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ESPN's 'Greatest Game' lives up to title
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 12/11/2008 2:26 PM

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I've covered some gratuitous anniversary celebrations in my time as a TV columnist.

Heck, I wrote about one just last week on the 45th anniversary of instant reply.

And over the years ESPN has been as great an offender as anyone; the all-sports network never met an anniversary in a multiple of five it didn't want to trumpet.

Yet "The Greatest Game Ever Played," a new ESPN special with a hyperbolic title and, even more hyperbolic, with Chris Berman as host, is a program with a purpose and with a gimmick that works.

Debuting at 8 p.m. Saturday, it marks the 50th anniversary of the legendary 1958 NFL title game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore, yes Baltimore, Colts.

It remains the first and only NFL title game decided in overtime; in fact, it invented the concept of sudden-death overtime.

And for 50 years it has been known as the greatest football game ever played, even though few had seen anything of it except for grainy old pictures of Alan Ameche plunging into the end zone on the winning touchdown.

Personally, I'd love to see the whole game as it originally aired on ESPN Classic, except of course that ESPN long ago gutted the former Classic Sports Network of its great boxing matches and timeless games and made it an inconsequential sibling sports channel.

No matter, the tape of the entire game was lost long ago anyway, if there ever was one. Fer crissakes, there isn't even an entire copy of Super Bowl I remaining, and that was carried on two networks.

Yet "The Greatest Game Ever Played" does a marvelous job of putting together a coherent, cohesive, sustained series of highlights from various sources to tell the story of the game from start to finish.

And, since nerdy sports-media columnists are the only ones these days with the patience to sit down and watch a game with a predetermined outcome in black and white, it makes a couple of concessions to the present-day audience.

First, it colorizes the highlights. Colorized films are one thing, but sports highlights don't really bother me that much, not when they're done with the fine digital hand displayed here, which makes the game footage look as if it were taken with a state-of-the-'50s-art movie camera.

The other, bigger gimmick - to make the game more immediate to today's younger fans, who might not know Johnny Unitas from Johnny Revolta - is it matches surviving players who took part in the game with current-day players and coaches from the last two Super Bowl champions, who just happen to be, yes, the Giants and the now Indianapolis Colts.

And, silly as this might seem, it works great to cast the game and its players in relief against today's backdrop.

Keep in mind, the 1958 NFL title game involved 17 future Pro Football Hall of Famers, from players like Unitas and Frank Gifford and Gino Marchetti and Sam Huff to coaches like Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, who were in effect the Giants' offensive and defensive coordinators at the time.

So Gifford and Marchetti watch and comment on the game with current New York coach Tom Coughlin, kicker-commentator Pat Summerall with Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri, and in the best pairing of all, the Colts' Art Donovan with the Giants' newly retired Michael Strahan.

Sure they talk about the different incomes of the eras, but better yet is when Strahan asks if they didn't miss the big face-guarding helmet cages of today.

"You were a sissy if you used one," Donovan replies.

The game itself was certainly not the most well-played contest in NFL history. Gifford himself calls it "a big sloppy game," and rightfully so where he's concerned, in that he committed a couple of costly fumbles.

Yet it was and is an undeniably great game, full of drama and shifting momentum, marked by a classic performance by Unitas, who set the standard for John Elway and all those to follow in his two-minute drill at the end of regulation that produced the game-tying field goal.

"The Greatest Game Ever Played" lives up to its title, and once host "Boomer" Berman utters it, even he seems content to let it stand on its own merits with no need to inflate it beyond that.

His understated job as host might be the best and certainly the most surprising thing about this special.

In the air

Remotely interesting: The MLB Network, which launches Jan. 1, has picked up Dan Plesac to join the cast of "MLB Tonight." ... Tony Kubek is this year's Ford C. Frick Award winner for the Baseball Hall of Fame. With no Chicago announcers in the running, it was the best choice of a bad bunch. And could someone please explain to me how Dizzy Dean gets to be a finalist, considering he's already in the Hall of Fame?

End of the dial: Fred Huebner has been laid off at WSCR 670-AM. ... Bobby Hull signs copies of "One Goal: Chicago's Resurgent Blackhawks" from 2-3:30 p.m. Saturday at Borders, 1500 16th St., Suite D, Oak Brook. ... The new overview collection "Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting till Next Year" holds a book-release party from 7-10 p.m. Sunday at Sheffield's, 3258 N. Sheffield Ave., Chicago. There is also a signing set for 10 a.m. to noon Sunday at the Billy Goat at Hubbard and lower Michigan.