Dick Szymanski played 13 seasons for the Colts and helped them reach the top. Then he joined the front office, and for 13 more seasons sought to do the same.
For parts of four decades, Szymanski served the Colts — first, as a Pro Bowl center and linebacker, and then as a scout, coach and general manager — for a tenure unequaled in Baltimore football lore.
“I was glad to do it,” said Szymanski, 84. “I wouldn't have had it any other way.”
A savage tackler, he helped the Colts win three NFL championships (1958, 1959 and 1968). Once, in a victory over the San Francisco 49ers in 1959, coach Weeb Ewbank hollered at Szymanski for being penalized for unnecessary roughness.
“Why, Coach,” Szymanski replied, “it says right in our [playbook], made up by you, that one of the unpardonable sins is to hit no one.”
A week later, against the Los Angeles Rams, he returned an interception for a touchdown as the Colts clinched the Western Conference title.
“I could play both offense and defense. That's why I made the team,” Szymanski said. “That, and the fact the coaches said I had a nose for the ball. But I liked defense better. I'd rather hit than get hit.”
A second-round draft pick in 1955 out of Notre Dame (and the 16th selection overall), he started at center as a rookie. In the opener, on the game's second play, he carved a hole in the line that sprang fullback Alan Ameche for a 79-yard touchdown run in a win over the Chicago Bears.
Szymanski recalled otherwise.
“I think [Ameche] made a hole for himself and ran over me,” he said.
Back then, Szymanski was headstrong and cocky, with the muscle to back it up. Arriving at training camp for the first time, he was greeted by a beefy veteran.
“Hello, I'm Artie Donovan, No. 70,” the lineman said.
“Yeah, you're All-Pro, and who cares?” Szymanski shot back. “Because you guys were getting beat, 48-0, last year and we're going to show you how to win.”
Drafted into the Army in 1956, he returned a year later without a hitch. Handed a playbook, he told Ewbank, “I think I could sit down and write most of the plays from memory, Coach.”
In 1959, he led all NFL middle linebackers with five interceptions. The linebacking corps of Szymanski, Don Shinnick and Bill Pellington wreaked havoc as the Colts repeated as world champs.
“We were a good trio,” Szymanski said. “Pellington was rough, tough and mean. A wide receiver who got close to him would get clotheslined, which was then a legal hit.”
In August 1964, Szymanski married. As a wedding gift, The Baltimore Sun reported, “Coach Don Shula told ‘Peaches' (Szymanski's nickname) that he would not have to show up at the Westminster training camp until tomorrow afternoon.”
A three-time Pro Bowler, he retired in 1969, following the Colts' loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, and became a scout.
“How lucky can I get?” he said then. “I'm in a sport I love and a town I love.”
Eventually, in 1977, he rose to general manager, a job he held until forced to resign in 1982 by Robert Irsay, the Colts' tempestuous owner. Two years later, the team moved to Indianapolis.
Nowadays, Szymanski and Patricia, his wife of 52 years, live in Lake Forest, Fla. A great-grandfather, he has a mop of gray hair but still gets around.
“How many broken bones have I had? Don't ask,” he said. “Despite all of the football injuries, I can walk. Must be my genes. What depresses me more than anything is when I get a phone call, or read in the paper that one of my teammates has passed away. You'd think you'd get over it, but you don't.”
He ticked off the names of other surviving starters from the Colts' first championship team in 1958. Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry and Ordell Braase. Andy Nelson, Alex Sandusky and Ray Brown. Plus Gino Marchetti, who turns 91 on Jan. 2.
“There aren't many left, but I'll tell you what — they were tough guys,” Szymanski said. “I know I wouldn't want to have played against us.”