By Kirk Gilkey
Now that the 50th Super Bowl has come and gone, the banter on television and the radio airwaves will turn to Peyton Manning’s retirement and his ranking among the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks of all time. Where will NFL historians place Manning among todays best QBs like Brady, Rogers and Brees and the past great names like Elway, Montana and Unitas? Manning will surely be a first ballot Hall of Famer like Montana, Elway and Unitas five years after hanging up his cleats.
During the 1950’s and 1960’s Johnny Unitas was arguably the best quarterback of his era. Some Corcoranites may remember that one of Corcoran’s greatest athletes played against Unitas and even intercepted Johnny “U” in what is known as the “Greatest Game Ever Played”.
Lindon Crow was born in Denison, Texas, in 1933 and moved to Corcoran with his family when he was in elementary school. It quickly became apparent around Corcoran that all the kids in the Crow family were great athletes. Lindon attended Corcoran High School and excelled in football, basketball, baseball and track. Crow starred on Corcoran’s 1950 Valley Championship team that featured Alex Rodriquez, Bruce Flaherty, Guy Fay Mitchell, Harvey Vicks and Lewis Florence. During that championship season Lindon ran for a 99 yard touchdown from scrimmage against Dinuba. That run from scrimmage is a national high school record that has been tied but can never be broken. He actually made all league in all four sports he competed. In the spring season he juggled both baseball and track and long jumped 22’11″ at the State Track Meet. He was also clocked in 9.7 seconds in the 100 yard dash. Lewis Florence, Lindon’s longtime friend, classmate and contributor to this story, adds that Lindon was a strong swimmer. Lindon saved Florence from drowning twice, once in a lake and once in the ocean.
After Lindon’s illustrious high school career at Corcoran he was recruited by the University of Southern California for both football and baseball. He was also drafted by baseball’s Boston Red Sox. Lindon chose USC and played on the USC freshman football team in 1951. Freshmen were not allowed to play varsity in those years. During Lindon’s sophomore season he became an immediate starter in the USC defensive backfield and also at wide receiver on offense. The Trojans had a 9-1 record in 1952 and faced the Wisconsin Badgers in the 39th Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The Trojans won that game 7-0 and late in the game Lindon chased down Wisconsin running back Alan Ameche to stop a potential game tying score. Ameche would go on to win the Heisman trophy and later star for the Baltimore Colts.
Lindon would continue to excel at USC, captained the Trojans and led his team to the 1955 Rose Bowl where USC played the Ohio State Buckeyes coached by the legendary Woody Hayes. Later in 1955 Lindon played in the Senior Bowl All Star game in Mobile Alabama and also in the College All Star Game at Soldier Field in Chicago. In that game the College All Stars were victorious over the reigning NFL-Champion Cleveland Browns.
Lindon was the first pick in the second round of the 1955 NFL draft by the Chicago Cardinals. He played three seasons for the Cardinals and led the NFL with eleven interceptions in 1956. The NFL only played twelve game seasons until 1961. Eleven interceptions in twelve games was quite remarkable. Lindon was All Pro in 1956 and 1957 for the Cardinals but after expressing a desire to play in California for the Los Angeles Rams to the Cardinal owner Walter Wolfner, he was traded to the News York Giants.
Lindon played for the Giants in 1958, 1959 and 1960 where he was coached by two assistant coaches who would later become NFL immortals, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry.
In 1958 the Giants had a 9-3 record as did the Baltimore Colts. On December 28th of 1958 these two teams met in Yankee Stadium for the NFL Championship. Today this game is widely known as the “Greatest Game Ever Played”. It featured 17 future NFL Hall of Famers including from the Colts, Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Art Donovan and Gino Marchetti. The Colt’s head coach that year was Weeb Ewbank who would later coach the New York Jets and win Super Bowl III with Joe Namath as the Jet QB. Three coaches from that game including Ewbank, Landry and Lombardi are Hall of Famers. The Super Bowl Trophy is named for Lombardi. Lindon’s teammates that year who would become Hall of Famers were Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Rosey Brown, Don Maynard, Andy Robustelli and Emlen Tunnel.
The 1958 NFL Championship holds such significance as it was the first NFL Championship game ever to be televised and an estimated 45 million people watched the Colts beat the Giants in overtime 23-17. The game in which Lindon intercepted Unitas in the first quarter was not decided until “Sudden Death” overtime when Alan Ameche scored on one-yard run securing the championship for the Colts. Ameche was the same back from Wisconsin that Lindon chased down in the 1953 Rose Bowl stopping a potential game tying score for the Badgers. This 1958 NFL Championship game is also known for the birth of the term “two minute drill”. With just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter the Giants punted to the Colts. Unitas and the Colts started on their own 14 yard line and moved the ball down to the Giants 13 yard where a 20 yard field goal with 7 seconds left in regulation sent the game to overtime.
This game is thought of by many as a turning point in the history of football. The impact of this game gave inspiration to the start of the American Football League and later the NFL-AFL merger leading to today’s professional football in America. Fifty years after this game was played it was the topic of an ESPN television presentation titled the “Greatest Game Ever Played”. The ESPN production that today is an “ESPN Classic” is hosted by Chris Berman and Mike Tirico. This made for TV movie relives the 1958 game and its impact on the history of the NFL. Players and coaches from that game were interviewed and presented their memories of the game giving a perspective of the game’s impact. Also interviewed were 2008 Giant and Colt players and coaches who gave their perspective on how the NFL has changed since that historic event. Gifford, Pat Summerall, Rosey Grier, Marchetti and Art Donovan are some of the 1958 players featured in the ESPN presentation. Peyton Manning, Michael Strahan and Coaches Tony Dungy and Tom Coughlin are also featured. Lindon Crow is on the first page of the credits of the movie and is prominently featured during player interviews and in game footage.
Lindon played for the Giants in 1959 and 1960. He made All Pro again in 1959 and in both of those years went to the NFL title game with Giants. In 1961 Lindon was traded to the Rams where he played for four seasons before retiring from the NFL after the 1964 season.
Many years after Lindon’s retirement from the NFL and a second career as coach at Cal-State Northridge and Saint Genevieve High School in Southern California I had the great privilege of meeting and talking to Lindon Crow. The man I met was very modest and never boastful. If you wanted to hear about the NFL from Lindon Crow you had to ask the question. Some fifteen years ago at back yard bar-b-que at my parent’s house I introduced my son, a high school footballer at the time to Lindon. I asked Lindon to tell my son and me about the 1960 New York Giant-Philadelphia Eagles contest that is etched in the history because of one play. Linebacker Chuck Bednarik of the Eagles leveled Frank Gifford with a crushing tackle putting Gifford out of football for the entire 1961 season. Lindon told us how the game was played in Yankee Stadium and about that devastating play. Bednarik, a Hall of Famer and the last two way player in the NFL played center on offense and linebacker on defense. He was known as “Concrete Chuck” not only for his strength and toughness on the football field but also as he was a concrete salesman during the off season. The pay did not resemble the salaries of today’s NFL players and even the best NFL players in 1960 had to have off season jobs. As this play developed, Gifford caught a pass from the Giants QB and was heading out of bounds as the Giants were behind on the scoreboard and time was running out in the fourth quarter.
Lindon told us that after the ferocious but legal hit by Bednarik, Gifford was carried off the field on a stretcher without moving. The game was finished and as Lindon and his teammates entered their locker room in Yankee Stadium two men carried a stretcher out with a sheet covered body on the stretcher. Lindon and his teammates were horrified as they thought Bednarik had killed Gifford. As it turns out a Yankee Stadium cop had succumbed to a heart attack and Gifford did return to the NFL, but not until well over a year after the infamous Bednarik hit.
Lindon Crow’s accomplishments are absolutely amazing to me. A three year starter at USC and then ten years as a starter in the NFL. In three of those NFL seasons he was voted as the best player at his position by his peers. The best player at his position in the NFL! Wow! Just as amazing are the players he played with and against and coaches he associated with during those years. LA Coliseum, Yankee Stadium and Soldier Field are just a few of the places where Lindon Crow applied his trade.
Corcoran has had its fair share of professional football players over the years. I’ve heard the names of Ernie Caddel and Byron Gentry who played in the NFL in the 1930’s. You can search these names on Wikipedia and read how these two had very accomplished professional careers. Lindon’s brother Wayne Crow was a great football player who played running back and punted for the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills. Wayne held the Raider punting record for many years with a punt of 77 yards. Jim Stiger played running back for five years with the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams. My high school teammate Chris De France who was an outstanding three sport athlete played one season for the Washington Redskins and then had a good career in the Canadian Football League.
In writing this article I questioned several people who have been in and around Corcoran for many years. I asked questions of Lewis Florence, Bobby Toney, Bruce Flaherty and Jim Rich. These men have been to hundreds of Corcoran High athletic events and watched thousands of Corcoran’s athletes. From what I’ve read and from what these men have told me there would be no debate. When it comes to athletics and especially football, Corcoran’s “Greatest Ever” is Lindon Crow!!