In recent times, using the adjective "best" in the title of a book about a sporting event has been used liberally. A golf match, the seventh game of the World Series and the NCAA basketball championship tilt have all received the designation as the greatest contest in the history of the sport. Mark Bowden's THE BEST GAME EVER casts its lot with the championship game celebrating its 50th anniversary this football season. The New York Giants and Baltimore Colts battled at Yankee Stadium in the first overtime game in football history. It was watched by millions of fans on their grainy black-and-white televisions, some who still recall the vision of Colts running back Alan Ameche plunging into the end zone to score the winning touchdown in sudden death overtime.
Bowden's title is ironic because, while it had a lasting impact on the National Football League, the championship game was more memorable for miscues than for quality. A crucial moment in the third quarter when the Giants made a goal line stand was the result of Ameche running the wrong play. But legends are built upon success, not failure. The game also marked the introduction of John Unitas and Raymond Berry to a nation of fans, unaware of their football talent. Unitas coolly led a drive in the fourth quarter to tie the game. Berry's 12 pass receptions are an NFL championship game record that stands today.
Though the game itself has been chronicled on many occasions, THE BEST GAME EVER recounts a number of details in a slightly different fashion. Using transcripts of the game's radio broadcasts, Bowden recreates some of the twists and turns that made the contest so memorable. Interspersed with the game details are biographical chapters of many of the players who dotted the rosters of the two teams. From Berry, Unitas and Sam Huff, to coaches Tom Landry, Weeb Ewbank and Vince Lombardi, the total number of participants ultimately enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is 17.
Remembering this epic game 50 years after the fact, this reader is struck by some new details. When time expired and the teams were tied at 17, many of the players thought the game was over. Some began heading to the locker rooms only to be admonished by the officials that an overtime period would commence. Sudden death has become a staple of professional football, but the 1958 overtime struggle between the Colts and Giants was a first. Likewise, in reading Bowden's account, I learned that when television transmission was interrupted by a cable problem, the network, not wanting the 45 million viewers to miss any action, had one of their own run on the field to stop play. Both the NFL and the television networks have come a long way since December 28, 1958.
Whether it was the Colts-Giants game or another NFL contest that qualifies as the greatest ever in NFL history is not really the question. The game chronicled by Bowden changed professional football, and television captured that moment. That the images of 50 years ago remain with us today speaks volumes about the game, the players and the moment. Football fans will enjoy being reminded of all those as they read this enjoyable portrait of a great moment in pigskin history.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on May 5, 2008