On this day in history, December 28, 1958, Colts beat Giants for NFL title in ‘greatest game ever played’


The Baltimore Colts stunned the New York Giants 23-17 in “sudden death” at the NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium before a mesmerized nationwide television audience on this day in history, Dec. 28, 1958. 

The event has gone down in American sports lore as “the greatest game ever played.”

The dramatic title tilt helped popularize pro football at a time when it ranked behind baseball and college football — even boxing and horse racing — in the national sporting consciousness. 

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“The game captured the collective attention of the nation and as a result, pro football exploded across the country in the following years,” writes the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

“By the mid-1960s, professional football became the nation’s favorite sport to watch and has remained on top ever since.”

American quarterback Johnny Unitas (left) of the Baltimore Colts is shown as he’s about to throw a pass during a play in “sudden death” overtime of the NFL Championship game against the New York Giants, Yankee Stadium, New York, Dec. 28, 1958. The Colts won 23-17.  (Robert Riger/Getty Images)

The nationally televised spectacle was highlighted by two dramatic late scoring drives engineered by an unheralded 25-year-old Colts quarterback named Johnny Unitas. 

The sports thriller capped a long Christmas weekend for millions of Americans who were tuning into pro football for the first time. 

The 1958 NFL championship is remembered in American sports lore as “the greatest game ever played.”

They witnessed the first overtime game in pro football history; one of the first NFL games broadcast nationally; and an incredible galaxy of football legends on the field and on the sidelines. 

Among them: New York Giants stars Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and Pat Summerall; and Colts icons Raymond Berry, Art Donovan and Lenny Moore.

A total of 17 future Hall of Famers participated in the game as players, coaches or executives.

The Giants coaching staff included assistants Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi

Frank Gifford

New York Giants star Frank Gifford (no. 16) in action, rushing vs. Baltimore Colts, Bronx, New York, on Dec. 28, 1958.  (Hy Peskin/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

No star shined brighter than that of Unitas, who emerged from the game an American legend.

A sandlot gunslinger playing for $7 a week just three years earlier, he marched the Colts from their own 14-yard line in the final two minutes to set up a game-tying 20-yard field goal with seven seconds left to play in regulation. 

“It was one of the most dramatic two minutes in the history of any sport,” former NFL executive, broadcaster and football historian Upton Bell told Fox News Digital. 

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“People in those days knew you couldn’t put together a scoring drive in two minutes.”

Bell’s father, the late Bert Bell, was the NFL commissioner at the time. 

Without the “sudden death,” the 1958 NFL championship game would have ended in a 17-17 tie. 

The senior Bell had convinced team owners just a few years earlier to adopt a “sudden death” format in the event of a tie in the league championship game. 

In “sudden death,” the first team to score wins. 

Without it, the 1958 NFL championship game would have ended in a 17-17 tie. 

NFL commissioner Bert Bell

Bert Bell, commissioner of the National Football League, is shown at a press conference in Philadelphia on April 4, 1947. Bell was commissioner of the NFL from 1946 until his death in 1959.  (Getty Images)

“I don’t think a lot of people realized historically at the time what sudden death meant,” said Bell, who was in the stands for the game.

“Many players on the field didn’t understand. People around me were ready to go home, thinking the game ended as a tie.”

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The Giants failed to score on the opening drive of overtime. 

Unitas then led the Colts 80 yards on 13 plays for the game-winning score.

An estimated 45 million Americans gathered around the television for the final minutes of unprecedented sports drama. 

They watched as Colts running back Alan “The Horse” Ameche crashed over the goal line from one yard out for the winning score. 

An estimated 45 million Americans gathered around the television for the final minutes of unprecedented sports drama.

The massive viewership shattered all known television audiences for football that had come before. 

Mayhem ensued on the field, as a sense of witnessing history rushed over the 64,000 fans in attendance.

Unitas completed 26 of 40 passes for 349 yards — startling numbers in that era. His teammate Berry caught 12 passes for 178 yards. 

Berry’s 12 receptions stood as an NFL championship game/Super Bowl record for 55 years. 

Johnny Unitas

Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas is mobbed by well-wishers as he heads for the dressing room after leading the Colts to a 23-17 win over the New York Giants in the first “sudden death” overtime in National Football history. Unitas set a record of 349 yards gained on passes in a title game. (Getty Images)

The previously unknown sports term “sudden death” entered the American vernacular that day, said Bell. 

It’s still commonly used in all sports to describe a contest that ends on the next score by either team.

Commissioner Bell, a pro football pioneer, broke down and cried after the game, realizing he had witnessed a landmark moment for a league that often struggled to survive since its 1920 founding. 

“A master cinematographer could not have lit the scene more dramatically.” 

The game benefited from low ambient lighting and the sharply different white jerseys of the Colts and dark blue jerseys of the Giants. 

It gave the game a stark, thrilling palette that popped on black-and-white television.

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“Many of the viewers just beginning to tune in were not regular watchers of pro football and they were seeing something starkly different than the traditional college games played on sunny autumn afternoons,” author Mark Bowden wrote in his 2008 book, “The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL.” 

He added, “This was more like mortal combat from some dark underworld. A master cinematographer could not have lit the scene more dramatically.” 

Tom Brady celebrates the New England Patriots Super Bowl win in 2017 with confetti falling from the sky as he hoists the Lombardi Trophy

Tom Brady and the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime in Super Bowl LI in February 2017. It joined the 1958 NFL championship game as the only title contest in league history that went into overtime.  (Focus on Sport)

The massive interest in the game fueled the creation of the rival American Football League the following year. 

Eight AFL teams took the field for the first time in 1960. 

The two leagues merged in 1966 with the creation of the first AFL-NFL championship game, an event now known around the world as the Super Bowl. 

A behemoth of American sports culture, the Super Bowl was made possible by the drama of the 1958 NFL title game. 

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A 2019 poll of dozens of football experts confirmed the status of the 1958 NFL championship contest as “the greatest game ever played.” 

The second greatest game on the list: the improbable 34-28 comeback win by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

It was the only other NFL championship game that went into overtime. 

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