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Catching Up With ... Former Colts offensive lineman Elmer Collett

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There's a boogie board in his basement, a mountain bike in the garage and a black lab named Jake at the back door, begging for a five-mile walk. At 69, Elmer Collett doesn't want for things to do.

A pile of firewood needs splitting, the motors on both of his fishing boats need remounting and his 12-year-old pick-up should have a tuneup before Collett heads back to the hills to mine for gold in the High Sierras.

Clearly, the former Colt and Pro Bowl guard found life after football. When he left the game in 1978, after helping Baltimore win three straight AFC East Division crowns, Collett returned to his native California and embraced a rugged individualistic lifestyle.

He surfed, panned for gold on a claim he'd staked on the Yuba River and found work as a firefighter — a job he held for 28 years.

"Helping folks gives you a good feeling," Collett said by phone from his home in Stinson Beach, near San Francisco. "Besides, there's so much camaraderie in the fire department. It's like football: you work closely with people and you depend on them to get you out of trouble.

"Being a football player is the best job I could ever have; being a fireman is the next best. I feel I've been blessed."

Acquired from the 49ers for a future draft pick in 1973, Collett started immediately for the Colts despite a back ailment that had hampered him and cost him his job in San Francisco.

"My strength is my competitive nature, so [being benched] after making the Pro Bowl was one of the most frustrating times of my life," Collett said. In Baltimore that year, he grit his teeth and mustered on.

"I could have been bleeding from every orifice in my body and I still would have played for the Colts," he said.

Heartened by offseason surgery, the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Collett became a mainstay on an offensive line that defined the Colts, unleashing tailback Lydell Mitchell and safeguarding quarterback Bert Jones. In 1975, the team burst from the gate, routed the Chicago Bears, 35-7 in its opener, finished 10-4 and won its division for the first time in six years.

"I remember the fans tearing down a goal post [in Memorial Stadium] when we beat New England, 34-21 in the last regular-season game," he said. "One of them put the post in his car, where it stuck out of the windows by four feet on either side. When a cop stopped him, the man started crying and said, 'This means more to me than my family.'

"That says it all about the passion of Baltimore football fans."

The Colts repeated as division champs in 1976 and 1977, when back spasms sidelined Collett mid-season and effectively ended his career. But not before his grunt work helped Jones win the NFL Most Valuable Player Award in 1976. Even now, Jones speaks in awe of Collett's might.

"Elmer has the strongest paws you've ever seen, and he was as good a pulling guard as I ever played with," said Jones, an avid outdoorsman who remains a close friend.

Not coincidentally, their sons — Casey Collett and Beau Jones — were roommates while attending LSU.

Age hasn't dampened Collett's Bunyanesque spirit. A part-time chimney sweep, he lives two minutes from the ocean, down the hill from where the late Jerry Garcia (The Grateful Dead) once lived.

"My surfing days are over. I've got so many parts that don't work," he said. "But I boogie board, hunt, fish and take long walks with Jake on trails that go 1,500 feet up the mountain behind the house, past bobcats, deer and mountain lions."

And, from time to time, Collett still dredges for gold on the 20-acre claim he staked while playing for the Colts. How much gold has he found?

"The three greatest liars are lawyers, fishermen and miners. They never tell you straight," he said. "I've found some great nuggets, let's leave it at that. It's not something that I'm going to get rich off of."

But that's OK. For Collett, wealth comes in many forms.

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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