Dave: Today we’re discussing the book, “The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL”, by Mark Bowden. The game the book focuses on, the 1958 NFL Championship Game, has been labeled the greatest game ever played by many people for decades. It was the first professional football game to go into sudden death, with the Colts eventually winning by a score of 23-17. Now, you weren’t born yet, and I was only three years old when it was played, so it’s safe to say neither of us was completely familiar with the game before we read this book, am I right?
Nate: Yeah, I had heard a lot about the game, seen the old highlight reels, and loosely understood the significance of it, but I could never understand why it was considered by many to be the greatest game ever played. After reading the book, I get it.
Dave: I seriously doubt it was the best game ever from an artistic viewpoint.
Nate: But most important?
Dave: Exactly. It was a good game, but when you factor in the impact it had on shaping the modern NFL, which is far and away the most popular professional sport in our country today, it isn’t out of line to consider this game the greatest ever. One of the things that made it so ground breaking was the fact that so many people ended up seeing the exciting end of the game on television. This game really marked the beginning of television networks realizing how much money could be made televising football. Now television contracts are probably in the billions, and it all started with this game.
Nate: And it wasn’t just the fact that it was televised, it was the fact that it went longer than it was supposed to, and therefore people who were tuning in to watch other programs ended up seeing the last few drives in regulation and the overtime session. The fact that so many people tuned in to the exciting conclusion produced more buzz around professional football than there had probably ever been up to that point.
Dave: Yeah, college football was the big sport at that time. It’s hard to believe now, but the NFL was an afterthought.
Nate: Another amazing thing about this game was the personnel involved. You’re talking about NFL greats and future Hall of Famers all over the field on both sides. Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Sam Huff, Frank Gifford, Gino Marchetti, Art Donovan, Pat Summerall, Lenny Moore – the list goes on and on.
Dave: And don’t forget about the coaches. The Giants had Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi as their respective defensive and offensive coordinators, and the Colts head coach was Weeb Ewbank who would go on the coach the Jets to victory in Super Bowl III, in what could be the second most important game ever played.
Nate: I think what I enjoyed the most about the book was the way Bowden allows the reader to get to know some of the key players at the beginning. He devotes a chapter each to several guys, gets the reader inside their head, and lets you know what makes them tick and where they came from. Once the reader has all of that information, the game itself becomes so much more interesting because you see the traits of all the players coming out in the game, and shaping the eventual outcome of the game.
Dave: This is really shown on the final scoring drive in regulation by the Colts, when Unitas and Berry connect on several passes in succession. Bowden’s premise is that without the attention to detail Unitas and Berry had devoted to their respective games over the years, these plays would not have been successful. Raymond Berry was not the most talented guy on the field, but he worked incredibly hard to get any advantage he could, right down to understanding which shoes to wear, and what spots on the field were icy or slippery.
Nate: One other thing that comes through in the book was the love of the game most of the players had. It was also interesting to see players who wanted to win, not only to win a championship, but also because they wanted the winner’s paycheck.
Dave: Yeah, nowadays with salaries the way they are, the winner’s paycheck doesn’t mean a whole lot, but it was a good chunk of change to those guys. I liked not only the love of the game the players had back then, but also the love of the cities they played in, and the way they really became a part of those cities. Several of the players on the Colts had restaurants or other businesses they opened in Baltimore that they helped to run in the offseason.
Nate: And many of those players still live there to this day. You’re right; there was a real attachment to the city for many of those players, which isn’t always something you see nowadays.
Dave: One other thing I want to point out about this game is the way it helped to spawn the appetite for professional football in other cities. It helped lead to the birth of the AFL, which eventually led to the NFL/AFL merger, and the Super Bowl, which is now practically a national holiday.
Nate: When Bowen states in his title, “The Birth of the Modern NFL”, he definitely hits the mark. Who do you think would enjoy this book?
Dave: I certainly think any NFL fan would enjoy it. Anyone who loves the NFL now would appreciate it, because you get to see many of the events that, over the years, have come to influence the current league.
Nate: I agree. The NFL is at the height of its popularity in this country, but you wonder how many people really know where the league came from, what things used to be like, and how it got to where it is now. Bowden’s book lays this all out, in an entertaining and interesting way.