NFL great Gifford (The Whole Ten Yards, with Harry Waters, 1993) reminisces about the legendary game between his New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts.
Deeply ingrained in America’s football consciousness, the author starred at USC in the early ’50s, played numerous positions brilliantly for the Giants, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977 and anchored the greatest announcing triumvirate ever on Monday Night Football. Gifford’s glamour even extends, famously, to his appearance as the narrator’s obsession in Frederick Exley’s classic novel, A Fan’s Notes. Here he’s regular guy Frank, telling stories about friends, teammates and opponents, using the most renowned game in which he ever participated, the 1958 title contest, as the centerpiece. The players’ conversational reflections re-create the sort of banter that likely occurred among the Giants as they gathered during the ’50s at some of the Manhattan watering holes—Toot’s Shors, P.J. Clarke’s—they helped make famous. The play-by-play account vividly recalls the game’s vicissitudes, from the comically inept first quarter through the thrilling overtime. The players remember the almost small-town, family atmosphere inhabited by two professional teams in a postwar era in which many of the players were combat veterans, and all had to take off-season jobs to pay the mortgage. Nobody imagined the money and glory that lay ahead for professional football. The subtitle notwithstanding, how “the greatest game ever played” changed football is better examined in Mark Bowden’s recent The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL (2008). Gifford trains the spotlight on the people: Charlie Conerly, who the author says is the greatest player not in the Hall; Kyle Rote, so beloved by teammates that they named their children after him; Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, who carried around ghastly photos of his murdered mother; Vince Lombardi, before his mythic tenure as head coach of the Green Bay Packers; Sam Huff, who led the Giants’ defense and a pre-game argument with Gifford over playoff shares for a bench-sitting teammate—the then-unknown, future vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp.