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Catching Up With . . . Former Colts linebacker Dennis Gaubatz

The letters keep coming, sometimes 20 a month asking for Dennis Gaubatz's autograph. Sometimes it's a football card that the old Colt receives. More often, it's the cover of one of the three national magazines on which Gaubatz appeared in his five years as the rugged middle linebacker on Baltimore's ballyhooed defense of the 1960s.

How many copies of Life and Sports Illustrated does he reckon he's signed?

"My gawd, I have no idea. But they just don't stop," said Gaubatz, 73, from his home in West Columbia, Texas. When a California firm offered to manage the signings, he declined.

"I've never charged fans for autographs and I'm not about to start," he said.

Thrust into the spotlight in 1965, when acquired by the Colts to replace the retired Bill Pellington, Gaubatz never flinched. At 25, the former LSU star immediately became the defensive signal caller for a team that would win an NFL championship and three division titles in the next four years.

With Gaubatz in the lineup, the Colts went 46-13-3 and reached the Super Bowl in 1969 where they were upset by the New York Jets, 16-7.

"Our defense put a lot of zeros on the board back then," he said. But 44 years later, the Super Bowl loss still sticks in his craw.

"It's like a hit in the stomach that you never get rid of," he once said.

Gaubatz did sack Jets' quarterback Joe Namath on a blitz, one of the few things Baltimore did right that day.

"As good as we were, the game had to be rigged," he said. "It wasn't on the up-and-up and you'll never tell me different."

Nor can Gaubatz explain how a player who made the cover of Sports Illustrated twice (1965 and 1968) and Life (1968) never made the Pro Bowl.

"That, I don't understand," he said. "I wasn't a showboat. I was brought up to do my job, to take the praises when they come but not to ask for them.

"As the saying goes, if life gives you a Tootsie Roll, you eat it. If it gives you a Cadillac, you drive it.

"All I got were the Tootsie Rolls."

Not that he's complaining. The deal that brought Gaubatz from the Detroit Lions in exchange for aptly-named running back Joe Don Looney suited him all around. He bought a Sunoco station on Edison Highway and banded with the tight-knit team.

"In Detroit, after a game, players scattered like quail. In Baltimore, everyone was one big family," he said. "We'd all meet up at Artie Donovan's Country Club, or Pellington's restaurant, or Johnny Unitas' Golden Arm, or maybe we'd make the rounds of all three. There were liable to be 30 players there."

In 1968, Baltimore poet Ogden Nash celebrated the Colts' Super Bowl run by saluting the players in verse. The cover of Life shows an airborne Gaubatz set to pounce like a lion on a PBS special. Of the linebacker, Nash wrote:

Look at Number 53 / Dennis Gaubatz, that is he / looming 10 feet tall or taller / above the Steelers' signal caller / Since Gaubatz acts like this on Sunday / I'll do my quarterbacking Monday.

Two years later, miffed at losing his job to Mike Curtis, Gaubatz requested a trade to Washington but was cut by the Redskins and quit the game. Now retired from a construction job with Dow Chemical, he lives in the town he grew up in with his wife, Carolyn. Married 54 years, they have four children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Money is tight. Four years ago, Gaubatz said, he declared bankruptcy "but the increased NFL pension helps and we're gradually getting our heads above water. My 13-year-old truck is still running and I shot me a deer this morning. I play a lot of dominoes with friends for $2 a game. On a good day, I might win $12."

Football, he said, undermined his health: both knees and hips have been replaced.

"I can walk, but if I step on something the size of a bb I get real sharp pains," he said. "I'm paying for having played the game, but I'd do it again in a second because I loved it and the fans in Baltimore.

"I wouldn't have to think twice."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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