It was an everyday throw, as touchdowns go — a 12-yard pass in a meaningless game between two hapless teams in a deserted ballpark. Thirty years later, Mike Pagel can't recall the toss he made in the final two minutes of a 20-10 season-ending victory over the Houston Oilers.
Who knew, on Dec. 18, 1983, that Pagel's pass to tight end Pat Beach would be the last TD scored by the Baltimore Colts in Memorial Stadium? Three months later, the club skipped town and moved to Indianapolis.
The win over Houston (2-14), before an announced 20,418 — one-third the size of Colt crowds of yore — snapped a five-game losing streak and left the team at 7-9. It ended an erratic two years in Baltimore for Pagel, a sophomore quarterback who led the Colts to two overtime victories after they'd gone winless (0-8-1) in strike-shortened 1982.
He started all of those miserable games too, a rookie QB saddled with a fledgling line, a thin corps of receivers and an irascible owner, Bob Irsay, who kept calling him "Jim."
In hindsight, Pagel said, he'd rather have carried a clipboard than been thrown into the breach as a newbie.
"It would have been nice to have sat behind an established 30-year-old quarterback and learned the game for several years, but that wasn't my lot in life," he said. "Instead, my career was inverted. I started in my first four years in the NFL and played back-up for the last eight."
Now 53, Pagel lives in Lancaster, S.C., on a woodsy two acres and works as a wholesale service executive for AT&T. Married and the father of five, he shrugs off all things football and seldom watches games.
"I don't miss it," he said. "It was nice to play, but I had my fill and was happy to walk away on my own terms."
The Colts' fourth-round draft choice from Arizona State in 1982, Pagel battled for the starting role in training camp against Art Schlichter, the No. 1 pick from Ohio State who was later suspended for gambling.
No one bet on Pagel to win the job, but he did. It earned him a lead role on the worst team in football.
"That was such a sad year," he said. "Frank Kush (the Colts' new coach) hated to lose and, because he'd coached me in college, he used me as his whipping boy. Frank knew he could scream at me all he wanted because it would upset me just enough to show him he was wrong."
Pagel said he took the heat because "all of that yelling took a lot of pressure off the other guys who didn't understand Frank."
Things got better. In 1983 the Colts — with able runners (Curtis Dickey and Randy McMillan) and a go-to kicker (Raul Allegre) — started 6-4 before the wheels fell off. Pagel passed for nearly 2,400 yards and scrambled for 441 more.
"At least 425 of those yards came out of sheer fright," he said.
Kush called the Colts' passing game "Pitch 'N Pray," a knock at Pagel's knack of throwing balls into the dirt — or the hands of defenders.
Problem was, come Sunday, Pagel got hyped and tried to do it all.
"I couldn't play when I was all geared up and frothing at the mouth," he said. "The night before a game, I'd force myself to stay up until 2 a.m. for the 8 o'clock wake-up call. Any more sleep and I'd be too energized and out of control.
"Also, I was driven to be the best quarterback ever to play the game, which sets you up for failure. You do things you're not capable of physically, mentally or emotionally. The key is knowing what you do well and to play within your rhythm, like Trent Dilfer did with the Ravens (in 2000).
"When you're young and playing all the time, there's no time to sit back and study yourself. It took me eight years as a back-up to understand that."
Still, Pagel said his time in Baltimore was well spent.
"There was no huge fan base, but the people there were more vocal and supportive than those in a lot of stadiums that were full," he said. "I think they liked the way I played. I wasn't a pretty boy who was afraid to get dirty. The fans, who had a hardworking, blue-collar, lunch bucket mentality, could relate to that."
In Pagel's office, above the garage beside his house, there's a Baltimore Colts sideline jacket which he has had since the day of that Houston game in 1983.
"I tended to be the last one to leave the locker room, and I saw the jacket hanging there," he said. "All of the equipment guys were gone and the season was over, so I took it, figuring I'd give it back later.
"Then we moved to Indianapolis and I thought, who'd want something with 'Baltimore' on it? So I kept it."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun