DECEMBER 28: The kid gets the picture

New York Giants vs Baltimore Colts, 1958 NFL ChampionshipTHE GREATEST IMAGE from the “The Greatest Game Ever Played” wouldn’t have been half so good if the photographer, sixteen-year-old Neil Leifer, “had any money and any decent equipment.”

That’s what Leifer concluded 46 years after photographing Baltimore’s Alan Ameche scoring the winning overtime touchdown in the NFL championship game against the New York Giants. On the evening of December 28, 1958, Leifer snapped a wide shot that caught the Colts fullback bowling into the end zone in the bottom half of the frame with a large swath of Yankee Stadium and a darkening sky above.

Leifer said in 2002 that with more experience and top-flight equipment he “would have tried to fill the frame with Ameche going in for the winning touchdown.” The photographer said his shot, which he quickly sold to Sports Illustrated, was “so much better than any picture I would have taken years later when I was an established pro.”

Today, a teenage photographer with no credentials would never get close to the action of a conference championship or Super Bowl Game, but security officials at the Colts-Giants game had other issues to deal with. “There were so many Colts fans (mainly drunken Colts fans) on the field that the security had their hands full just making sure that they could keep those people off the field,” said Leifer, who had been shooting Giants home games all year. “So I ended up exactly ten yards in front of Ameche as he scored the winning touchdown. He came right at me and I got that picture.”

Leifer's most celebrated adult photograph: Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston after a first-round knockout in 1965.

Leifer’s most celebrated adult photograph: Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston after a first-round knockout in 1965.

Many have called the 1958 championship game “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The 23-17 Colts victory marked the first use of the NFL’s sudden-death overtime rule, and the game is credited with sparking an enthusiasm for professional football that helped the NFL overtake baseball as America’s favorite sport.

A much-admired sports photographer, Leifer is most noted for his boxing images, which include dozens featuring Muhammad Ali. He was a staff photographer for Sports Illustrated from 1972 to 1978 and later worked for TIME and LIFE.

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