year. The winner got $1,500. That's lunch money for a modern pro.
This broadcast proved the power of television, perhaps more than any other outcome. It was a precusor of TV's expanding influence. Soon to come: Nixon-Kennedy debates; the Civil Rights Movement; Vietnam; obese and passive young people glued to the box.
I don't know if it was a good thing or a bad thing. It was--as is so much television over time--an entertaining event, inflated far out of proportion, remembered for being better than it was. I've seen its equal as entertainment, as football, as social turning point many times. Still, it was a bookmark for a century, one that's easily recognizable.
One of the images that remains from that game is the attached photo of Alam Ameche scoring the winning touchdown. It was taken by 16-year-old Neil Leifer (later a Sports Illustrated photographer) who was on the sideline because he helped wheel some crippled veterans onto the field and he had his camera with him. It's a bit of serindipity that adds to the overall legend.
But I was a Redskins fan, so I didn't care who won. My 'Skins weren't much good, but man did they have some gorgeous uniforms, feather running down the middle of a deep burgundy helmet. I loved that.