EMERSON ESSAYS 1.1.11

A Super Sunday

Once upon a time, long, long ago there was something called The National Football League, (NFL). There were two conferences (East and West), each consisting of six teams. No one had heard of the Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys or Jacksonville whatevers. Florida and Tennessee certainly didn’t have teams. This was football they way the Good Lord had intended it. Twelve teams slugging it out for three months and the teams with the best records in each conference played one another for the professional football championship. There were no “playoffs” nor any “wild card” nonsense. There was simply one game that determined the best football team in the world.

Back in 1958, Baltimore had very little going for it compared to its east coast neighbors. It didn’t have the glamor and glitz of New York. Nor did it have the culture of Boston or the sophistication of Philadelphia. Beating the New York Giants for the football championship of the world became an obsession to the working class people of Baltimore.

The Baltimore Colts were as blue collar as the Baltimore steel workers and Chesapeake Bay oystermen who rooted for them. Johnny Unitas was the super star of the Colts. The Man with the Golden Arm they called him. Unitas had the All-American good looks of John Elway. But he didn’t sell his autograph for hundreds of dollars a pop the way today’s athletes do. He didn’t have a hi-tech radio receiver in his helmet transmitting plays from the bench. He called all the plays himself and led his team to many a last minute comeback. In spite of what Denver fans may think, I believe Unitas actually threw a football better than John Elway. It was Elway who became rich and famous as a result of his use of the “two minute drill” but let us not forget who invented it. Incidentally, John Unitas made one fiftieth the salary of John Elway.

On the last Sunday in December of 1958, my father took me to the Eastport Democratic Club to watch a football game on TV. The Colts and the New York Giants were playing for the football championship of the world. Dad bought me a coke and some pretzels and National Bohemian Beers for his friends. He let me play the one-arm-bandit slot machines prior to the game. And then at 2 pm, my father and I, along with two dozen of his buddies, sat back and watched the little black and white Philco TV, mounted above the bar. For the next two and a half hours, we watched the greatest football game ever played!

All pro football players who make a million dollars a year should be required to watch the film of that 1958 Championship game. They owe their livelihood to what the Giants and Colts did on that gray Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium. The game was broadcast nationally and it set in motion the entire industry of televised football. Before this game the networks were quite unsure if pro football could be sold on national TV. After that game, Americans fell in love with the sport and the TV networks now pay handsomely for the rights to broadcast pro football.

We had to watch the game closely, because there was no instant replay in those days. If Raymond Berry made a diving catch of a Johnny Unitas pass, we just had to remember how great it was. Berry caught twelve passes from Johnny U. that day.

That game had everything! See-saw lead changes. A goal line stand by the Giants that looked like it would win the game for them. But minutes later, the Colts got the ball back deep in their own territory with time running out. The Colts didn’t huddle, saving precious seconds on the clock. Unitas threw a series of sideline passes to Raymond Berry who would dive out of bounds, thus stopping the clock. When halfback Lenny Moore ran the ball, he’d gain the necessary first down yardage then head for the side lines. The Colts moved the football down the field quickly and efficiently. It was a beautiful thing to watch. They were three points behind. A touchdown would win it, a field goal would tie the game.

There were no high-tech clocks in those days. The field judge kept time with a simple stop watch. The Colts had the ball close but could not get it into the end zone. Just then, a technician at Yankee Stadium accidentally kicked a cable loose and football fans across America collectively gasped as the screen went snowy white for about 30 seconds. A chorus of profanities erupted at the Eastport Democratic Club. A cheer of happy profanities arose  as the picture returned.

The Colts had no time outs left. Their kicking team scrambled onto the field. The referee looked at his stop watch as Steve Myrah booted a 24 yard field goal through the uprights. The ref fired his pistol, the game was over. The game was tied. The referees, scratched their heads. What to do? This was a championship game. It couldn’t end in a tie. It was decided a fifth quarter would be played and whoever scored first would be world champs. A broadcaster coined the word “sudden death.” History was being made.

A coin was tossed and the Colts won the call. They would receive the football first. Johnny U. marched the troops down the field one last time. Raymond Berry caught more passes, Lenny Moore ran the ball with his usual grace and style. Even tight end Jim Mutscheller who usually stayed in for blocking purposes, caught a ball near the goal line.

“TOUCH….”, yelled Baltimore sportscaster Chuck Thompson. “No, he’s out of bounds on the one-yard line!”

What would the Colts do? It would be easy to punch over a very short field goal and end the game but the Colts had come this far, why not go for the touchdown.

“Unitas hands the ball to Ameche….the Colts are the World Champions!” The burly fullback plunged through a hole in the line so large, a Chesapeake Bay schooner could have sailed through.

The Eastport Democratic Club erupted with cheering, shouting, and cursing. Someone bought me my fifth Coke of the day. My father was grinning from ear to ear, something he seldom did.

“Remember this day, boy” he said to me, “you’ll never see another football game like that one.”

The old man was right. I never did. Yesterday’s Super Bowl was an exciting game but it just couldn’t compare to the day when Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Alan Ameche and the rest of the 1958 Colts gave the beer and crab Baltimorians something to be proud of. It was a Super Sunday!

 

© 2011 William Emerson Wiley

 

 

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. January 29, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Emerson;
    Thank you very much for sharing. Just so you know, we are still here, cheering football at the Eastport Democratic Club. It was especially nice to find your blog just before SuperBowl. I’ve posted it on our facebook page. Please be our guest and feel free to check in from time to time ~ football aside, I think you would be happy to find that we have kept many things exactly as they were when you last visited.

    Thanks again. : )

    Jeni Parris Brady

    P.S. Green Beer Races coming on Saturday, March 10th, 2012. Cheers!


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