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Matte's band still binds, 40 years later

As sports relics go, it is nondescript: a 3-inch vinyl wristband covered with tiny writing.

Visitors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame are apt to walk right past it to gawk at the more inviting lore displayed nearby.

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Hey, Dad, check out the size 19 Hall of Fame ring worn by Bronko Nagurski! And look at this square-toed kicking shoe that belonged to some dude named Agajanian - it says here he had one toe on his right foot!

Though a less obtrusive keepsake, the brown wristband represents a seminal moment in the rich history of the Baltimore Colts. Forty years ago, their offense gutted by injuries, the Colts hobbled into the postseason behind a makeshift "instant" quarterback who strapped a crib sheet to his forearm to remember the plays.

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On Dec. 26, 1965, the Colts and Green Bay squared off for the NFL Western Conference championship. The Packers boasted four future Hall of Famers, plus legendary coach Vince Lombardi.

The Colts pinned their hopes - and that wristband - on Tom Matte, 26, a reserve halfback who'd been bumped up to quarterback after late-season injuries to John Unitas (knee) and backup Gary Cuozzo (shoulder).

"I had to learn so much offense that I didn't have time to be nervous," Matte said last week. "I remember that we walked through the plays in the ballroom of our hotel in Green Bay."

Undersized and overmatched, the 6-foot Matte cowed no one. He hadn't taken a snap since college as an option quarterback at Ohio State. His running style earned him the nickname "Garbage Can." His hands were barely large enough to throw a spiral. And he barked signals like a yippy chihuahua.

This was the man the underdog Colts followed onto muddy Lambeau Field the day after Christmas.

They darn near won the game.

Directing a dumbed-down offense laced with rollout passes and quarterback draws, Matte kept the Colts moving; he completed five of 12 passes for 40 yards and rushed for 57 more. But Green Bay triumphed, 13-10, in overtime, thanks to a suspect field goal in regulation that even kicker Don Chandler later said was wide.

The Packers went on to win their first of three straight NFL titles. The outmanned Colts flew home to a groundswell of appreciation, having captured the fancy of the nation.

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"Think about it," said Raymond Berry, the Hall of Fame receiver who played on that team. "We came within a whisker of playing for the world championship, with Tom Matte at quarterback. That's one of the darnedest things to happen in the history of football."

After the game, a disconsolate Matte tore off his wristband and threw it on the locker room floor. It was salvaged by John Steadman, the venerable Baltimore columnist who packed it off to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. There it remains, in the museum's rotunda exhibit that logs the first 100 years of pro football.

"When we first put the Colts' wristband on display, it was seen as an oddity," said Joe Horrigan, Hall of Fame spokesman. "Now that other teams are using them, Matte's is the start of a chronology."

The New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers are among the clubs whose quarterbacks have worn wristbands. But the Colts launched the concept.

Instant quarterback

They didn't have a choice after Unitas and Cuozzo were sidelined on successive weeks in December. When Cuozzo went down in the next-to-last regular-season game, coach Don Shula looked skyward, rolled his eyes and beckoned Matte.

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Instantly, Judy Matte gasped, sat bolt upright in her seat at Memorial Stadium and grasped the nearest arm.

"Oh my gosh, Lorraine - Tom's going in at quarterback! What are we going to do?"

Lorraine Sullivan, whose husband, Dan, was playing offensive tackle, turned to her and said, "There's not much we can do."

Matte ran seven plays, throwing an interception in the Colts' 42-27 loss to Green Bay.

A few snaps was one thing, but the next week the Colts faced an entire game with Matte at quarterback and the playoffs at stake. Their opponent: the Los Angeles Rams, who were riding a three-game winning streak. The Associated Press made the Rams 18-point favorites.

Desperate, Shula needed a plan. First, he streamlined the Colts' attack, paring the offense from several hundred plays to several dozen. Then Shula and his staff scrawled those plays on an index card and placed it beneath the plastic sheath of a wristband they'd fashioned for their new-found quarterback.

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"We simplified everything - a few runs, a few passes and some goal-line plays," Shula said last week.

"Our whole objective was somehow, some way, to make a first down. And then another."

The strategy worked. Relying on a menu of traps and draw plays, the Colts defeated the Rams, 20-17. Matte ran for a game-high 99 yards and attempted two passes, both incomplete. However, his understudy, Ed Brown - a 37-year-old journeyman signed off waivers two days earlier - connected on a 68-yard touchdown pass to John Mackey. And Lou Michaels, the club's left-footed kicker, punched a 50-yard field goal.

Matte held his own, taking most of his cues from the sideline and using the wristband for support.

"We had scratched our complicated offense, but the Rams didn't know that, so Tom would fake a complicated play [that he didn't know] and then run the ball himself," said Shula.

Still, there were glitches. Once, with his team backed up at its 1-yard line, Matte called a running play.

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"Thirty-six trap," he announced in the huddle.

Halfback Lenny Moore tapped Matte on the shoulder.

"If we do that," said Moore, "I'm going to run into the goal post."

After the contest, the Colts presented Matte with the game ball and the Rams fired their coach, Harland Svare.

The victory left Baltimore and Green Bay tied atop the Western Conference, forcing a playoff for the right to advance to the NFL championship. Twice earlier that season, the Packers had turned back the Colts - first with Unitas in the lineup, then with Cuozzo.

The NFL ruled Ed Brown ineligible for the contest. Matte would be on his own.

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His wife assessed Green Bay's rugged defense and offered advice. "Don't do it," Judy Matte told her husband. "They'll make a door Matte out of you."

A nation takes note

Football fans hoped otherwise. The Colts' plight piqued America's interest and spawned a sympathetic curiosity for the beleaguered club and its instant quarterback. Walter Cronkite interviewed Matte on the CBS Evening News. Mail poured in with the mantra: You can do it, you can do it, you can do it.

"I got telegrams from all over the world," said Matte. "Most said stuff like, 'You're proving that someone who doesn't even know what he's doing can go out there and get the job done.'"

Millions, from Baltimore and beyond, must have put themselves in his cleats, Matte said.

"I was like the guy on the street, a no-name coming in as quarterback for the Colts," he said. "People envision themselves playing the John Unitas role. It's the impossible dream - and they lived it through me."

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A missive from a student at Loyola High School read: Good luck, from one third-string quarterback to another.

"When you think about it," said Matte, "that playoff with the Packers was probably the first fantasy football game."

Fantasy met reality early on. Green Bay fumbled on the first play from scrimmage and linebacker Don Shinnick grabbed the ball, racing 25 yards for a touchdown. After 31 seconds, the Colts led 7-0.

Worse for the Packers, the home team lost its quarterback on that play, as Bart Starr was injured trying to tackle Shinnick.

Neither side blinked again until the second quarter, when Matte engineered a 68-yard scoring march, peppering his calls with keepers or runs by fullback Jerry Hill. He threw one pass on the drive, a 10-yarder to Moore that looked more like a basketball jump shot.

Bumps and bruises

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The Packers sought to separate Matte from his wristband, to no avail.

"[Linebacker] Ray Nitschke tried to rip it off my arm after making a tackle," said Matte. "He growled and said, 'I'm going to kill you, Matte. You're no quarterback, and you don't need that wristband.'

"I think he would have bitten it off."

Matte took his lumps, including a knee in the groin by defensive end Willie Davis, who was flagged on the play. The penalty set up a 15-yard field goal by Michaels that put the Colts ahead by 10.

Green Bay then drove to the Colts' 1, where three straight plunges by All-Pro backs Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung gained nothing. At halftime, Baltimore led 10-0.

Matte hadn't starred, but he hadn't messed up, either. A national television audience crossed its collective fingers.

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In the third quarter, Hornung's 1-yard run pulled the Packers within three. Then, with 1:58 remaining in the game, Chandler tried a 22-yard field goal. The kick wobbled toward the uprights. Chandler scuffed the turf in anger. Referee Jim Tunney raised both arms. Tie game.

Nearly 14 minutes into overtime, Chandler won it with a 25-yarder. Green Bay was crowned best in the West.

Forty years later, the loss still sticks in the Colts' craw.

"We got screwed on [the Packers' first] field goal," said guard Alex Sandusky. "I screamed at the refs all the way to the locker room. I put a curse on them and their mothers. I tried to step on their toes. It's a wonder I wasn't reported."

Returning home, the Colts were greeted at Friendship Airport by a throng of 5,000 who cheered the losers and lifted Matte on their shoulders, passing him overhead through the crowd.

"Those games put Tom Matte on the map," said Cuozzo.

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The Colts had one game left: The Playoff Bowl, a consolation game between the two conference runners-up. A crowd of 65,000 packed Miami's Orange Bowl to see the Colts play Dallas, a four-point favorite.

The Cowboys had Tom Landry on the sidelines, Don Meredith at quarterback and "Bullet" Bob Hayes, the world's fastest human.

The Colts romped, 35-3.

Beforehand, Shula called the defensive players aside and told them, "I'm going to put a lot of pressure on you guys. I'm going to let Matte throw the ball, and I don't know what will happen."

Matte pitched touchdowns of 15 and 20 yards to Jimmy Orr and was named the game's Most Valuable Player. All told, he completed seven of 18 passes for 165 yards. Meredith passed for 159.

His efforts earned accolades for Matte. In January 1966, he was sent on an overseas tour of U.S. Army bases in Europe and Great Britain, with a Colts highlight film, to inspire the troops, One month later, the Maryland State Senate adopted a resolution congratulating Matte "for outstanding performances as substitute quarterback for the Baltimore Colts."

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He returned to halfback, made the Pro Bowl twice and played out his career with the Colts. In 1969, Matte led the NFL with 909 yards rushing. But he never played quarterback in a regular-season game again.

Now a radio analyst for the Ravens, Matte said he has never shaken the "instant quarterback" tag:

"I'll meet people who can't remember my name but who'll say, 'You're the guy with the wristband!'" he said.

Matte still has the wristband he wore in the Playoff Bowl. He keeps it at home in Glen Arm, in a darkened corner of his den.

"I don't want the light to fade the writing on it," he said.

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.



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