James got this for me while he was in New York a couple of weeks ago and I thought this past weekend, being Super Bowl weekend, was the perfect time to read it. Bowden tells the story of the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, which went down in history as 'the greatest game ever played'. Last weekend's Super Bowl is already being talked about as one of the best but the Steelers were heavily-favoured to beat the Cardinals and that's exactly what happened, despite a late rally from the underdogs. The 1958 game, in contrast, 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 at the final with the league's best offense.
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. The Colts quarterback, Johnny 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.
The game remains 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 the champions of each league.
What I enjoyed most about the book was Bowden's focus on the strategic innovations that made the 1958 game so significant. I hadn't realised, for example, that Tom Landry virtually invented the modern NFL defense while coaching for the Giants.
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 of the book 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 and, as Berry alters his route, throws the ball to him, 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.
This is a fascinating book but clearly it requires an interest in American football. 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.