Among tough, talented, Rechichar was a natural

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WEST NEWTON, Pa. -- Standing under the motel marquee, obviously waiting for a friend to arrive, was this man in a western hat, green jacket and blue jeans, lighting a cigarette. He looked as if he had hurried in from herding sheep or else stepped off a movie set. But, no, this was a scene from real life and the same character was still playing himself.

It was a chance to again see Bert Rechichar, who always looked and talked tough and, most assuredly, played the same way. He once told Howard "Hopalong" Cassady, a Heisman Trophy winner, after tackling him hard along the sidelines, "Listen, Cassady, this ain't Ohio State. This is the National Football League and we tear out your eyeballs."

Rechichar, on the field, had a somewhat demonstrative way of expressing himself. It was an attempt to intimidate opposing players or at least give them something to think about. "You come over here," he'd shout at Harlon Hill or Bob Boyd, "and I'm going to rack you so hard you're going to think you got hit with a pickax."

Ball carriers, when they went down in a pile, rarely knew it was Rechichar on top of them who was twisting their heads the way he might unscrew the cap on a soda bottle. Just providing a physical annoyance, you might say. Pro football, in his era, when there were only 12 teams and roster limits of 33 players, attracted a different breed -- and, by necessity, they were required to bring more ability with them.

This visit with an old Baltimore Colts hero led to a table in the motel dining room. There, he turned and hollered to the hostess: "Hey, Sapphire, bring me an ashtray." The woman didn't like the tone of his voice or the name he used to get her attention, but she responded. Bert Rechichar always got results.

He was 6 feet 1, 208 pounds and all-out physical, a safety who also kicked field goals. His first attempt at a field goal, in 1953, was the kind of a scenario that wound up in "Believe It Or Not," the longtime syndicated feature of Robert Ripley. Never before had Rechichar lined up to try a field goal, but he kicked the ball 56 yards, on a line, to erase a record set 19 years before by Glenn Presnell of the Detroit Lions.

It was four seconds until the half, in a game against the Chicago Bears, when Rechichar headed for the locker room as Buck McPhail prepared to try a desperation kick. Quickly, an assistant coach of the Colts, one Otis Douglas, had a second thought and hollered for Rechichar, who turned around to say, "What the hell you want?"

So Rechichar trotted on, not actually knowing how far he would be kicking, and McPhail came off. Bert told holder Tom Keane: "Get that ball down because I got to go to the bathroom." Then he drove the kick, on his initial try, clear over the backline from 56 yards.

The then-record kick made Rechichar an instant celebrity. And he managed to do it while wearing a regular, soft-toed football shoe, not the box-type of kicking boot he would later use, like on the afternoon in 1957 when he hit four field goals -- from 52, 44, 42 and 41 yards -- in the Pro Bowl and was voted the game's Most Valuable Player.

As a rookie, he was drafted No. 1 by the Cleveland Browns and a year later dealt to the Colts in a 10-for-five trade that also involved Don Shula, Carl Taseff and Art Spinney coming to Baltimore. "Paul Brown was a great coach," Rechichar said.

"He kept his distance from the players. He was stern and demanding. I remember Otto Graham once changed a play Brown sent in the game. At the meeting, as we reviewed the film, Brown told him in front of all of us: 'When this team is run from two sources, that's the time we crumble; you understand that, Otto?' "

Rechichar, of Slovak descent, was the youngest of 10 children in Belle Vernon, Pa., where his father was murdered by a man who took his pay envelope, and a brother, Frank, was killed in the mines. Bert was such an outstanding halfback, even though born without vision in his left eye, that he played both ways during the two-platoon era at a then "football factory" known as the University of Tennessee.

"I lost 27 pounds in the Sugar Bowl against Maryland. I went back to the hotel, fell across the bed and drank almost a case of 7-Up. We were the No. 1 team when Maryland beat us. What happened is, the previous spring, Maryland coach Jim Tatum, who was a good friend of our coach, General Bob Neyland, spent time watching us practice. He knew our system like he knew his own.

"I told the general at halftime against Maryland we ought to set our line unbalanced to the left instead of to the right because we were running into their strength. I guess the general wasn't used to suggestions from enlisted men because we didn't change a thing. Maryland was good. Jack Scarbath and Bob Ward were something special."

Rechichar spent seven of his 10 pro years in Baltimore and was a part of two championship teams. But he came into disfavor with the head coach, Weeb Ewbank. "Yeah, and I remember one year we were in Santa Barbara, Calif., getting ready to play the Los Angeles Rams, and ol' Weeb begged me to talk to Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner, to keep him from getting fired. Then he paid me back by getting rid of me.

"Weeb and Don Kellett, the general manager, said they were trading me to the Chicago Cardinals because I was associating with undesirables [bookmakers]. I went there, stayed a week and went right to the top. I called commissioner Bert Bell and said I wasn't happy playing for an undesirable owner, Walter Wolfner. So he sent me back to the Colts. In the first practice, the players cheered when I came down the hill at Westminster.

"On the first play, I got a wink from John Unitas. I knew he was throwing to Raymond Berry. I picked it off and ran through the whole offense. Weeb didn't like any of that, especially when the players applauded again. I liked Unitas. I call him 'Peas.' He was never a prima donna. He was great at checking off. Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw were no match for him. I told Weeb, after Unitas came to us, he had the best quarterback on the bench and he ought to put him in the game."

Rechichar remembers the 1958 championship and said, "I never saw happier people. Do me a favor. Say hello to Bucky Levin, my main man; Bill Neill; Dr. Ed McDonnell; Doug Eggers; Jim Mutscheller; Lloyd Colteryahn; Lenny Moore; Buzz Nutter; Art Donovan, who I guess is still wearing that same T-shirt he had on in 1953; Andy Nelson and the rest of 'em. I remember ol' Andy when we went to New York and he looked up at all the lights. Just a kid from the country. He said: 'I'd sure hate to pay that electric bill.' "

A playful rogue, even at 67 years old, Rechichar is beloved and unforgettable. He's retired but still works part time for the Donegal Construction Co., out of Latrobe, Pa. He's a throwback who once put his philosophy into words: "The hell with all but six; keep them for pallbearers and walk quietly around the dead."

In a trip through life, you only meet one Bert Rechichar.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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