Frank Gifford

Television and the Game That Made the NFL: The 1958 NFL Championship

Television changed how Americans lived. No other invention has reshaped the life of the American family more than the TV. in 1950, there 5,343,000 TV sets in the USA tuning into 103 TV Stations in 60 cities. By the end of the decade those numbers skyrocketed to over 42,000,000 homes with TV, some having more than one. The explosive growth of the TV changed how the family ate, what it did for entertainment, and where it did its entertaining. TV dinners and TV trays became staples of the new TV life. The TV almost became a part of the family.

A 1959 RCA TV

TV also changed sport. Boxing initially succeeded well on the small screen. And baseball transferred well from the radio to the tube. However, professional football struggled for several reasons. First, no national network broadcast the games. Everything was local. Second, college football reigned supreme. Since the late 1800s, American’s allegiance to the college game far outweighed any loyalty to the NFL which did not start until the 1920s. Even when the Bears signed Red Grange, the NFL was more of a barnstorming league and was mostly located in the upper Great Lakes and East Coast. In the 1950s, the NFL moved west of St. Louis adding the 49ers in 1950 and the Rams had been entrenched since 1946.

The 1958 season was nondescript. It was like most other seasons. The two tiered league saw the New York Giants tie the Cleveland Browns for the East Division crown with a 9-3 record while the Colts won the West Division outright over the Bears. The Browns and Giants played a playoff game with the Giants winning 10-0. The stage was set for what seemed to be just another hum-drum NFL Championship. Except this time, things would be different, quite different.

1. The 1958 game would be the first nationally televised NFL game in history. Strangely, the game was blacked out in NYC where the game was played at Yankee Stadium.
2. It would be the only (to date) NFL Championship to go into overtime
3. The resulting popularity of the sport changed dramatically the next season.

The Giants were coached by Jim Lee Howell. His offensive coordinator was Vince Lombardi and defensive coordinator was Tom Landry. The Colts were coached by Weeb Ewbank and quarterbacked by the legendary Johnny Unitas. Leading up to the game, the Giants were considered the favorite. Only 2 years before the Giants had won the 1956 NFL Championship while this was only the second winning season in the history of the Colts. The teams had met in the regular season with the Giants winning 24-21. However, the Colts did not have Johnny Unitas that day. George Shaw, the backup did not have a good day going 12-30. He was no Johnny Unitas. Ewbank had his own scouting done in the weeks leading up to the Championship game as the Colts had clinched early.

The game started poorly. The first quarter saw the ball fumbled by each team. In addition, Unitas threw an interception and New York blocked a field goal. As the first quarter ended, the only score was a Pat Summerall field goal to give the Giants the lead. The second quarter saw the Colts dominate. Frank Gifford’s fumble led to an 86 yard drive by the Colts which ended in a Raymond Berry touchdown catch for a 14-3 lead. 

The second half saw run the ball, and run the ball a lot. Frank Gifford caught a 15 yard touchdown pass and Mel Triplett had a one yard run to see the Giants take a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter. The Colts came back to score a field goal with seven seconds left after a thrilling drive lead by Unitas. The game was tied 17-17. Overtime would be needed to see who would take the title home.

The game had held to form so far. The Giants ran the ball. The Colts threw early and often.  In fact, Unitas threw 40 times in the “3 yards and a cloud of dust” era.” The overtime saw the Giants fumble the kickoff but recovered. After three plays, the Giants punted the ball. The Colts never gave it back. Starting at their own 20, Unitas drove the Colts 80 yards. Alan Amece scored from the one to give the Colts a victory.

Rosie Greer of the New York Giants

There were several keys to the game. An injury to Giants defensive tackle Rosie Greer opened things up for the Colts passing game. Tom Landry had revolutionized football with his 4-3 defense in the 1950s. However, that defense was designed for one purpose and one purpose only and that was to stop Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns. The Colts did not have Jim Brown and they were not going to run on the Giants initially. By passing so much in the game, the Colts wore out the Giants. As a result, the Colts were able to run on the last two drives: the first at the end of regulation, and the second in overtime.

Alan Ameche scores the winning TD in overtime to give the Colts a 23-17 win

Ewbank’s plays were simple slants and misdirection compared to today’s multiple formations and misdirection seen in the West Coast and spread offenses of today.

As the game went on, the field got colder. No hand warmers or heated benches existed then. The resulting conditions and tiredness took its toll on the Giants. The Colts, having clinched early, were well rested and in better condition. Frank Gifford, the Giants running back, felt the Giants were not as good as in past years but had seen several breaks go their way during the year. He thought they would get a break in the championship. The Giants did not.

Technically, the game was not good at all between the fumbles, botched plays, interceptions, and blocked kicks. It was quite sloppy and players on both teams recognize this. What the players also recognize was the influence that specific game had, and that television had on football. After 1958, the popularity of the game took off. The Colts beat the Giants again in 1959. Football players became the darlings of the advertising world as football players displaced baseball players in the American consciousness. Here is a rare one with Frank Gifford.

Over the next ten years, the AFL would rival the NFL, the Super Bowl would arrive, a merger between the two leagues made them both stronger on television. But at the heart of it all was TV broadcast the game to a national audience. And they loved it, and haven’t stopped loving it. By the early 1970s, baseball was supplanted as America’s game by the NFL. And the NFL has TV to thank for its success.