Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: The Birth of Sudden Death




Last weekend, ESPN looked back on the epic clash in the National Football League’s 1958 Championship, known today as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The game carries that reputation in large part because it was the first football championship game to be decided in sudden death overtime.

In fact, during interviews for the ESPN broadcast, celebrated sports photographer Neil Leifer and film maker Barry Levinson both noted that this game marked the first time they had ever heard the phrase “sudden death,” believing they were witnessing something entirely new. After I did some digging, it turns out the practice, and the phrase, dates back far earlier.

The phrase was first coined in a metaphorical sense by literary legend Mark Twain, who recorded the phrase in 1865 to describe rotgut whiskey. With a label like that, it’s easy to see why Twain made his mark in literature and not in liquor marketing.

“Sudden death” did not debut for the first time in sports history during “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” instead appearing nearly 100 years earlier.

After a scoreless 90-minute regulation period at the second-ever soccer competition, The Cromwell Cup, in 1868, the Sheffield Wednesday and Garrick clubs agreed the next goal would determine the winner.

The next-goal-wins rule has also been on hockey’s books since at least the 1890s according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

However, in newspapers at the time the connotation for “sudden death” meant a “series-ending game” rather than the “next-score-wins” definition it carried in 1958. For example, a story from the Manitoba Free Press dated March 12, 1920 recounts:

“By a score of 11-2 Sudbury, champions of the Northern Hockey league, defeated Collingwood, O.H.A. intermediate champions, here tonight in a ‘sudden death’ game to see which team would compete for the Allan cup. Sudbury will play the winner of the Granite-Tiger round in the O.H.A. Senior championship finals for the Allan cup.”

Twenty years later, “sudden death” carried the connotation with which we associate it today, as evidenced by an article about, of all sports, basketball.

A column, “As J.C.D. Sees It” by J.C. Derks from the April 2, 1940 issue of the Salt Lake City Tribune, details one of several rule changes to high school basketball:

“The Extra-Period Rule: The more important of the two minor changes affects the high school division. The new provision is that when an extra period is required for decision, a full three minutes are to be played. If a second extra period is necessary, the ‘Sudden death’ method is to be used; that is, the team which scores first.”

Even then the phrase has experienced some further evolution. Given that the phrase does carry a rather unpleasant connotation, there have been attempts in the latter half of the 20th century to put a positive spin on it.

During a broadcast of the 1971 AFC Championship OT game between the Chiefs and Dolphins the late Curt Gowdy stubbornly shunned “sudden death” for the phrase “sudden victory.”

When soccer’s international governing body officially introduced its sudden-death format in 1994, they put their own happy twist on the title, dubbing it a “golden goal” period. Perhaps the football folk were concerned the phrase’s more literal meaning might align a little too closely with some sad incidents from the sport’s past.

In 1994 Columbian national player Andres Escobar scored into his own net, derailing the country’s World Cup hopes. Ten days later he was murdered – shot 12 times while his assassin allegedly screamed “Gooooooaaaaaal!” In 1998, a match in the Congo ended, suddenly, when all 11 members of the home team were killed by lightning. Witchcraft was blamed.

But for most, it will always be “sudden death,” which, it turns out, was first introduced to American football three years prior to The Greatest Game Ever Played, used in an exhibition game in Portland, Ore. between the Los Angeles Rams and the New York Giants.

The Giants fared no better in that contest, losing 23-17 three minutes into OT.

In the years since, sudden death has provided a number of the most memorable moments in sports, with teams basking in the glory of victory, or choking down the bitter pill of defeat … a pill we now know tastes like rotgut whiskey.