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Remembering Pat Summerall, The Kicker

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Before Summerall's voice became synonymous with the most important NFL games, his leg made him an unforgettable villain to a generation of Browns' fans. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Before Summerall's voice became synonymous with the most important NFL games, his leg made him an unforgettable villain to a generation of Browns' fans. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Long before there was “Red Right 88,” “The Drive” and “The Fumble” in Cleveland Browns’ history, there was “The Kick.”

And long before Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers was the be-all and end-all of rivalries, it was Browns-New York Giants.

But you have to have gray hair and know what a hula hoop is to remember that.

All of this comes to mind with the death of Pat Summerall on Tuesday. He was 82.

To a whole generation of NFL fans, Summerall was an iconic TV play-by-play broadcaster. His presence in the booth meant it was a big game.

But to the older generation, Summerall – before he went into broadcasting – was also a fine kicker for 10 seasons for the Detroit Lions (1952), Chicago Cardinals (1953-57) and Giants (1958-61).

And to Browns fans from back in the day, Summerall was the man whose kick – an improbable 49-yard field goal in a snowstorm -- did a lot to boot Cleveland out of the 1958 playoff picture. He was to those fans what Mike Davis, John Elway and Jeremiah Castille were, respectively, in the aforementioned games – a villain.

Let’s turn back the clock. From 1960-65, the Browns and Giants dominated first the American Conference and then its successor, the Eastern Conference. For all but one season during that 16-year span (1960; Philadelphia Eagles), either the Browns or Giants won the conference championship.

So every time the Browns and Giants met, it was huge. Going into each season, Cleveland knew it would have to go through New York to advance to the NFL Championship Game and New York knew it would have to go through Cleveland to do the same.

In essence, Cleveland-New York was the hottest rivalry in the NFL at the time.

In 1958, all the Browns (9-2) had to do was defeat – or tie -- the Giants (8-3) on Dec. 14 in the regular-season finale at Yankee Stadium to capture their second consecutive Eastern title. The Giants had edged the Browns 21-17 six weeks earlier at Cleveland in the teams’ first meeting, but they would have to pull off the sweep or else their season was over.

As with most Browns-Giants games, this one was close and went right down to the end. In addition, it was played in far from ideal conditions.

With two minutes left and the score tied at 10, the Browns felt pretty good about their chances to get out of New York with the conference championship. The Giants had driven to the Cleveland 42 but were facing a fourth down. With the poor weather conditions, nearly everyone thought the Giants would go for it in an effort to score a touchdown, or at least push the ball closer for Summerall to try the game-winning kick.

But Giants coach Jim Lee Howell thought differently.

“When Jim Lee called for the field-goal unit, all of us standing on the sideline said almost in unison, ‘What?!’ ” said Dick Modzelewski from his Cleveland area home on Wednesday evening. (Modzelewski was in his third season as a Giants defensive tackle in 1958 at the time of the game.) “Pat had botched a kick (from the 31) a couple minutes earlier, it was snowing like crazy and this one would be a lot further away, so we were all wondering what in the world Jim Lee was doing. I remember that (Giants offensive coach) Vince Lombardi was really against us trying the field goal and was vocal about it. But Jim Lee had confidence in Pat, so he sent him out there.”

Howell’s decision changed history. It ended up being the biggest play in Summerall’s career and one of the biggest ever for the Giants.

“I was on the field-goal team,” Modzelewski recalled. “I had my back turned to Pat as I was blocking, but when I heard the thud as Pat kicked the ball, I knew he had hit it well. I knew it was going to be good. It was good by plenty. It would have been good from 55 yards or better. When Pat came back to the sideline, Lombardi raced over and hugged him. He had a big smile on his face when he told Pat, ‘You so and so, you can’t kick one that far.’ ”

But Summerall could, and did, much to the dismay of the Browns.

That put the Browns and Giants into a first-place tie at 9-3, forcing them into a one-game, winner-take-all playoff a week later – back at Yankee Stadium – to see who would move on to meet Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in the league title game.

“Tom Landry, our defensive coach, told us in the week leading up to the playoff game, ‘Men, we’re not going to really change anything. (Browns coach) Paul Brown is going to do the same thing he did last Sunday,’ ” Modzelewski recalled.

The deflated Browns returned to New York and lost 10-0 as Summerall added another field goal, this one from 26 yards in the second quarter. The Giants limited the Browns to just 86 total yards and held second-year running back Jim Brown to only eight yards rushing in seven carries, which would end up being the worst performance of the Hall-of-Famer’s career.

“Winston Cigarettes had a promotion back then: ‘It couldn’t be done,’ ” Modzelewski said. “That was our theme, too, in 1958 with the Giants. For us to be able to beat the Cleveland Browns three times in one season, it couldn’t be done.”

But like Summerall with his kick, the Giants proved it could be done.

The Giants couldn’t continue their magic, though, failing to win the league championship the next week at Yankee Stadium when they fell 23-17 to the Colts in overtime in what has been called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

However, because of Summerall’s kick, that 1958 regular-season finale against the Browns was pretty special, too.

“Pat was just a great, great guy,” said Modzelewski, who got to see the other side of the Browns-Giants rivalry when he was traded to Cleveland in 1964. He played his final three seasons there and was a member of the Browns’ NFL title team that first year.

“I never knew anyone who had a bad word to say about Pat.”

Maybe not in New York, but that definitely wasn’t the case in Cleveland 55 years ago.