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When Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts and Alex Webster of the New York Giants squared off in the 1958 NFL championship game at New York’s Yankee Stadium, the game was the first NFL contest ever decided by sudden-death overtime.
It’s remembered as the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” mainly because it was nationally televised and helped popularize professional football to a broader audience.
When the two players met seven years earlier on a snow-covered field in Louisville, however, the game most certainly has not been recalled in the same manner..
They were just college players on Nov. 2, 1951, Webster a junior halfback for NC State College on his way to leading the Southern Conference in scoring, and Unitas a freshman quarterback for Louisville making just the second start of his college career.
It was the first meeting between the two teams who are now Atlantic Division rivals in the ACC, preparing this week to meet Thursday night at Carter-Finley Stadium for the seventh time in this relatively new rivalry.
“A high scoring game is a good possibility,” said the Louisville Courier-Journal on the day of the game in 1951. “Especially since the Cards uncovered a good passer in quarterback John Unitas last week against St. Bonaventure.”
On that Friday night 66 years ago, it was a white powdery substance that had the biggest impact on the game.
And it wasn’t snow.
Sometime just after halftime, with Louisville clinging to a 6-2 lead, Webster took a handful of lime — the marking chalk used for hash marks and yard lines — to the face, resulting in burns to his eyes that kept him from playing most of the second half.
Losing his versatile halfback — Webster threw almost as much as he ran for the Wolfpack — was a huge hindrance for head coach Beattie Feathers’ single-wing offense that he had learned directly from Gen. Robert Neyland at Tennessee. Feathers was an All-American back for the Volunteers in the early 1930s and the first NFL running back to rush for 1,000 yards.
He was hired as NC State’s football coach in the post-World War II summer of 1946, at the same time Everett Case became the basketball coach, Vic Sorrell became the baseball coach and Willis Casey became the swimming coach.
Feathers recruited Webster from Kearny, New Jersey, in 1948, two years after leading the Wolfpack to its first bowl game in school history. By his junior year, “Red” Webster was one of the most feared weapons in the Southern Conference.
He had in front of him an All-American tackle, Elmer Costa, to open holes on offense and plug holes on defense. Against Louisville, with the Pack listed as a two-touchdown favorite, Costa and the Wolfpack defense blocked two punts and caused a fumble in the first quarter on the snowy field, but managed only two points out of the turnovers.
After the offense turned the ball over on the Louisville 6, Costa forced Unitas to fumble in his own end zone. However, Louisville recovered for a safety that gave the Wolfpack a 2-0 lead.
Webster also was involved in a big play early in the game — but not in a good way. He not only played in the offensive and defensive backfields, he was also the Pack’s punter. His third kick of the night was returned 81 yards by Louisville’s Bill Karns for a touchdown that gave the Cardinals a 6-2 lead.
The teams were still stuck on that baseball score going into the fourth quarter, until Unitas sparked Louisville’s T-formation offense with three fourth-quarter touchdowns on the frozen field. Without Webster — who had rushed for 67 yards and thrown for 90 yards prior to his injury — the Wolfpack offense was unable to move, and the game ended in a 26-2 Louisville upset.
The victory cemented Unitas as the Cardinals’ top quarterback, though the school decided to de-emphasize football in 1952, cutting back on athletic aid and tightening academic requirements for athletes. Unitas started throughout 1952 and ’53, leading his team to just a 4-12 record. Because of injuries, he played sparingly as a senior.
He didn’t make the cut after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ninth round of the 1955 draft, but he won a spot with the Baltimore Colts through an open tryout and led the team to the 1958 and ’59 NFL championships.
Unitas had another brush with NC State near the end of his NFL career. In 1970, he and the Colts came to Carter Stadium to face the Detroit Lions in the fourth-annual Jaycees Charity Classic, an annual NFL preseason exhibition game played on NC State’s home field.
In front of 34,500 fans, the 37-year-old Unitas completed 11 of 24 passes for 102 yards, including an 8-yard go-ahead touchdown pass to Tom Mitchell late in the game. The Colts went on to finish 14-2-1 that season and to win Super Bowl V over the Dallas Cowboys in Miami.
Webster, after two years of playing in the Canadian Football League in 1953 and ’54, also had a stellar NFL career, leading the Giants in rushing in 1955 as a rookie. In the 1956 NFL championship game, Webster scored two touchdowns against the Chicago Bears in the Giants 47-7 victory, which was also played on an icy field.
He played in the championship game five more times and made two Pro Bowls in his 10-year NFL career, including the 23-17 sudden-death overtime loss to Unitas and the Colts in 1958. Webster eventually went into coaching and became the head coach of the Giants. He was named the UPI NFL Coach of the Year in 1970 after leading the team to a 9-5 record.
He was inducted into the Giants’ “Ring of Honor” in 2011, one year before his death, which he called the greatest honor of his life.
Tim Peeler is a regular contributor to The Wolfpacker and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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