Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas scrambles against Giants in 1959 NFL championship game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Colts won, 31-16.
It was 1959, the caboose of the 1950s, a simpler time in a different world. President Eisenhower was finishing out his second term, the Barbie Doll was launched, and Castro was running wild in Cuba.
Pro football was a simple game in 1959. A dozen teams in the NFL played 12 games apiece. The AFL was still a dream away.
No playoffs. No Super Bowl. One championship game.
In a rematch of their “greatest game” in the 1958 NFL title game, the Colts were looking to defend their championship against the New York Giants in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.
Two days after Christmas, in the midst of a tight defensive battle, Giants wide receiver Kyle Rote suffered an apparent concussion. His replacement was Joe Biscaha, a 27th round draft out of the University of Richmond.
Almost A Touchdown
“Near the end of the first half, (Giants quarterback Charlie) Conerly tried to connect with me on a corner route, but slightly overthrew the pass and I couldn’t quite make the catch, even with a diving attempt,” Biscaha, right, recalls more than 50 years year. “If completed. it would have resulted in a touchdown, but it unfortunately fell incomplete in the Colts end zone.
“I continued to play in the third quarter without making any significant contributions to our efforts, and was later replaced by a somewhat ‘foggy’ Rote during the fourth quarter. The Colts had trailed throughout the game by a 9-7 score but eventually scored 24 points in the final quarter to defeat us, 31-16.”
It was the second straight title for the Colts, who beat the Giants 23-17 in a memorable overtime classic to win the 1958 championship.
“In our post-game locker room there was disappointment, but there were also words of encouragement exchanged,” said Biscaha. “And even Charlie Conerly commented to me on the overthrown pass that ‘we almost had one.’.
“Given the fact that he had thrown my way and even had spoken to me, I had felt as though I would be a part of the Giants plans for the coming year. We returned to New York by train that same evening amidst local friends and fans sharing many drinks in commiseration of the loss.”
That would be the last game of Biscaha’s Giants career. When he signed with the Giants he went from $25 a month laundry money at Richmond (part of a football scholarship) to a $7,500 contract.
In eight games that year, he caught one pass for five yards and recovered a fumble.
Playing in The Original AFL
Biscaha failed to make the Giants roster in 1960. He was substitute teaching and making about $100 a week when the Boston (now New England) Patriots of the AFL offered him $4,500 for the last month and a half of the season. So Joe played for that first Patriots team in the AFL’s inaugural season, calling the Kenmore Station Hotel on Commonwealth Avenue home.
“The head coach was Lou Saban, a former Cleveland Brown, who seemed to have been influenced in the ‘General George Patton mentality,’” Biscaha recalled, “while my position coach was Mike Holovak, a likable gentleman from the Boston College coaching background. It seemed like most of the players were from a Boston College or Syracuse (1959 championship team) playing pedigree.
“I was being tried out as a wide receiver and needed to learn the skills to compete against the bump and run techniques utilized by the AFL defensive backs. Having played with the Giants as primarily a tight end, those were skills that I never had to acquire.”
In September of 1961 Biscaha, realizing his playing days were over after a tryout with the New York Titans (now Jets), “signed a teaching contract with the Paterson (NJ) School District for $4,500 for the year and got $400 more to assist in coaching football.”
His teaching career continued for more than 25 years and was highlighted by three New Jersey State Championship seasons, 1975,1979 and 1980, at Passaic Valley High School, as well as numerous coaching honors. After an eight-year retirement from education, while working in financial services, he returned to serve ten years as a school administrator at Passaic County Technical Institute until his retirement in 2005.
More than 50 years later, he wonders if his career might have taken a different path if Conerly, the NFL MVP in 1959, had not overthrown him in the end zone. “Had I caught that pass would my life have turned out differently?”
Joe’s blog is called “don’t forget to bring your playbook,” a commonly used expression players heard when they were about to be cut. Postings on the blog include his childhood experiences and memories of his pro football career and beyond.
Fifty years ago, two events changed the landscape of professional sports in America forever.
In 1958, the Dodgers and the Giants left New York behind, kicking off baseball’s presence on the West Coast and ushering in an era of expansion in baseball and eventually other sports. Shock waves were felt from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and from New York to San Francisco.
Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, frustrated in his attempts to get a new ballpark to replace Ebbets Field, decided to pick up and head West, taking owner Horace Stoneham and the Giants with him.
Fifty years later, Brooklyn has not forgotten. When O’Malley was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in July, some boos were heard throughout the Cooperstown crowd. Walter O’Malley may just be the most reviled figure in New York sports history.
Brooklyn native and the radio voice of the Dodgers Charley Steiner once observed: “Walter O’Malley was the guy in the black hat who led the wagon train out of town.”
Later that year, the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts staged a dramatic overtime game in Yankee Stadium that symbolized the rise of the NFL and the establishment of professional football as America’s leading pastime.
The Colts prevailed behind Johnny Unitas, 23-17, in what remains to this day the only overtime championship game in NFL history. A nationally televised NBC audience was captivated by the drama, capped by Alan Ameche’s winning touchdown, shown at right.
Some refer to it as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” It may not have been the greatest….but it may have been the most important game NFL history, for it signalled the rise and popularity of the sport in the national psyche.
Year of Dynasties
1958 was also a year of dynasties, past, present and future.
The Colts won the NFL championship that year, and would repeat in 1959, again knocking off the Giants.
But the real dynasty was rising in Green Bay, where Vince Lombardi, who left the Giants as an assistant coach following the 1958 playoff, led the Packers to a 7-5 record in 1959. A year later the Packers were in the NFL championship game; two years later they were NFL champions, starting a run of five NFL crowns in seven seasons, including the first two Super Bowls ever played.
In baseball, the New York Yankees, in the midst of winning 14 American League pennants and nine World Series in 16 years, rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Milwaukee Braves and win the World Series.
The Braves had beaten the Yankees in seven games in 1957, only to have the Yankees return the favor in 1958, to the delight of Casey Stengel, above, here with Braves manager Fred Haney following the seventh game.
Although the St. Louis Hawks won their only NBA title in 1958. defeating the Celtics in six games, Boston was on the verge of a major roll that started the following year. Beginning in 1959, the Celtics won eight straight NBA titles and 10 of 11 championships overall, a standard unapproached in professional sports history.
Finally, in 1958, the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup for the third straight year, en route to an NHL record five straight titles. Les Habitants have won 23 championships; only the Yankees with 26 have more.