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Are You Ready for Some Football?

Matt Schudel

So you've never heard of Buzz Nutter, eh? Well, pull up a chair -- and a copy of today's obituary -- and let me tell you about the man who snapped the ball to Johnny Unitas in the Greatest Game Ever Played.

Buzz Nutter, whose given name was the elegant mouthful Madison Moore Nutter, was a professional football player back when football was football and the men who played were sturdy as trees. Buzz grew up in West Virginia, played college ball at Virginia Tech and was a rangy 6-feet-4 and 230 pounds -- which was considered a little light even when he played in the NFL, from 1954 to 1965. Once, at training camp, he weighed in at 215, which was 10 pounds under his minimum weight. He strapped a couple of five-pound weights under his T-shirt, and his coaches were none the wiser.

Buzz was the center for the Baltimore Colts in 1958 and 1959, when the Colts won the NFL championship, both times beating the New York Giants. The 1958 game, played on a frozen turf at Yankee Stadium, has entered football lore as the "Greatest Game Ever Played." Mark Bowden, the author of "Black Hawk Down," writes about the impact of that game, played Dec. 28, 1958, in a new book coming out next month, "The Best Game Ever."

Buzz Nutter has been overlooked amid the great football stars who played that day: Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Jim Parker, Art Donovan and Gino Marchetti, Hall of Famers all for the Colts; and Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Roosevelt Brown, Emlen Tunnell and Charley Conerly of the Giants. Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, two of the greatest head coaches in football history, were assistant coaches for the Giants. The Colts were led by the short, feisty Weeb Ewbank, who actually took a swing at Huff, the Giants fearsome middle linebacker, when Huff drove a knee into the Colts' star receiver, Raymond Berry, during a sideline hit.

The Colts dominated play for much of the game, but late in the fourth quarter, they trailed the Giants, 17-14. Unitas, whose heroics in this game transformed him from merely a respected pro quarterback to perhaps the greatest field general who ever played football, led his team downfield to the Giants' 13-yard line. With seven seconds to go, Buzz Nutter centered the ball, and the Colts' somewhat erratic placekicker, Steve Myhra, booted a 20-yard field goal to tie the game, 17-17. (In those days, the goal posts were on the goal line, not 10 yards deep in the end zone.)

"When the game ended in a tie," Unitas later said, "we were standing on the sidelines waiting to see what came next. All of a sudden, the officials came over and said, 'Send the captain out. We're going to flip a coin to see who will receive.' That was the first we heard of the overtime period."

It was the first "sudden-death" overtime in NFL history; the first team to score in the period of extra play would win the game and, therefore, the NFL title. After forcing the Giants to punt, the Colts took over on their 20-yard line, and once again, Johnny Unitas led his team with pinpoint passes to split end Berry and flanker Lenny Moore. Fullback Alan Ameche made a 23-yard gain up the middle, thanks in large part to a crushing block by Nutter. With the ball on the Giants' 1-yard line, and with night falling on the frozen field, Ameche plunged over right guard into the end zone to give the Colts their dramatic victory, 23-17.

Ameche left the ball on the field, where it was picked up by a fan. Nutter, ever alert, saw the fan, raced after him and tore the ball from his arms.

The thing that made this game so special, besides its sheer sporting drama, was that it was seen nationwide on NBC television. More than any other single game, this championship cemented professional football in the imagination of the American people. Previously, the nation's predominant sports had been baseball, boxing, college football and horse racing. The NFL took off from this game and captured the hearts of sports fans all over the country.

When I spoke on Thursday to Art Donovan, the Colts' All-Pro defensive tackle and raconteur nonpareil, he told me he had recently watched a film of the entire game. With all the stars gathered that day in New York's Yankee Stadium, he said, "Nutter was the most outstanding offensive player on the field." He opened holes in the line; he neutralized Sam Huff; he ran downfield to make blocks ahead of Colts' receivers; and he snapped the ball to the great Unitas on every single play. "He was playing like a man possessed," Donovan told me.

Just before the 1961 season, Nutter was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it just about broke his heart. He played well in Pittsburgh, helping the Steelers' underrated fullback John Henry Johnson gain more than 1,000 yards in 1962 and 1964, and made the NFL's All-Pro team in 1962. In 1965, he was traded back to the Colts for a final season, then retired to run a beverage distribution business in La Plata.

Buzz Nutter's salary for the 1958 season was $6,500. Today, the average salary for an NFL player is $1.4 million. But I don't think it's just nostalgia to say that football was a better game in Buzz's day. The rules were stricter -- offensive linemen couldn't use their hands, for one things -- the players weren't so grotesquely huge, the uniforms were simpler and more dignfied, and when players scored a touchdown, they just handed the ball to a referee and trotted back to the bench, instead of doing a crazed dance in the end zone. That was the game Buzz played -- hard, simple and honest -- and that was the way he lived the rest of his life.

By Matt Schudel  |  April 18, 2008; 11:01 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Comments

Another fine example of the way Matt Schudel understand the humanity of each person he writes about.

Posted by: TBG | April 19, 2008 12:56 PM | Report abuse

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