As the Ravens reach for a playoff berth this weekend, a generation of football fans with long memories will recall an afternoon 60 years ago – Dec. 28, 1958 – when the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants played their legendary Sudden Death championship game that changed America’s sporting culture forever.
And maybe culture itself.
No more would autumn Sundays be given over to Alistair Cooke debating Robert Frost on TV’s Omnibus, or entire families heading for the Hilltop Bowling Lanes, or late afternoon visits to cousins who’d moved all the way out to distant Owings Mills.
Now, in the enduring aftermath of that stunning Colts’ victory, 23 to 17, the whole country embraced professional football as never before – and millions embraced our home-town guys as their storybook team.
They captured the entire country’s imagination. It was Alan (The Horse) Ameche scoring the winning touchdown – and then taking a bow on the Ed Sullivan Show that very night.
It was John Unitas guiding the club to the first overtime triumph in football history – and then appearing on the cover of Sport Magazine.
And it was the Colts’ championship victory featured in Sports Illustrated, under the headline, “The Best Game Ever Played,” putting undernourished, insecure Bawlamer at the very heart of the great American change-over from sleepy baseball to dynamic pro football.
I can still hear Tom Matte, standing outside Unitas’ funeral service 16 years ago, declaring, “They used to call Dallas ‘America’s team.’ That’s just bull. The Baltimore Colts were America’s team.”
The ’58 game made it so.
It was all people talked about that winter. Some of us still have that 45 rpm record, taken from the game’s radio broadcast, that sold like crazy around here. Some of us have video of the game. Each feels as valuable as Dead Sea scrolls – for football was, in that moment, becoming America’s secular religion.
What stunned so many of us in Baltimore was the sheer unexpectedness of it all. We were just Bawlamer, stuck on a highway between New York and Washington and completely unaccustomed to any national spotlight.
We seemed overmatched even by history. New York’s famous athletes were Mickey Mantle, who hit tape measure home runs, and Sugar Ray Robinson, who turned a killer sport into an art form.
Until the Colts, our most famous athlete was Toots Barger, who bowled.
And there we were, in hallowed Yankee Stadium, before a roaring New Yawk mob and a national TV audience. Hell, New York alone was intimidating. Didn’t their baseball team, the hated Yankees, win the championship year after year? Didn’t their football Giants win the title just two years earlier?
And always, there were our Orioles, near the bottom of the American League.
Never mind, never mind.
When it was over, and the miracles had piled up one upon another, there were the Colts with the victory, and there were 30,000 of us swarming across Friendship Airport to welcome them home.
So we’ll cheer on the Ravens this coming Sunday. But some of us will recall another Sunday afternoon, 60 years ago, when a field goal with seven seconds left to play sent a ballgame into a place no one had ever ventured before – called Sudden Death – and the Colts of Baltimore emerged with a victory that felt like an absolute life force.