NFL’s greatest moment: Johnny Unitas passes the Colts past the Giants in the 1958 championship game. The game was watched by a national television audience and signified the rise of professional football.
A panel of football writers, historians and other experts recently selected the 11 greatest moments in pro football history for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 50th anniversary book. The only criterion was that the moment had to have an enduring impact on the game.
The top three moments occurred during a three-year period in the late 50s and early 60s, led by the Colts-Giants championship game in 1958. The league’s founding and pro football’s first marquee star were ranked fourth and fifth respectively. And the final four moments took place during a four-year span that began with the AFL/NFL merger and ended with the advent of Monday Night Football in 1970.
The beauty of these lists is that fans can easily come up with dozens of other candidates. You could make a strong argument for moments like the rules changes in 1933 that opened up the forward pass, the Immaculate Reception in 1972 and the Giants Super Bowl victory over the unbeaten Patriots in 2008.
11 players on a side, 11 top events; Here’s the list:
1. The 1958 NFL Championship Game — The Colts beat the Giants 23-17 in sudden death overtime in what is often referred to as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Soon after, pro football exploded on the American scene.
2. The formation of the American Football League, 1959 — Lamar Hunt, a 26-year-old Texas oil man, along with eight original owners. announced plans for a new professional football league, the AFL, to begin play in 1960.
3. Pete Rozelle named commissioner, 1960 — After 23 ballots failed to produce a new leader following the death of long-time czar Bert Bell, NFL owners selected the relatively unknown GM of the Rams. Rozelle, right, became the visionary behind the Super Bowl.
4. The formation of the National Football League, 1920 — The league’s organizational meeting was held in the showroom of Canton Bulldogs owner Ralph Hays Hupmobile dealership. The American Professional Football Association quickly became the NFL.
5. Red Grange turns pro, 1925 — The Bears signed the nation’s biggest star, who made his pro debut five days after his final collegiate game at the University of Illinois. Several weeks later, Grange drew 70,000 fans to a game against the Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York.
6. The first NFL draft, 1936 — Bert Bell’s innovative idea to help the weaker teams in the league was instituted, and Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger was the first pick. Selected by the Philadelphia Eagles and traded to the Bears, Berwanger decided not to play
7. The reintegration of pro football, 1946 — Pro football had a color barrier from 1934-46, when the Rams signed Kenny Washington and Woody Strode and the Browns signed Marion Motley, left, and Bill Willis — a year before Jackie Robinson’s debut in Brooklyn.
8. Monday Night Football, 1970 — The first Monday night game, between the Browns and the Jets, televised on ABC, kicked off a weekly tradition and changed the viewing habits of a nation.
9. Super Bowl III, 1969 — In one of the greatest upsets in sports history, Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed victory, then delivered in a 16-7 win over the Colts that put the AFL on the map.
10. The Ice Bowl, 1967 — The Packers beat the Cowboys 21-17 in arctic-like conditions in the Green Bay in the last game that Vince Lombardi ever coached at Lambeau Field.
11. The AFL/NFL merger, 1966 — The two rival leagues announced a phased merger, which called for an annual world championship game (later known as the Super Bowl) and full integration by 1970.