Old hand provides lift to his fallen grandson

One is 76, with a wide grin, a storied past and mitts that caused mayhem in football's days of yore.

The other is 21, with the same smile, a promising present and hands that helped make him a high school All-American.


Gino Marchetti, the former Baltimore Colt, and grandson Keith Carter also share a passion for motorcycles, something that has greatly complicated the life of the UCLA tight end. A crash in April aboard his Kawasaki left Carter with a fractured right hip and took him off the Bruins' roster this season.

Eight months and two surgeries later, Carter continues to heal from a mishap that could have crippled him for life. Of those he has leaned on, none has proved a greater crutch than Marchetti, the NFL Hall of Fame defensive end who is known to have rattled a few bones - both his own and those of Colts' opponents.


A broken ankle felled Marchetti late in the 1958 NFL championship game, a 23-17 sudden-death victory over the New York Giants. "Oh, did it hurt," he recalled. "If I hadn't been a man, I'd have cried."

Marchetti was carried to the locker room, unaware of the historic outcome. "I lay on the training table forever, with no TV, no radio," he said. "Then [linebacker] Bill Pellington charged in and yelled, 'We're the champs!'

"My ankle felt much better then."

He has tried to walk his grandson through his comeback.

"The toughest part for Keith will be to get over [the injury] mentally," Marchetti said from his home in West Chester, Pa. "For awhile, every time I cut back on that ankle to make a tackle, my mind flashed back to that championship game. You've got to keep going and make yourself play through it."

A watchful eye

Carter, who grew up in nearby Downingtown, plans to follow the advice of Marchetti, whom he calls Nonno (Italian for grandfather).

"From the beginning, he taught me to play with heart, and to play through pain," said the 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end. "He said, 'Put your all into it. You don't play for the money, or to dance in the end zone when you score. You play because you respect The Game.'


"He instilled good values in me. I want to beat this so Nonno will come back out and watch me play again."

Of Marchetti's 22 grandchildren, only Carter plays football. They've been pals from the start. Nonno taught him how to throw a spiral, swim, ride a bike and fish. They shared hot dogs at Phillies games and rode Marchetti's motorcycle through the quiet streets of Chester County, 6-year-old Carter steering the Harley and juicing the throttle amid howls of laughter.

On Thanksgiving, the Marchetti clan gathered at Nonno's, polished off a turkey and played football on the lawn with their patriarch, who played in 10 Pro Bowls and led the Colts to two NFL championships. In 1994, Marchetti was named to the NFL's 75th anniversary team.

He attended every one of his grandson's high school games, determined to avoid being the celebrity in the stands.

"I tried to be low-key," Marchetti said. "When you follow in someone's footsteps, it can be hard."

At Downingtown High, where Carter starred as a two-way end, most folks knew the tall, gray-haired fellow in the crowd simply as "Keith's grandpop."


"It wasn't until Keith was in high school that anyone knew who my dad was," said his mother, Gina Burgess. "Keith wanted to be tough in his own right."

Following pattern

Even now, at UCLA, where he wears the family jersey number (89), Carter said few know him as Marchetti's kin. "Nonno has always been at my side, but without expectations," the sophomore said. "I never felt I had to impress my grandfather - though, in the back of my head, I wanted to make him proud."

Win or lose, Marchetti ran onto the field after every game to shake hands with players and give his grandson a hug.

"They are so much alike," Burgess said of her father and son. "They run onto the field the same way. They both have those big, old 'Marchetti hands.'

"Keith has always had a habit of flicking his fingers, just before the ball is snapped. Two years ago, we found some old 8mm film of my dad, doing the same thing."


When college beckoned, Marchetti accompanied his grandson on recruiting trips to Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Purdue.

"Dad loved to walk through [each school's] Hall of Fame and point out the people he'd played with," said Burgess. "He stayed in the background; it was always Keith's party."

Marchetti spoke his mind, when asked.

Driving home from a trip to Notre Dame, Carter said, "What do you think?"

"Keith, you've got to make up your own mind," Marchetti said. "But if I'd had the opportunity to go to Notre Dame, I'd have crawled there on my hands and knees."

Marchetti, raised in the factory town of Antioch, Calif., played football at the University of San Francisco.


Carter ignored the advice and picked a California school himself. At UCLA, he bonded with recruiting coach Gary Bernardi, who admired Carter's retro work ethic.

"We coach a team sport in a selfish world, and it's hard to find kids who'll just shut up and play," Bernardi said.

"I respected Keith's toughness. I knew he was a guy [whom] you could go to war with. It's probably a representation of his grandfather."

Pushing to come back

Throughout therapy for his injury, Carter has weighed the words of Marchetti, who knows a bit about pain. A dislocated shoulder suffered in a game against Green Bay in 1955 should have sidelined him for four months. Marchetti returned in three weeks.

A year later, he underwent an emergency appendectomy and missed one game. Doctors advised a longer recovery, but Marchetti refused.


"For nine months afterward, I felt really bad," he said. "I wound up with a spastic colon. But if I had it to do over, I'd have done the same thing."

Marchetti played 13 years with the Colts, retiring in 1966.

"Nonno told me the biggest problem I'll have is thinking that I'll hurt my hip again [on the field], when actually it'll be stronger than the [left] one," Carter said. "He said, 'Don't favor it. Be comfortable, knowing that you're healthy enough to play.' "

Carter's return has been slow and arduous. A redshirt sophomore, he started three games in 2002 and was slated for more this year until his motorcycle fishtailed on a California Interstate.

Marchetti's daughter called Gino with the news. "Dad tried to be tough," she said. "But I heard him crying."

Carter dived into his rehab.


"He stayed here all summer and busted his [rear]," Bernardi said. "For such a violent injury, Keith never took it laying down."

Last month, however, Carter's condition worsened. He underwent a second surgery as doctors drilled a hole in the top of his femur to encourage blood flow there.

Home for Thanksgiving, he greeted his family on crutches.

"We'll know in six months if the operation worked," he said. "We're sitting tight and praying- but I have no doubt it'll be OK."

If bloodlines count, Carter will suit up again. On Wednesday, he told his grandfather that he expects to play out his career at UCLA, at the risk of hip replacement surgery. And Marchetti thought: It's me and my appendix again.

"I loved the game, and Keith does, too," he said. "If anyone can come back from this, it's him. He's young and strong and determined.


"The rest is in God's hands."