THIS WAS BEFORE instant replay, before 15 television cameras, before coaches had weighted red hankies they could lob onto the field to protest a call. This was before some electronic gizmo painted a yellow line to let you know approximately where the first-down marker sits.

This was Dec. 28, 1958, and the Baltimore Colts were playing the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium for the NFL championship. Before Roman numerals, before warm-weather sites, before halftime extravaganzas and lip-syncing rock stars and wardrobe malfunctions.

Baltimore beat the Giants, 23-17, in sudden-death overtime on a field that was more like glass than grass, in a game that started in daylight and ended in darkness. And when it was over, some people called it the greatest game ever played and some called it the best game ever played.

Nobody called it the most important game ever played, because that's too stodgy. But that's what it was, because 45 million watched it and America fell in love with the sudden-death way to avoid a frustrating tie. Fell in love with a crewcut castoff of a quarterback named Johnny Unitas and a gimpy receiver who ran meticulous patterns named Raymond Berry.

Let's not forget a jubilant handful of gamblers who took Baltimore and laid the 3 1/2 points and loved it when Unitas threw the football from the 6-yard line instead of going for the chip-shot field goal and a three-point win.

All those early fumbles, the interceptions, the kicker who inspired no confidence, the swarming sacks, the baffling strategy, that doesn't sound like the greatest game ever played. But that's what ESPN calls it in its fascinating documentary that debuted earlier this month.

Blended game footage with commentary from current Giants and Colts and survivors of the '58 game. If you want more, you can read one or more of the books that are out there, celebrating the game. There's Lou Sahadi's "One Sunday in December," which is rich in scene-setting and the cultural context of the game.

There's Mark Bowden's "The Best Game Ever," which takes you inside the huddle. And there's Frank Gifford's "The Glory Game" which gives the author one more chance to bury the hatchet between Sam Huff's shoulder blades and whine about the first down that wasn't.

The Giants had a 17-14 lead, owned the football with less than 3 minutes left. Third down at their own 40, they ran Gifford to the right, which was strange because that was Gino Marchetti's territory and Marchetti was the best defensive end in football at the time.

Marchetti made the tackle and then Big Daddy Lipscomb toppled like a redwood atop the pile and shattered Marchetti's ankle. Marchetti screamed in pain, his screech soon joined by Gifford's wail that he had made the first down and was being victimized by a bad spot.

ESPN hired a forensic guy to draw laser lines over game footage and declare that Gifford had come up 9 inches short. Fourth-and-inches, with the best defense in football, the Giants punted. The players grunted.

Gifford demeans his coach, Jim Lee Howell, every chance he gets, ripping him for starting Don Heinrich at quarterback in every game, before bringing in Charlie Conerly. Calls it stupid, calls it superstition.

Does have one element the other two books missed. Day before the title game, the players met to vote on shares. Fists clenched, Gifford got into a vicious debate with Huff. Gifford wanted a full share for third-string quarterback Jack Kemp, Huff didn't.

The Colts weren't awed by Weeb Ewbank, either. Which explains why nobody rushed to Ewbank's side after he punched Huff on the sideline following one of Sam's trademark late hits.

Bowden focuses on Berry, who surveyed the field before the game, checking on frozen patches, deciding to wear longer cleats. Focuses on all those hours spent playing pitch-and-catch with Johnny U after practice ended for the other 33 guys.

Uh-huh, 35-man rosters back in the day. Which is why Baltimore's shaky kicker, Steve Myhra, wound up playing some linebacker. Which kept his mind off the game-tying kick he would make to send the game careening into overtime. Which is what winners say 50 years later.

Bowden describes players scurrying for the clubhouse, thinking the game was over. Some things change, some things stay the same.

In the gloaming, Unitas drove the Colts downfield. And then the screens across America turned to snow. Fans clustered near the end zone had yanked the plug. The network needed to buy time to repair the damage. Shazam, a fan wobbled onto the field and led the cops on a merry chase.

Bowden, bless his reporter's heart, tells you the man's name, Stan Rotkiewicz, a business manager at NBC News. Zigged and zagged long enough until the picture was restored.

From the 6, Unitas invented a play. Told tight end Jim Mutscheller to run a flag pattern, knowing he'd be covered by a linebacker. Lobbed a pass that Mutscheller caught before plodding out of bounds at the 1.

Handed the football to Alan Ameche, who waltzed through a hole as wide as the Lincoln Tunnel. Game, set, history.

Afterward, Dave Anderson, working for the New York Journal-American then, confronted Unitas.

"Weren't you taking a chance on an interception?" he asked.

Unitas gave him that patented cold stare and said, "When you know what you're doing, you don't get intercepted." *

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