Sunday, February 01, 2009

“Greatest Pro Football Game Ever” Story: You’ll Smile

On December 28, 1958, years before there was an AFL or Super Bowl, the Baltimore Colts played the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium for the NFL championship.

It’s been called “the greatest pro football game ever.”

The Colts won 23-17 in sudden death overtime.

In Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas, sportswriter Tom Callahan does a magnificent job of telling us about the man who quarterbacked the Colts that day and his teammates.

Callahan’s book is wonderful for many reasons, one being how often let his subjects speak in their own voices. Here's an example of that:

The "voice" is Artie Donovan, the Colts' great defensive lineman, whose father, Arthur Sr. was an outstanding boxing official who’d referred both Joe Lewis-Max Schmeling fights at Yankee Stadium.

We pick up Donovan, seventy-nine at the time and looking back across the decades, telling a story about his Dad, Colts’ coach Weeb Eubanks, and a few of New York’s Finest.

The story begins on the eve of the game:

“Incidentally,” [Donovan] said, “when Weeb put us up at the Concourse Plaza in the Bronx, he didn’t know that the Concourse was one of my old haunts. As a teenager, I used to swipe beer from them, whenever the American Legion put on a mixer.

After we checked into the hotel, Don Joyce and I took a walk to Yankee Stadium. Everybody was out and about, riding their bikes and pushing their baby carriages. It was a sunny day, not too cold – a typical, beautiful New York Saturday. ‘Hey, Donovan,’ somebody on the street yelled, ‘the Giants are going to kick your fat ass!’ I looked at Joyce and said, ‘These are my people.’“

The apartment house where Donovan grew up sat directly on top of a subway line, four miles north of Yankee Stadium. . . .

[Joe] Brady was Donovan’s New York cop. Every neighborhood kid who managed to stay out of jail seemed to have his own personal cop.

“He was my knight in shining armor,” Artie said, “the one who got me playing football in the school yard. He was in charge of all the cops at Yankee Stadium.”

On December 28, 1958, Captain Joe took Sunday off to attend the National Football League title game with Arthur Sr.

“I put them on our bench,” Artie said. “I didn’t know where else to put them."

He watched as his father take a long look around the stadium.

“Dad could remember when ninety thousand people were there for Louis and Schmeling. This was just a little football game, the NFL championship. I was having a terrible time trying to keep the two of them quiet, and especially trying to keep Joe from sharing his flask with my dad – Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!"

"Brady was already lit by game time, and I could see Weeb wasn’t too thrilled. Just before kickoff, he buttonholed two uniformed cops and, pointing to Joe, said, ‘Get that bum off the bench!’”

“‘Coach’ one of the cops said, ‘you go before he does.’”