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Catching Up With . . . Colts center Ken Mendenhall

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Remember Ken Mendenhall? Maybe not. The onetime Colts' center toiled in the trenches, seldom screwed up and never pouted or popped off. In truth, Mendenhall was so anonymous that when he retired in 1981, few realized that he had started 118 consecutive games — a franchise mark that stood for a quarter of a century until passed in 2005 by Peyton Manning, then Indianapolis' quarterback.

"I didn't know I had the record until Peyton broke it," Mendenhall, 65, said from his home in Edmond, Ok. "My take on it is that [Manning] has the Indianapolis Colts' record [227 games] and I have the Baltimore Colts' record. They are two different horses."

An All-American at Oklahoma, Mendenhall anchored the offensive line for eight years, starting in 1973. He won the job despite his compact build and stayed, while fighting off the two Pro Bowl centers acquired to replace him — Fred Hoaglin and Forrest Blue.

"I was quick, didn't make mistakes and never fumbled a snap. But I weighed only 225 which, even then, was ridiculous," Mendenhall said. "Before weigh-ins at practice, I'd [sneak] into the bathroom and strap two five-pound plates to my sides. If the Colts were to get rid of me, I wanted it to be because I didn't perform, not because I didn't weigh enough."

Now a trim 190 pounds, Mendenhall draws stares from those who remember his past.

"Every time I see [former Oklahoma and Colts running back] Joe Washington at an OU football game, he looks at me, shakes his head and says, 'I can't believe you played the line.' "

Cut by four NFL clubs before signing with the Colts, Mendenhall spent two years on special teams before becoming a regular. Baltimore promptly lost 10 of its first 12 games in 1973, including a 44-0 beating by Miami, then the defending and soon-to-be Super Bowl champion.

It was the Dolphins' fourth straight shutout of the Colts who got clobbered up front, allowing five quarterback sacks and managing a measly 31 yards on the ground by Lydell Mitchell, their leading rusher. The teams' rematch in December suggested another rout.

Instead, the Colts won, 16-3. Their offensive line handled Miami's pass rush and carved holes for Mitchell, who ran for 105 yards. Only a late field goal averted a shutout for Miami (11-2).

"The Dolphins probably thought all they had to do was show up," Mendenhall said. "All of a sudden we started clicking. It was nuts; I can't explain it, except that we were young, gaining maturity and becoming a force."

That victory, he said, "was the roots for what happened from 1975 to 1977" when the Colts won three AFC East flags.

Mendenhall retired at 32 and joined his brothers in the oil drilling business in Oklahoma. In 1987, he created the Oklahoma City chapter of Search Ministries, a national interdenominational ministry based in Ellicott City that holds spiritual forums in non-church settings.

"We engage people on life issues in the places where they work," said Mendenhall, whose interest stems from having attended Bible study meetings with the Colts. "I've held [religious forums] everywhere from country clubs to law offices. Some get suspicious and ask, 'This isn't an Amway meeting, is it?'

"People are interested in talking about God as long as they know they won't be sideswiped or manipulated."

Married 43 years, Mendenhall has two children, a granddaughter and a bond with old teammates. Four years ago, he and other several former Colts offensive linemen — Robert Pratt, George Kunz and Elmer Collett — spent a week hunting quail, on horseback, with Bert Jones on the quarterback's ranch in West Texas.

"What an extraordinary experience — and a lot of laughs," he said. "We told stories, some of them true, like the time Bert went duck-hunting before football practice and brought in the birds and hung them in players' lockers."

A treasured keepsake, Mendenhall said, is a framed photo of the two of them poised for a center snap during a game against the Detroit Lions.

"Bert sent me the picture and wrote on it, 'To a great center but a better friend,' " Mendenhall said.

"I told him that if my house burns down, the picture is one thing that I know I'm running out with."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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