Birthplace: Kenosha, WI
You Know Him As: Winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1954;played for Baltimore Colts until 1960.
Did You Know?: As a youth, Alan won the light heavyweight Golden Gloves novice boxing championship of Kenosha by default; all of his rivals dropped out after learning Ameche had entered the tournament.
It’s one of the most famous pictures in NFL history. A man crashing into the end zone past a defender, a classic black-and-white photo of the ending to what’s known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
In the background is Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, one of the most iconic figures the NFL has ever known. But the man crashing into the end zone with the ball? Well, he’s from Kenosha.
It’s Alan Ameche, certainly the best football player Kenosha has ever produced and arguably the best athlete overall. He scored what remains one of the most famous touchdowns in NFL history, a 1-yard plunge that delivered the Colts an overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium. It was the first NFL game to ever go to sudden-death overtime, and it’s still known as perhaps the greatest game in league history.
Once asked on a video of great sports moments if it was the greatest game ever, Ameche had a pretty honest answer.
“Well, it was the greatest game I ever played in,” he said.
And he played in a lot.
Ameche was actually born in Italy with the name Lino Dante Amici on March 1, 1933. After a move to the United States and back, August and Elizabeth Ameche eventually settled in Kenosha, where August was a factory worker. Lino, meanwhile, took the gridiron, where he would quickly become a star at Kenosha High School, now known as Bradford.
According to a University of Wisconsin historical Web site, Lino decided at the age of 16 that his name wasn’t tough enough and changed it to Alan. Alan became a high school sports legend not only in Kenosha, but all throughout the state of Wisconsin. In addition to being a track star, he was an all-state fullback for the 1950 state champion Kenosha High football team that’s regarded as one of the best teams in state history.
On that undefeated squad, which scored more touchdowns than their opponents scored overall points, Ameche was responsible for scoring 108 points. The team included Tom Braatz, who went on to play football at Marquette and later became the vice president of player personnel for the Green Bay Packers.
As for Ameche, he went on to play football at the University of Wisconsin. While there, he earned the nickname “The Horse,” which would stick with him into his NFL career. The origin of the nickname is unclear, but according to the historical Web site it emanated from a combination of his hard work ethic in practice, his incredible stamina and his brute strength.
The mark Ameche left in Madison is indelible. He was named first-team All-Big Ten three straight years and earned All-American honors in 1953 playing both fullback and linebacker in a time when great players often played both ways. In four years he gained 3,212 rushing yards, then the NCAA record, scored 25 touchdowns and was a member of some very good Wisconsin teams. The 1952 Badgers made it to the Rose Bowl, the first postseason appearance in school history. Though his team lost 7-0 to USC, Ameche carried the ball 28 times for 133 yards.
Ameche also married high school sweetheart Yvonne Molinaro on Thanksgiving 1952, and they had two children when Ameche was still playing at Wisconsin.
At the end of his senior year in 1954, Ameche was awarded the Heisman Trophy, the greatest individual honor a college football player can receive. He is one of only two Wisconsin players to be awarded the honor, joined by running back Ron Dayne in 1999. Ameche’s No. 35 has been retired at Wisconsin, and his name and number currently reside on the facade at Camp Randall Stadium. He’s a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Ameche chose to enter the 1955 NFL Draft after his days at Wisconsin, and he was selected third overall by the Baltimore Colts. Despite a career that was cut short by an Achilles tendon injury, Ameche had a very productive six-year pro career that spanned from 1955-60. He was a member of two NFL Championship teams and rushed for 4,045 yards and 40 touchdowns. He was named to the Pro Bowl four straight years from 1955-58. He also held the record for most rushing yards gained in his first three career games, until Carnell Williams of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers broke it in 2005.
Most of all, though, Ameche is remembered for that single rushing yard, the one immortalized in the photo from the 1958 NFL Championship Game.
After his playing days, Ameche co-founded the Gino’s Hamburgers chain with former Colts teammate Gino Marchetti. The Baltimore-based Ameche’s drive-in restaurants were also named after him. Ameche died in Houston on Aug. 8, 1988.