He scored 40 times in an eight-year NFL career, best known, now, for the touchdown he didn’t score, as the sun set over Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, 1958. His wife of 59 years, Joan, said that Jim Mutscheller, who died on April 10, wanted to be known as a man “who had led a good life,” for he was “quiet, humble, and so conservative that he’d eat crabs with a suit and tie on.”
And therein lies a tale—and a yardstick by which to measure pro sports then and now.
Born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania (as was Joe Namath, about as different a character as you can imagine), Mutscheller’s father was known locally as the “best bricklayer in Beaver County.” The son graduated from Notre Dame, having played offensive and defensive end on the 1949 national championship team in the days of single platoon football. He then spent a couple of years in the Marine Corps—including a stint in Korea that convinced Mutscheller, whose look “would bore a hole in a vault” (as one sportswriter put it), that getting knocked around on the football field wasn’t so bad a deal after all.
He was a tight end in the days when you could be 6 feet tall, weigh 190, and play that position, what with no 350-pound behemoths on the other side of the line. But he was also reasonably fleet afoot, he could block, he had those great hands, and there was … that look. All of which helped bring him and the Baltimore Colts to the Bronx on a bleak December afternoon in 1958, for what’s now known as The Greatest Game Ever Played. It wasn’t, in fact, all that great a game. But it had a lot of drama; it ended with the first (and thus far only) sudden-death overtime win in the history of NFL championships; and Jim Mutscheller was in the pivot of the action.
With strong men ready to collapse from exhaustion after four and a half quarters of play, the Colts, having driven to the Giants’ six-yard line, were poised for the game-winning touchdown. The immortal John Unitas brought the Colts out of the huddle, having called a running play for “The Horse,” Alan Ameche (who looked more like a tenor in a Verdi opera than a Heisman Trophy-winning fullback). Unitas, however, noticed, a chink in the Giants’ pass defense and checked off at the line of scrimmage, calling for Mutscheller to run an out pattern to the near corner of the end zone.
It was intended to be a touchdown pass, and would have been except that Unitas deliberately led Mutscheller a bit more to the outside than usual; Number 84 couldn’t get traction on the icy surface, slipping out of bounds at the one-yard line. On the next play, Ameche drove in for the winning score, with Mutscheller throwing a key block that took out Giants’ linebacker Cliff Livingston. Years after the game that changed the way America spends fall Sunday afternoons, Unitas would kid Mutscheller, saying, “Geez, Jim, I tried to make you the hero.” To which Mutscheller replied, “If I’d scored that touchdown, Ameche wouldn’t have been able to sell all those hamburgers.” (Extra credit for anyone who can remember the name of the double-stack burger at “Ameche’s.”)
They’re almost all gone, now, these Catholic sports heroes of my extreme youth: Ameche first, in 1988; Unitas in 2002; Artie Donovan in 2013; now Jim Mutscheller, whom I used to see at daily Mass, head bowed after receiving the Mystery. Only Gino Marchetti is left; and since it was “something inside Gino” that, according to Lenny Moore, held the Colts together, that is right and just. But I’ll think of them all during the parade of oversized young studs, oozing self-esteem and entitlement, who’ll walk across the stage to get their handshake/hug from Commissioner Roger Goodell on NFL draft day. And I’ll remember that, once upon a time, Catholic men from working class families could be sports idols—and role models as well.