On December 28, 1958, the Baltimore Colts defeat the New York Giants, 23-17, in overtime in the NFL Championship Game—a back-and-forth thriller that later is billed as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The nationally televised championship—the league’s first overtime contest—is watched by 45 million viewers and fuels the NFL’s meteroric rise in popularity.
“Never has there been a game like this one,” Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated wrote. “When there are so many high points, it is not easy to pick the highest.”
According to the New York Daily News, gross receipts for the sellout at Yankee Stadium in New York, including television and radio, were $698,646. That resulted in a a $4,718.77 bonus for each Colts player, $3,111.33 for each Giant.
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The star of the game was Colts quarterback and future Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas, who completed 26 of 40 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown—impressive statistics in the pre-Super Bowl era.
Near the end of regulation, Unitas led the Colts on a drive from their 14-yard line to tie the score. In overtime, he led a 13-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with a one-yard touchdown run by Alan “The Horse” Ameche.
When asked about the winning drive, in which he completed four of his five passing attempts, Unitas responded with his trademark confidence, “Why shouldn’t I have passed then? After all, you don’t have to risk anything when you know where you’re passing.”
“The Greatest Game Ever Played” was sloppy, with the teams combining for eight fumbles (six lost). But the championship featured 16 future Hall of Famers besides Unitas. Among them were Giants running back (and future TV star) Frank Gifford andassistant coach Vince Lombardi, who went on to lead the Green Bay Packers to five NFL titles.