By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun
4:31 PM EST, December 20, 2012
The black-and-white photo hangs unobtrusively on a back wall in Andy Nelson's barbeque joint in Cockeysville. But the picture, taken 53 years ago, captures a pivotal play in the Colts' second world championship, a 31-16 victory over the Giants at a packed Memorial Stadium in 1959.
There is Frank Gifford, New York's Hall of Fame halfback, poised to catch a pass. And there is Nelson, the Colts' All Pro safety, swooping in with arms outstretched, ready to intercept.
Steal it, Nelson did. The play broke the Giants' backs. Trailing, 14-9 in the fourth quarter, New York never recovered. Three plays later, Baltimore scored, then again and again, galvanizing the crowd and busting open the game.
Nowadays Nelson, 79, stares at the photo and shakes his head.
"I should have scored on that play," he said. "I ran it back 17 yards before (New York tackle) Rosey Brown ran me out of bounds (at the Giants' 14).
"When I came off the field, (Coach) Weeb Ewbank gave me a pat on the back. He already knew that was the key play."
So did the fans. Afterward, walking to their car, Nelson and his wife were met by a woman who embraced the Colts' star, then gave him a kiss.
"Who was that?" Bettye Nelson asked.
Truth be told, the newly-minted hero had no idea.
"Those were special times," said Nelson, who joined the club in 1957 as an 11th round draft pick from Memphis State and stayed for seven seasons. "I was so fortunate to come to the Colts. How many guys get to play on two world champions in the first three years of their careers?"
It nearly wasn't so. His rookie year, Nelson missed 10 days of training camp, mulling an $8,000 bid to play football in Canada, which was $2,000 more than the Colts offered. Don Kellett, Baltimore's general manager, phoned him in Memphis to ask his plans.
"I'd like to play," Nelson told him, "But I just bought a washing machine for my wife and I can't leave here until it's paid for."
How much did it cost, Kellett asked.
"Two hundred dollars," Nelson said.
"I'll send you the money," the GM said. "Now, get on a plane and get up here."
Nelson and his wife settled in Lutherville, raised a brood and, in 1981, opened the restaurant that bears his name. It's a family affair: four of Nelson's seven children and four of his 16 grandchildren work there, as does the man who picked off 32 passes for Baltimore and helped the team to back-to-back NFL titles. Six days a week, he's behind the counter, dishing up everything from pulled pork 'cue to smoked catfish to Memphis ribs.
"I can't stop working; I gotta keep a-goin'," said Nelson, who grew up on a 200-acre cotton farm in Alabama. "I just hope I leave a good name and a legacy."
His wife of 57 years died in 2010. Nelson misses her dearly. From time to time, he goes to the cellar of his Glen Arm home for a precious jar of Bettye's blackberry jam, which the family shares in her memory.
"Before she died, Bettye said she wanted me to take up golf again, to stay busy," Nelson said. "I used to play with Johnny Unitas because we'd both shoot around 100. Once, Johnny and I took a lesson from Johnny Bass, the pro at Pine Ridge. He watched us slashing and hooking the ball and said, 'Fellas, you've been playing too much football. I don't think I can help you.' And he gave up."
Though he starred in the 1959 championship, Nelson also started in the 1958 title game, the ballyhooed 23-17 sudden-death win over the Giants. The gold ring he received for that victory, a cherished keepsake, was stolen from his home in 1997 and never recovered.
Imagine Nelson's surprise several years ago when his daughter, Linda, presented him with a perfect replica of the ring.
"She'd borrowed a ring from Jim Mutscheller (the Colts' tight end) and gave it to her boyfriend, a silversmith, who made a duplicate," Nelson said.
"I thought I'd never see that ring again. And when I did, it made me cry."
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