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A Giant moment in pro football history

New York's rout of Chicago in 1956 caught the attention of the image makers of Madison Avenue.

February 01, 2007|Murray Olderman | Special to The Times

The 1958 sudden-death title thriller between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts is often cited as the "Greatest Game Ever Played," highlighted by the memorable tableau of the Colts' Alan Ameche crashing into the end zone for the winning touchdown in pro football's first overtime game.

But it was two years earlier, on Dec. 30, 1956, that professional football arguably supplanted baseball as the national pastime on the frozen turf of New York's Yankee Stadium.

The temperature on the field was 16 degrees, and the wind-chill factor from the brisk 30-mph breeze blowing off the Harlem River drove it below zero for a game between the Giants and Chicago Bears.

In 1934, in a previous championship game against the Bears played on an icy field, the Giants had famously switched at halftime from cleats to basketball shoes and erased a 13-3 deficit to win, 30-13.

This time they were prepared in advance. A week earlier, the Giants' all-pro defensive end, Andy Robustelli, an ex-Ram who owned a sporting goods store in Connecticut, ordered 48 pairs of rubber-soled sneakers from U.S. Keds.

"The big thing," Frank Gifford, the Giants' multi-purpose running back and main offensive weapon, recalled in a telephone interview, "was that we had those sneakers on. The Bears wore cleats. Our first possession, I was flanked out second down and long. J.C. Caroline was playing me man-to-man. I faked an inside move and broke it out. He fell right on his [rear]. I knew we had them then."

By halftime, the Giants led, 34-7. The final score was 47-7. A month earlier, the Bears had tied the Giants, 17-17, in a regular-season meeting.

The rout, ending an arid spell of 18 seasons for the New York team, was the ultimate step in pro football's seduction of the image makers of Madison Avenue in mid-Manhattan, who personally became Giants fanatics and trumpeted the sport nationally and commercially.

"I'll always believe," said Gifford, now retired as a football broadcaster and living in Connecticut, "that '56 game and how it opened everyone's eyes to the excitement of pro football was the key to the development of the NFL today, more so than the '58 game. We became heroes in New York."

Gifford was the Giants' marquee name, a Southern California glamour guy who was awarded the Jim Thorpe Trophy as the most valuable player in 1956 (by vote of the NFL players). The former USC All-American was the hub of the New York offense. On this day, he carried the ball five times for 30 yards and caught four passes for 131 yards, one of them for the final touchdown of the game.

The Giants' coach was Jim Lee Howell, a long spoke of a man from Lonoke, Ark., who put together the most illustrious coaching staff in NFL history.

His first hire, as offensive coordinator, was an obscure assistant at Army, Vince Lombardi. The current Super Bowl trophy bears his name. The defensive coordinator was another future Hall of Famer, Tom Landry.

"All I have to do," Howell said laconically, "is check curfews and pump up footballs. When it's fourth and inches, I become the coach."

In New York in the fall of 1956, the Giants were the only game in town. New York University and Fordham had given up football. Columbia, once a Rose Bowl participant, slumped under the restrictive rules that minimized Ivy League football.

The previous January, the Giants signed a 20-year deal and moved from the dowdy Polo Grounds across the Harlem River to majestic Yankee Stadium, then the preeminent sports venue in America. It gave the Giants an aura of class.

Now the moneyed patrons of Westchester County who supported the World Series champion Yankees had the same straight shot to the stadium -- where a few months earlier Don Larsen had pitched his perfect World Series game -- down the Major Deegan Expressway to see the Giants.

And yet the Giants' draw of 337,563 for seven home games that season (including the title contest) was exceeded by the last-place Los Angeles Rams, who pulled in 367,138 for only six home games.

By the next season, however, stimulated by their first championship since 1938, Giants sellouts became routine.

The day before the 1956 championship game, pro football took another significant historical step. Formation of a National Football League Players Assn. was formally announced at a news conference in New York.

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