There was this commanding presence, a comfort to teammates and a woeful experience for those across the scrimmage line. Bill Pellington had everything on his side of the field under control. He knocked down anything that moved. The Baltimore Colts never had a better linebacker through 12 years of remarkable service.
Durable. Dutiful. Dependable. Whether he was defending against the pass and dropping back into the coverage zones or meeting a ball carrier head-on, Pellington could do it all. His lateral movement was exceptional, too. He was endowed with speed, strength and courage.
Now the same Pellington has been hit with an opponent he can't handle. It doesn't wear a number or run with a football. It's an awesome foe known as Alzheimer's, a progressive brain disease that leaves victims dependent on others for their care. Imagine, Pellington unable to cope?
This 6-foot-2, 232-pound package of determination and the body of a stevedore has become child-like. His wife, Mickie, a winner if there ever was one, refuses to ask for sympathy nor does she engage in self-pity. Mickie Pellington now has to think and act for her husband.
Bill's teammates, such as John Unitas, Art Donovan, Alex Sandusky and Madison "Buzz" Nutter, began to wonder about him when they went on a trip to attend a National Football League Players Association meeting in Los Angeles four years ago. He seemed unsure of where he was and what they were doing there.
Mickie saw the early signs, too, but wanted to believe it was something else. Maybe a lapse of memory, a touch of amnesia. Then, with Bill not getting any better, she accompanied him on a visit to a specialist and the medical opinion was one she didn't want to hear -- Alzheimer's.
Friends continually tell her of the bravery she has demonstrated through the difficult times. She accepts the kindness with a grace and style that is the mark of a genuine woman who is giving all she can and, when frustrated and discouraged, reaches back for more of the same resolute qualities that draw attention and admiration.
Tonight at the Senator Theatre, a place where Bill and Mickie used to attend movies, a special event will be held in honor of the Pellingtons and the most famous football team Baltimore ever had, the 1958 world championship Colts. A 28-minute film will be shown. "Father's Daze," produced by one of Pellington's two sons, Mark, deals with the stress and complications of trying to communicate with him.
Then, via NFL Films, the other part of the double-feature will afford a brief look back to another time, the Colts' sudden-death win over the New York Giants. It happened 35 years ago, in Yankee Stadium, and is referred to as "the greatest game ever played." Viewers tonight will feel the nostalgia as they view the setting and circumstances once again.
The Colts' Band will be playing and John Ziemann, president of this exceptional musical organization, will dedicate the performance to Pellington, No. 36, the right-side linebacker who played behind two Hall of Fame defenders, tackle Art Donovan and end Gino Marchetti.
Tickets are $35 and some are available at the theater box office. Chuck Thompson, the voice of the Colts, will not be in attendance because he's recovering from hip surgery, but he has taped a message for the audience to hear. Some players from the '58 team will be there, too, as will media members from the era such as Sam Lacy, Joe Croghan, Cameron Snyder, Jack Dawson, Walter Taylor and Vince Bagli.
Instead of its being a time for depression, it will be a celebration. That's what Mickie Pellington wants.
"Bill was happy-go-lucky," she said. "The public knew him as a mighty tough player on the field and a marvelous manager, the perfect host, of the Iron Horse restaurant he operated in Lutherville for almost 20 years.
"We are elated so many of his friends are going to be there. Bill won't be well enough to accompany Mark, his other son, Bato; daughter Stacy and me. What pleases us is that so many individuals from outside the family care for him and what he means to them as an individual."
At age 66, Bill Pellington is trapped, as are 70,000 others across the state of Maryland who suffer from the same problems Alzheimer's brings with it. Appropriately, the proceedings at the theater are called "Memories," a reflection of the good times of the past when Bill Pellington and the Colts were more than a football team, rather a civic treasure.