Catching up with ... former Colts linebacker Jim Cheyunski

Former Baltimore Colt Jim Cheyunski had knees that "would swell up like balloons," Bill Belichick remembers.

His name resonates with only the staunchest Colts fans of the 1970s. More's the pity because, in two years here, middle linebacker Jim Cheyunski played a key role in the team's big turnaround.

Acquired from Buffalo during training camp in 1975, Cheyunski, 30, became a starter mid-season when an eye injury sidelined All-Pro Mike Curtis. Then a woeful 1-4, the Colts rallied, ran the table, finished 10-4 and captured the AFC East in one of the biggest single-season comebacks in NFL history. And Curtis? He went to the Seattle Seahawks that winter in the expansion draft.

Though saddled with chronic back and knee ailments, Cheyunski played that year and the next, as Baltimore won consecutive division titles.

"Many times, after games, my wife, [Patricia], had to help me back to our apartment," said Cheyunski, who turns 71 on Dec. 29. "The team doctor said I had the knee of an 80-year-old. The Colts sent a chiropractor with us on the road to keep me fluid. I disregarded the pain because, in football, you play hurt — and I absolutely loved that team."

His gritty performance buoyed the Colts.

"Jim had terrible knees," New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, then a young Colts assistant, recalled in a 2002 interview. "After every game, they would swell up like balloons. He could barely walk out to the field; I hurt, just watching him walk. Each week you looked at him and you'd say, 'Do you think he'll make it one more week?' He'd look worse each week until game time, and then when game time came, he looked pretty good out there.

"It was pretty remarkable. We won the last nine games [in 1975], and he was one of the big reasons why."

In a win over the Miami Dolphins, Cheyunski recovered a fumble. Next game, his finger-tip interception at the goal line helped defeat the Kansas City Chiefs. A week later, he picked off a pass at the Colts' 6-yard-line to preserve a shutout of the New York Giants.

"I was a midget for a middle linebacker [6-feet-1, 220 pounds], but I had enough upper-body strength to handle most linemen," he said. "And I'd studied enough that I knew where plays were going, and got a head start, even with a knee brace."

Never a holler guy, Cheyunski led by actions, not words.

"My teammates respected me; they saw that despite what I was going through, I was still a team leader in tackles. Guys know who's for real and who's not," he said. "But I didn't have a middle linebacker's personality. If you walked into the locker room before a game, you'd think I was going to sleep. I'd sit there, say some prayers … and then go out and play like a maniac."

He retired in 1977 after Coach Ted Marchibroda said, "Jim, you're going to destroy your body." A nine-year pro out of Syracuse, Cheyunski left a winner.

"The Colts' defensive line was the best I ever played with," he said. "Joe Ehrmann, Mike Barnes, Fred Cook, John Dutton. … If I'd started [my career] with those guys, I don't know if I'd ever have been hurt."

Nowadays, Cheyunski — a retired high school athletic director and coach — lives in Raleigh, N.C. Married 50 years, he dotes on his eight grandchildren and plays golf with Milt Plum, 81, a former NFL quarterback. But that's about it. Football and 11 surgeries took their toll.

"I cracked a vertebrae in my back with the Colts, and the pain in my left leg is constant," he said. "I force myself to work out several times a week because, when you stop, you're done."

Eighteen years ago, he spiraled into a six-month depression which, he thinks, stemmed from the handful of concussions he had in football.

"You know how, before a game, you get butterflies in your stomach? This was 10 times worse, and all of the time," Cheyunski said. "It was a feeling of dread. I'd drive home from work with tears streaming from my eyes. I sold my truck and gun collections because I thought we were going bankrupt; in my mind, the end of the world was coming.

"Only through the grace of God, my family and my work ethic did I get through it."

Cheyunski, who has two grandsons, has left the decision of whether to play football up to them.

"You can see what has happened to me, so use your heads," he told the boys' parents. "You can't force a kid to do, or to not do a sport. Just give them the wisdom and knowledge that you have, and support them."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°