Catching up with ... Don Nottingham

Before there were NFL players nicknamed The Bus and The Fridge, there was The Human Bowling Ball. That handle fit Don Nottingham, the Baltimore Colts' stubby fullback, just fine. At 5-9 and 220 pounds, and with a low-slung center of gravity, Nottingham excelled at hammering would-be tacklers and knocking the pins out from under them.

He ran the ball the same way, burrowing past linemen who'd swipe at him, to no avail. In 2-1/2 seasons with the Colts (1971-73), Nottingham rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns, while averaging 4 yards a carry.

Not bad for a guy who was the next-to-last one taken in the 442-player college draft.

"The best way to tackle Don is to hit him low — around the neck," teammate Ray May once said.
The Colts, then reigning Super Bowl champs, didn't know what to make of the odd-shaped rookie from Kent State. Size aside, Nottingham stood out in training camp for his high-pitched voice, feet as wide as snowshoes and a fearsome love of contact.

"He'll hit anything standing, and knock it down," former Colts coach Don Shula once said.

Even Life Magazine took note, interviewing Nottingham in 1971.

Nottingham beat the odds, played seven years and earned a Super Bowl ring (size 15) with the Miami Dolphins that he always wears.

"By all standards, my career was seven years longer than it was supposed to be," said Nottingham, 62, of Summerfield, Fla. "I had no speed, no moves and absolutely no talent. I wasn't supposed to be in camp more than a week. But the Colts gave me a chance, and I took a stab at it.

"John Unitas once told me, 'I never lost a football game, I just ran out of time.' I kind of felt the same way. It wasn't how many times you knocked me down, but how many times I got up."

It was May, the Colts' linebacker, who gave the rookie his nickname. At practice, after Nottingham had flattened him on three straight power plays, May screamed, "You can't get lower than no damn bowling ball!"

Nottingham laughed, recalling the day.

"Basically, I was a guard who didn't have enough height," he said. "When you have leverage, you win."

Not always.

"Once, I tried to take out Bubba Smith," Nottingham said of the Colts' All-Pro defensive end. "I hit him — and I wound up five yards back."

Smith glowered over him.

"Welcome to the NFL, rookie," he said.

That was 40 years, three kids and two grandchildren ago. An insurance agent now, Nottingham has recovered from quintuple bypass surgery ("I call it a triple-double"), watches his diet and said his goal is to be "the longest-living Nottingham in the world."

If they put a bowling ball on his gravestone, he wouldn't be surprised.

"I'd rather have a nickname like 'Stud,' but you take what you can get," he said.

He cannot forget his first Colts game, though he'd like to. Leading New York, 22-0, the Colts sent him in with the ball resting on the Jets' 2-yard-line. Seconds later, a roar went up as Unitas trotted onto the field for the first time since suffering a foot injury in preseason.

Nottingham was overwhelmed.

"There I am, standing in the huddle with God," he said. "When he calls for a fullback plunge, I'm thinking, 'How great is this?'

"Then, at the line of scrimmage, John checks off, to an off-tackle play, which means Don McCauley will run the ball. But I'm so excited, it doesn't register. So at the snap, I run straight ahead, like I'm getting the ball. I hit (Unitas) in the ribs and knock him over the pile, three yards deep in the end zone.

"I look up and see 60,000 people in the stands, 21 football players and 7 officials all standing there, frozen. Meanwhile, the ball is sitting on the 5-yard line. So I pick it up and carry it to the 1.

"Now, the Colts call timeout to get the rookie out of the game. Coach (Don) McCafferty grabs my arm and screams, 'What happened?'

" 'John checked off,' " I said. " 'And I didn't.' "

"Mac starts laughing. What a dumbo I was. I sweated out the whole weekend, thinking the team would cut me. But the coaches didn't care if you made a mistake, as long as you did it full blast and didn't make it over and over again."

From then on, Nottingham said, every time Unitas checked off in a game, he'd turn to the rookie and ask, "You got it?"

In 1973, Colts coach Howard Schnellenberger proclaimed Nottingham "the best blocking back in football." Soon after, he was traded to Miami for another running back, Hubert Ginn, who lasted half of a season. The other guy? He helped the Dolphins win it all that year.

Nottingham resides in Florida, but Baltimore has a piece of his heart. There's a brick from Memorial Stadium on the desk in his office, and the game ball from the Colts' 20-3 playoff victory over the Cleveland Browns in 1971, a contest in which Nottingham rushed for 92 yards and two touchdowns. He has never wiped the mud from that ball.

"Nothing I've ever done in life beats being on the football field," he said. "Every down that you get to play is a gift, so you play your heart out. And if things aren't going well, just bear down and hit a little harder, and things will get better.

"That works in football, but it has never worked for me in golf. Obviously, I'm not very good at that."