Bowden (Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam, 2006, etc.) takes a sharp look at the 1958 National Football League championship game, which featured “the greatest concentration of football talent ever assembled for a single game.”
The classic Baltimore Colts/New York Giants title tilt had all the elements of a memorable game: spectacular plays and miscues, controversial calls by the officials, lead changes and, notably, the first sudden-death overtime in NFL history. Still, there were before, and have been since, dozens of NFL games every bit as thrilling. What set the 1958 contest apart to make it the best ever? Although Bowden offers a serviceable play-by-play account, he wisely focuses on a few individuals—Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Weeb Ewbank, Art Donovan of the Colts; Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Vince Lombardi, and Tom Landry of the Giants—to explain the game’s singular link to the NFL’s past and future. The author deftly examines the larger historical context shaping this coming-of-age moment, which propelled professional football to its current position as America’s favorite sport. First, the country itself—transitioning from the Old Soldier Eisenhower to the New Frontier Kennedy, from U.S. Steel to IBM, from blue-collar to white-collar, from segregation to integration—was ready for a sport embodying the ethos of the new age. For years a poor stepchild to the college game, pro football had only recently begun to adopt the scientific principles of analysis and preparation pioneered by Cleveland’s Paul Brown, advancements showcased here by some of the game’s greatest coaches and players. Second, as the overtime contest bled into prime time, millions of television sets picked up the broadcast, riveted the audience and cemented the perfect marriage between football’s electric tempo and the cool medium of television. Soon black-and-white would turn to color, the small-town feel of the sport—embodied nicely by Baltimore’s Colts—would turn big time and the NFL would transform itself into the multibillion dollar enterprise whose Super Bowl has become an unofficial national holiday.
Not quite on par with Bringing the Heat (1994), among the best football books ever, but surely a delight for anyone interested in the history of the NFL.