For professional football fans, these are the most sacred of all high holy days.
The NFL playoffs, for untold millions, rival family, friends, fortune, fame and fitness in importance.
It’s been that way since the Dec. 28, 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants in Yankee Stadium, “the greatest game ever played” as widely billed in football lore.
The Colts won 23-17 in overtime when a fullback nicknamed “The Horse," Alan Ameche, scored the winning touchdown on a 1-yard plunge in miserable weather on a playing surface that resembled a poorly plowed field.
That day, that game marked the onset of a titanic shift in football’s popularity. Throughout the first half of the 1900s, college competition easily outpaced the NFL in fan interest.
Led at first by the Ivy League, the colleges had the big stadiums, the year-to-year momentum and the tradition of Saturday games.
Playing on Sunday afternoons and sometimes criticized by religious leaders for doing so, the NFL had only 12 teams that had to rent, borrow and beg stadium space from Major League Baseball franchises and a bargain-basement television contract that was heavily dependent upon regional college ties.
Most of the pro players until the late 1970s were part-time employees, NFL players from August through December and car salesmen, insurance brokers, farmers, construction workers and combinations thereof from January through July.
So fragile was the NFL landscape that for a period during the 1940s, Pittsburgh and Chicago shared a franchise. So did Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, an awkward hybrid referred to as the Steagles (part Steelers, part Eagles) by some of their fans.
But in 1958, things began to change for the NFL. Cleveland’s rookie running back, Jim Brown, was a superstar from the first quarter of his first game.
Green Bay had three young players, quarterback Bart Starr, fullback Jim Taylor and halfback Paul Hornung, who were energizing a franchise that previously had been in danger of collapse.
But without question, that ’58 championship game spiked NFL interest more than any other single event in the league’s history, even the first and second Super Bowl games after the 1967 and ’68 seasons.
With Chris Schenkel and Chuck Thompson doing the announcing, the game was televised nationally by NBC. It helped that much of the nation was in the midst of frigid winter weather during the holiday break.
Even though New York City was blacked out and couldn’t get the NBC telecast, an estimated 45 million viewed. It was an astounding rating for any football game and especially the modest NFL.
“When the game went into overtime there was a sense something special was happening,” Schenkel said later. “It was a little eerie in a way. You could almost feel the sport growing.”
It also helped that several of the best players in football history were involved in the game.
Baltimore had quarterback John Unitas, running back Lenny Moore, end Raymond Berry and linemen Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti and Jim Parker.
The Giants were led by quarterback Charley Conerly, halfback Frank Gifford, linebacker Sam Huff, end Don Maynard, defensive back Emlen Tunnell and linemen Roosevelt Brown and Andy Robustelli. The New York coaching staff included Weeb Ewbank, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.
Photo Credit: Harris & Ewing