'The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL'

Mark Bowden's book 'The Best Game Ever' delves into the game that put the NFL on the map

'The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL'

One hundred eighty-six pounds. That was the perfect playing weight for Baltimore Colts wide receiver Raymond Berry. In the two weeks before the December 28, 1958 NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, Berry weighed 175 pounds. He knew this because he traveled with a scale and weighed himself before each game. Berry had developed a reputation as one of the most dangerous players on the field due to his precision and methodical approach to a rough game. Journalists from Baltimore still tell stories of listening to Berry catch Johnny Unitas passes in the dark after long practices. The concept? Berry wanted to know his routes “blindfolded.”

Meticulous precision can also be said of Mark Bowden, author of The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL ($23 Atlantic Monthly Press). Bowden, the celebrated writer of Black Hawk Down, picks up a project initiated by the Pulitzer-Prize winning David Halberstam, who sadly died in a car crash researching this game in 2007. Bowden writes the story of this 1958 National Football League championship game between the Colts and the New York Giants. The game featured the greatest collection of talent on one field, including 17 future Hall of Fame inductees such as the Colts Unitas, Berry, and Gino Marchetti, and the Giants Frank Gifford (yes, the husband of Kathie Lee), the exceptionally callous Sam Huff (the Ray Lewis of this era), and assistant coaches Vince Lombardi (offense) and Tom Landry (defense) whom notably built what we now understand to be the 4-3 defense around the talents of Huff.

Bowden begins his book in the third quarter, and then delves into the backstory of football in America, the players, the fans, and the cities themselves using a buffet of interviews, sources, notes, and archives. Berry’s family, who rarely saw him play, came all the way from Paris, Texas, to watch the game, Gifford and Huff almost came to blows over financial royalties from the game (the average player in that day only made $5,000 a year), and a trombonist for the Colts marching band had bloodied his lips by playing their fight song so many times on the train ride to the game.

And the game was more than just a game. An estimated 45 million viewers, at that time the largest number to ever watch a football game, tuned in to see what would become the first sudden-death overtime match in NFL history. This was a game between blue-collared Baltimore and the pretty boys of the Big Apple. This was the game that opened the door for football to take dominance as the sport of America, ironically in the House that Ruth Built. The Best Game Ever is published at the 50 anniversary of the championship, and shows the origins on why we stay at home on Sundays, and how the Super Bowl has become a nonofficial holiday across the country.

Also look for ESPN's airing of the The Greatest Game Ever Played where they gather players of that time and their contemporaries to comment on this game and the sport and show the game like it's never been seen before, in color.

On a side note: I’ve heard rumors there’s a chess set devoted to this game with the Colts in white and the Giants in blue. Huff is supposed to be cast as the rook, and on the opposite side Unitas is the king. I’ve been seeking this chess set for nine years. If anyone knows where I can get one, feel free to e-mail me at my business account [email protected]. Happy holidays to all.

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Mark Bowden, Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Frank Gifford

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