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MADISON — On December 28, 1958, a national television audience of 45 million people watched former UW–Madison fullback Alan Ameche fulfill every football player’s dream, scoring the winning touchdown during the first ever sudden-death overtime in NFL history.
Ameche, a 1956 UW grad playing professionally for the Baltimore Colts, made the defining play during what has been called “the greatest game ever played” to determine that season’s NFL champion. It was a compelling game — which solidified the country’s intense interest in pro football — and he was the ideal player to ensure its outcome.
Born Lino Dante Ameche in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1933, he possessed an athletic prowess that blossomed at the city’s Bradford High School. His football team posted an undefeated season in 1950, and he also earned letters in track and shot put.
Ameche’s accomplishments multiplied when he moved to UW–Madison. Scoring two touchdowns during his first game for the Wisconsin Badgers, he roared on for the next four years, becoming the first freshman to lead the Big Ten Conference in rushing, setting a record for rushing in the NCAA, and leading the team to its first-ever Rose Bowl game. Positioned as both linebacker and fullback, he typically spent nearly every minute of a game on the field.
Ameche, who went by Alan starting at age 16, was dubbed “The Horse” by his teammates, who noted his dedication and stamina during practice. The ultimate recognition came in 1955, when he was named the UW’s first recipient of the Heisman Trophy.
Ameche was snapped up by the pros after college. He was a first-round draft pick for the Colts, who offered him the princely sum of $15,000 — at that time, the highest annual salary ever offered to a rookie. He was named rookie of the year in 1955 and accumulated All-Pro honors.
He solidified his legend at Yankee Stadium when his Colts and the New York Giants went into overtime for the 1958 NFL Championship Game. The Giants won the coin toss, but the offense, coached by Vince Lombardi, was forced into a three-and-out by the Colts’ defense. Seizing the opportunity, Baltimore’s offense marched 80 yards down the field on 13 plays. Then came Ameche’s moment. Quarterback Johnny Unitas handed the ball to Ameche, who punched through the line on a one-yard, game-winning touchdown to give the Colts a 23–17 win and the NFL title. Ameche took home $5,000 for the victory.
Ameche’s football career ended in 1960 with an Achilles tendon injury. In 1969, fans named him Wisconsin’s “all-time greatest player.” He died of a heart attack in Houston, Texas, in 1988.
Ameche — and profiles of many other UW–Madison alumni who have changed the world — are featured on allwaysforward.org.