Almost every pro football fan over the age of, say, 50 – and a good number younger than that – knows about the NFL championship game in Yankee Stadium on December 28, 1958, in which the seemingly invincible New York Giants, led by Frank Gifford, was upset by Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts, when the teams went into a sudden-death overtime for the first time in the league’s history, and the Colts emerged with a 23-17 win.
Much less well remembered is the rematch a year later, when the Colts, after trailing 9-7, scored 24 points in the fourth quarter to demolish the Giants 31-16. That game was played before a roaring crowd at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, still the only time an NFL championship has been decided in that city. But, as Mike Klingaman of the Baltimore Sun notes, even some of those who played for the Colts that day have trouble remembering the game:
“Don’t remember it at all,” said Hall of Famer Lenny Moore, who caught a 60-yard touchdown pass in the 31-16 victory that day. “Man, oh man. Can you believe that? I don’t remember me.”
But one moment at the game’s end was noted by the sportswriters of the day:
Vice President Richard M. Nixon stopped in to slap some backs and proclaim the game “the best I have ever seen.”
As Nixon left, a fan shouted, “We’ll give you a ticket [for the 1960 election] — Unitas and Nixon.”
“If you can do that,” the vice president replied, “we’ll let Unitas call the signals.”
The fan’s idea of a dream ticket brings to mind David Maraniss’s biography of legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered. There, Maraniss tells how Richard Nixon, looking over vice-presidential possibilities before the 1968 Republican convention in Miami, started to wonder if Lombardi might be a good choice for a running-mate.
Future Attorney General John Mitchell was asked to look into Lombardi’s background, and brought back the disappointing news that although the coach’s wife Marie was a Republican and a keen fan of RN, Vince himself was a lifelong Democrat who recently had supported Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in his tragic bid for his party’s nomination. (Indeed, after Lombardi left the Packers in January 1968, Kennedy phoned him and asked: “Would you come and be my coach?”)
Johnny Unitas never did seek political office, but, until his death in 2002, was the uncrowned king of Baltimore.