Finding my Colts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

All this reminiscing about the Baltimore Colts started when a collection of business folks and political figures finally decided to tear down Memorial Stadium. I kept thinking back to my days as a Colts ballboy and training camp assistant. Then I decided to make a farewell visit to the long-vacant stadium.

On a brisk morning in late January, I spent half an hour in the building that once felt to me like a shrine. I walked alone through the old Colts locker room and slowly made my way through the dark, narrow tunnel leading out to what used to be the field.

More than 17 years had passed since I last made this walk with the Colts. Yet I could still vividly imagine the loud click-clacking of cleats striking the concrete floor in that tunnel. It was such a defining sound of my youth. My Colts were the post-John Unitas teams of the final decade in Baltimore - 1974 through 1983 - before the infamous departure to Indianapolis.

My Colts were both mighty and feeble: from the Bert Jones-led teams that won three straight division titles starting in 1975 to the sorry squads that collected a grand total of nine victories during their final three seasons. Win or lose, though, they were my Colts.

People of a certain age in Baltimore will forever cherish their memories of the great Unitas years above all else. Others are now thinking only of the high-flying Ravens. But those Colts from the final decade in Baltimore - my Colts - those will always be the football players who mean the most to me.

Walking around the stadium now - as a 38-year-old free-lance writer - I was flooded with memories.

This is where I used to play catch with Bert Jones on the sideline.

There is that section in the upper deck where the plane crashed after the 1976 playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This is where Bruce Laird made that big interception against the Oakland Raiders in that double-overtime playoff game in 1977.

More than anything else, though, I kept thinking about all the players with whom I had worked and traveled and even shared a dormitory with during training camps. So many of them had taken the time to care about me, to make me feel like part of the team, to help me grow from boy to man.

I had kept in touch through the years - at least intermittently - with about a dozen former Colts. But now I started wondering: What about the rest of them from that final decade in Baltimore? Where were they now and what were they doing with their lives? What were their most enduring memories from being with the Colts?

As I walked out of Memorial Stadium for the last time, the sun just peeking over the closed end of the upper deck, kissing a "field" that was now nothing more than gravel and clumps of weeds and patches of ice, I knew exactly how I wanted to spend my afternoon.

I wanted to start looking for my Colts.

Part of it was just plain curiosity. But there was something more: I did not want to mourn a structure made of concrete and brick. I wanted to celebrate a collection of gifted athletes who once filled the place and gave it life.

During those last 10 years in Baltimore, a total of 212 men played for the Colts. I ended up finding 185 of them. A vast majority had moved out of the area long ago. Most had stayed in touch with only one or two teammates - if that. But they still spoke fondly of friendships forged and had favorite stories that will last a lifetime.

With the piece-by-piece dismantling of Memorial Stadium coming to a close, here are some of the memories my Colts shared with me.

Dec. 14, 1975

Time was running out in overtime against the Miami Dolphins. The Colts were on the brink of completing the greatest single-season turnaround in NFL history: from an ugly 2-12 record in 1974 to an amazing 10-4 record and the AFC East Division title in 1975.

But first Toni Linhart would have to make a 31-yard field goal through a dense fog that only heightened the intensity.

The football sailed straight through the uprights at the closed end of Memorial Stadium for a 10-7 victory. Then came the craziness.

"I remember all the players running out on the field," said Linhart, now president of Baltimore-based Alternative Mail Delivery. "And I was trying to hide from some of them. I mean, some of those big guys, like Mike Barnes and Joe Ehrmann, you really don't want to be hugged by them at a time like that. They could hurt you."

Sept. 6, 1976

The entire Colts organization was in chaos. Head coach Ted Marchibroda, reigning NFL Coach of the Year, had just resigned after owner Robert Irsay first berated him in front of the team and then failed to back him in a power struggle with general manager Joe Thomas.

And now - only six days before the season opener - the players were threatening to strike in support of Marchibroda.

"It was one of the most bizarre events I've ever been involved in," Bert Jones said. "But I also think this was when we really grew up together as a team."

Jones called NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to enlist his help in resolving the situation. The star quarterback took control of an emotion-filled team meeting. And he emerged as team spokesman.

"The key to the whole situation, I thought, was that we speak with a united voice," Jones said.

In passionate remarks to reporters, he blasted team management and stressed that any success the Colts had experienced was a direct result of everything Marchibroda had taught them.

After a flurry of private meetings, Marchibroda was back as coach the very next day. The Colts went on to defeat the New England Patriots in that season opener and ultimately succeeded in defending their division title.

Jones was then named the NFL's Most Valuable Player. Now, he is running a lumber business in his hometown of Ruston, La.

Sept. 19, 1976

Roger Carr had already locked up a starting job at wide receiver during his first two seasons with the Colts. But he still wondered just how good he could be.

Now he would wonder no more.

In the home opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, a 28-27 victory for the Colts, Carr scored three touchdowns while making a total of six catches for 198 yards.

"It was the most exciting day for me," said Carr, now an athletic administrator at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. "There's just a time that you finally know you belong. I was never the same after that. There was always a certain confidence level after that game."

Carr ended the season with 11 touchdowns and led the league in receiving yardage.

"I got a chance to live a dream," Carr said. "Not only did I get to play in the National Football League, but I got a chance to be one of the best for a period of time. Not that I was a great star. But for a period of time, I felt like I could play with anyone."

Nov. 20, 1977

The play was called "25 hunch." Running back Lydell Mitchell would take a handoff and run through the right side of the line. Mitchell ran it often enough to call it his "bread-and-butter" play.

This time, though, it was one for the record books. Early in a 33-12 home victory over the New York Jets, Mitchell ran for 7 yards to surpass Hall of Famer Lenny Moore's 5,174 yards as the leading rusher in Colts history.

Play was temporarily stopped so that Moore could walk onto the field and present Mitchell with the record-breaking football.

"Probably my biggest and most memorable moment in Memorial Stadium, just because of who he was," Mitchell said. "I give Lenny all the respect in the world. Anytime my name can be mentioned with his is really remarkable."

Mitchell - with 5,487 yards - still holds the Colts' career rushing record. He is now president of Parks Sausage Co. in Baltimore.

Sept. 18, 1978

Playing the heavily favored New England Patriots on the road, running back Joe Washington erupted in the pouring rain with one of the most spectacular individual performances in the history of "Monday Night Football."

In the fourth quarter alone, he threw a 54-yard touchdown pass on a halfback-option play, caught a 23-yard touchdown pass and returned a kickoff 90 yards for the winning touchdown with just 1:18 remaining. Final score: Colts 34, Patriots 27.

Washington also ran right out of his uniform - literally - that night. It was the first time he had ever worn a tearaway jersey. And he went through several of them.

"They worked great for a small guy like me," Washington said. "With my running style" - always dodging and darting - "I was very seldom tackled head on. But guys were so strong that they could usually just grab my jersey and I was not going anywhere."

The tearaway jerseys made it much more difficult to gain control of Washington with just one hand. Soon after all that exposure on national television, though, the tear-aways were banned by the NFL .

"I was crushed," Washington said. "I guarantee that cost me 200, 300 yards a year."

Even without those jerseys, Washington was still one of the most elusive running backs in the league and later represented the Colts in the Pro Bowl. Now he is a marketing and financial adviser with First Union Securities in Baltimore.

Dec. 14, 1978

Billy Ehrmann had been hospitalized for five months in his battle against a wicked form of cancer called aplastic anemia. Now, the 19-year-old brother of defensive tackle Joe Ehrmann - soulful leader of the powerful defensive line known as the "Sack Pack" - was nearing the end of his fight. Joe was taking Billy out of the hospital so he could spend whatever time was left at home.

But first the Ehrmann brothers made one last stop on their way from Johns Hopkins Hospital to Joe's house in Cockeysville. The Colts, most of whom knew Billy before he got sick, were preparing for practice at Memorial Stadium. As part of his final journey, Billy wanted to be with them one more time.

"I remember some of the guys coming out because Billy couldn't walk and he had to be lifted out of the car and carried into the stadium, into the locker room," Joe Ehrmann said. "Once he was in there, the guys just came around him, asked how he was doing and feeling, kind of renewed those relationships with him.

"Then Billy wanted to go into the whirlpool. And they lifted him in. I'm pretty sure it was Ken Mendenhall and Lyle Blackwood who did that. And I know the whirlpool was very therapeutic for him - as well as just being in that locker room again."

The visit was also very meaningful for Joe, now a pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium and co-founder of a youth program called "Building Men for Others."

"I just remember how kind everybody was to my brother," he said. "And that's a difficult situation for football players, for anyone. I think most people don't know what to do with someone who is dying, how to interface, and I just remember them being very positive - and the coaches, as well."

Two days later, surrounded by love and resting peacefully at the home of his big brother, Billy Ehrmann took his final breath.

Oct. 21, 1979

Lee Gross was a backup center best known for playing on special teams. It was only seconds before the opening kickoff against the Bills in Buffalo - "just fixing to run out on the field," Gross recalls - when someone approached him on the sideline to tell him what he had missed while in the locker room.

"I don't remember who it was, one of the equipment guys or trainers, but he came over and told me that they had just announced over the P.A. system that my wife had just given birth to a little boy," Gross said. "Needless to say, my adrenalin was pumping to the max at that point."

How does a player maintain his concentration when he's just learned he has a new baby and now must bang heads on a football field?

"You don't," said Gross, who now lives in Dothan, Ala., where he is vice president of a company that paints stripes on highways. "But all I had to do was keep from getting offsides and run - and then hit somebody. It probably would have been a little different if I had to think about something too much."

Now 21, "little" Gabriel Jordan Gross is an All-American baseball player at Auburn University. In his bedroom rests a Baltimore Colts game ball from the day he was born.

Oct. 28, 1979

The Colts were in last place in their division. The New England Patriots were in first.

But the underdogs had a secret weapon: linebacker Steve Zabel, playing with the Colts after four years with the Patriots, knew both their defensive tendencies and their signals for calling coverages.

Zabel spent much of the afternoon stealing signals from the opposite sideline and relaying the information to quarterback Bert Jones.

"When you know ahead of time what the defense is, it's pretty easy to beat it," Zabel said.

Ironically, it was one of his best friends, Patriots linebacker Steve Nelson, who was repeatedly victimized on pass plays that worked primarily because the Colts knew what was coming.

Zabel is entirely unrepentant.

"Hey, the Patriots got rid of me," he said. "I was just trying to earn my money and help my new team."

The Colts walked out of Memorial Stadium with a 31-26 victory. Now living in Edmond, Okla., Zabel concentrates on a different form of communication. He is vice president of business development for a broadband wireless company.

July 24, 1983

Holden Smith was not exactly a marquee player. In his only season with the Colts, 1982, the wide receiver made just two catches. But Smith will long be remembered for one of the most remarkable moves in Colts history.

Head coach Frank Kush first embarrassed and angered Smith by cutting him right on the practice field during training camp at Goucher College.

Smith then proceeded to the team dining room. He called out to get everyone's attention and calmly dumped a large glass of root beer over Kush's head.

"I guess it was kind of my claim to fame," said Smith, still exhibiting his freedom of expression as an artist in Nice, France.

Dec. 18, 1983

It was the last game of the season. The Colts had lost five games in a row. The Houston Oilers had won just two all year. Only 20,418 fans bothered to show up at Memorial Stadium.

With 1:56 left and the Colts leading by a field goal, tight end Pat Beach caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Pagel. It was an insignificant score in a meaningless game - or so it seemed at the time.

Then the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis. Beach thereby became a permanent figure in football history: last man to score a touchdown for the Baltimore Colts.

"That will make someone a million bucks someday on 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' " said Beach, who now lives in Oak Harbor, Wash., where he owns a dive shop. "It's an honor for me to be part of the history of the Baltimore Colts, even if it's a small footnote, which is basically what it is."

It is also a painting. Someone once gave Beach two photos from that touchdown: one of him making the catch, one of him jumping into the air and spiking the ball. Beach's father made a painting of the end-zone celebration.

"I have it up on the wall in my house, in the family room," Beach said. "I walk by that picture all the time, and I look at it, and it's just that little bit of past glory that I get to relive."

That is one way to view that scene on canvas: a glorious gladiator declaring victory. But there is another. That painting also is a constant reminder that nothing lasts forever.

Where are they?

Former Colts ballboy and training camp assistant Jeffrey Marx tracked down 185 of the 212 men who played for the Colts during their final decade at Memorial Stadium. The accompanying article lists the whereabouts of those whose memories are described. Here is an update on some other players from that era. A list of every Colt contacted is available on The Sun's Web site. Go to www.sunspot.net/sports.

Randy Burke (WR) (1978-81), Lexington, Ky. Marketing sales consultant for a TV station.

Raymond Chester (TE) (1974-77), Oakland, Calif. Owner of a golf course management company.

Fred Cook (DE) (1974-80), Pascagoula, Miss. Founder and director of a nonprofit group working with at-risk youth.

Mike Curtis (LB) (1974-75), Potomac. Operating partner of a company that develops and sells apartment buildings.

Curtis Dickey (RB) (1980-83), Arlington, Texas. Director of health and physical education at a boys and girls club.

John Dutton (DE) (1974-78), Plano, Texas. Owns a sign company.

Nesby Glasgow (DB) (1979-83), Kirkland, Wash. Director of player programs for the Seattle Seahawks.

Chris Hinton (G/T) (1983), Roswell, Ga. Owns a wine store.

Barry Krauss (LB) (1979-83), Indianapolis. Motivational speaker and director of talent development for a sports marketing company.

George Kunz (T) (1975-77, 1980), Las Vegas. McDonald's owner/operator.

Bruce Laird (DB) (1974-81), Baltimore. Regional sales representative for a real estate servicing company.

Don McCauley (RB) (1974-81), Huntington Bay, N.Y. Senior vice president of a digital sports photography network.

Ken Mendenhall (C) (1974-80), Edmond, Okla. Area director for Search Ministries.

Ray Oldham (S) (1974-77), Signal Mountain, Tenn. President of a dry cleaning and laundry franchising company.

Herb Orvis (DT) (1979-81), Tequesta, Fla. Citrus grove operator.

Mike Pagel (QB) (1982-83), Berea, Ohio. Project manager for the local telephone company.

Sanders Shiver (LB) (1976-83), Bowie. Director of employment training and family services coordinator for an adult literacy program.

David Shula (WR) (1981), Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Head of restaurant firm owned by father, former NFL coach Don Shula.

Donnell Thompson (DE), (1981-83) Chapel Hill, N.C. Chairman,CEO of a hotel management firm.

Stan White (LB) (1974-79), Cockeysville. Lawyer and host of a sports radio talk show.

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