The Best Game Ever
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008
Out of print – available secondhand
Perhaps best known for writing Blackhawk Down, which became a movie, Mark Bowden began his career as a sports writer. This is his second book about football. The Best Game Ever tells the story of the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, which went down in history as, well, ‘the greatest game ever played’.
The game was played between two evenly-matched sides. The Giants brought the league’s best defense and had won four titles, the most recent in 1956. The Colts, founded just five years earlier, were the upstarts but they arrived with the league’s best offense, led by quarterback Johnny Unitas.
Early in the second half, the Colts led 14-3 and were close to scoring a third touchdown and putting the game away. The Giants stopped them and then scored two touchdowns of their own to take a 17-14 lead. What followed earned the game’s reputation. Unitas led his team down the field for a game-tying field goal with seven seconds left in the game. Then he marched them down the field again in overtime, picking the vaunted Giants’ defense apart on the way to a touchdown that gave the Colts their first championship.
Until 2017’s Super Bowl LI, the game was the only NFL championship game to go into overtime. Many of the players didn’t know about the rule and had to be called back from the locker room to play the deciding period. But that wasn’t the only reason the game was historic and Bowden does an excellent job of showing just how significant it was.
The length of the game took it into prime time, swelling the television audience to an estimated 45 million Americans. The thrilling finish they saw helped drive enthusiasm for the sport, fuelling a boom that led to the creation of the rival AFL the following year. It was the merger between the AFL and NFL that brought about the Super Bowl, the meeting of each league’s champions.
Bowden also delves into the strategic innovations that made the 1958 game so significant, such as Tom Landry virtually inventing the modern NFL defense while coaching for the Giants. His switch to the 4-3 defense – up to that point, defenses had typically matched the offensive line with five players – effectively created the modern middle linebacker.
Bowden delves into the biographies of Unitas and his star receiver Raymond Berry and tells how both men, their talents initially ignored by the coaches, stayed behind after practice to build a rapport and studied game film meticulously in their search for an advantage. The methods they developed were unheard-of, ridiculed even, at the time but are now taken for granted.
The most thrilling sections are when Bowden describes how this attention to detail wins the game for the Colts. On one play, for example, Landry orders an unexpected shift that will perfectly counter the pass route Berry is about to run. Berry has seen a similar shift on film just once before but he and Unitas devised a strategy to counter it. Unitas recognises it too, anticipates Berry’s altered route and completes the pass, leaving Landry baffled.
Bowden did a lot of research for this book but he keeps it out of the way and tells the story as if he was there, frequently taking us inside the heads of players and coaches. This adds an immediacy that suits the subject matter very well. He’s a very good journalist and he writes like one, with a direct, unshowy style.
Every fan will love it. Casual fans should read it for the insights into the strategic side of the game and how it developed into the sport it is today.