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Richard Frank ‘Dick’ Szymanski, former Baltimore Colts player who won 3 NFL titles and served as general manager, dies at 89

As a child, Michael Szymanski was a ball boy and then an equipment assistant for the Baltimore Colts, rubbing elbows with some of the city’s most admired figures. Even then, he recognized that his enviable access was possible through his father, Richard Frank “Dick” Szymanski, a Colts linebacker and center.

“We did a lot of things, and he took me a lot of places that most kids would never have a chance to do,” Mr. Szymanski said of his father. “He was my mentor. I looked up to him.”

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Mr. Szymanski, who played a crucial role in the Colts capturing NFL championships in 1958, 1959 and 1968, and then served as the franchise’s general manager, died of dementia Thursday at his home in Sanford, Florida. He had celebrated his 89th birthday Oct. 7.

Ernie Accorsi, a former general manager for the Colts, Cleveland Browns and New York Giants who was Mr. Szymanski’s assistant general manager during the latter’s tenure as general manager from 1977 to 1982, pointed out that Mr. Szymanski also served the organization as a scout and an offensive line coach.

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“So there wasn’t anything that he didn’t do in pro football,” Mr. Accorsi said. “He touched every base. He had a great career.”

The third of four children raised by Joseph Szymanski, who worked for the Department of Parks and Recreation in Toledo, Ohio, and the former Helen Domalski, who ran a Polish bakery, Mr. Szymanski was an All-American in football and an All-City selection in both baseball and basketball. He attended the University of Notre Dame, where he played for the football team that won the 1953 national title and earned a bachelor’s in business administration in 1955.

His wife, Patricia Szymanski, said her husband chose Notre Dame over Ohio State and Michigan.

Dick Szymanski, pictured in October 1978, was the Colts' general manager from 1977 to 1982.
Dick Szymanski, pictured in October 1978, was the Colts' general manager from 1977 to 1982. (Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

“I think it was because he was a really good Catholic and because his parents really wanted him to go to Notre Dame,” she said.

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The Colts selected Mr. Szymanski in the second round of the 1955 NFL draft as a center. In the season opener, on the second play of the game, he helped open a hole that fullback Alan Ameche exploited for a 79-yard run to the end zone in a victory over the Chicago Bears.

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun in 2016, Mr. Szymanski had another explanation for the play.

“I think [Ameche] made a hole for himself and ran over me,” he said.

Mr. Szymanski was drafted into the Army in 1956 but when he returned to the Colts the following year, he made a position switch to middle linebacker. Two seasons later, he led all NFL middle linebackers in interceptions with five.

A knee injury in 1958 prevented Mr. Szymanski from playing in the NFL championship game against the New York Giants. He had planned to take a flight from Toledo to New York City to support his teammates and coaches in person.

“But the snow was so bad that they couldn’t take off, and he never made it to New York to the game,” his wife said. “I know that was one of his biggest regrets.”

Szymanski, shown in October 1967, was a Pro Bowl center for the Colts in 1955, 1962 and 1964. He also played middle linebacker.
Szymanski, shown in October 1967, was a Pro Bowl center for the Colts in 1955, 1962 and 1964. He also played middle linebacker. (Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Mr. Szymanski remained at middle linebacker until 1962 when he returned to center. He earned three Pro Bowl honors at that position (1955, 1962 and 1964).

In 1968, his second season with the Colts, Bill Curry was transitioning from middle linebacker to center where he backed up Mr. Szymanski. Instead of feeling threatened by a young upstart, Mr. Szymanski freely shared what he had learned in 13 years as a pro with Mr. Curry.

“If he saw me struggling, he would say, ‘You know what you’re doing, right?’” said Mr. Curry, who played with the Colts from 1967 to 1972. “And then he would show me how I was ducking my head or stepping with the wrong foot or whatever it was. He would say, ‘Let’s stay around here after practice and let me show you,’ and he would. It’s not that the other guys were hostile. They just weren’t going to take the time to show a new guy what to do. It didn’t occur to them. But in this case, he went out of his way to be gracious and helpful.”

Bob Vogel, a five-time Pro Bowl left tackle who played for the Colts from 1963 to 1972, said Mr. Szymanski was a calming influence on his teammates.

Szymanski watches a game at Memorial Stadium in 1979.
Szymanski watches a game at Memorial Stadium in 1979. (HUTCHINS / Baltimore Sun)

“We had a number of fairly younger guys playing at one point in time, and having his peaceful, quiet spirit was an important part because he just didn’t get shaken up,” Mr. Vogel said. “So with him being at the center of the huddle and dealing with all kinds of situations that were part of the game, I think it was an important part of our being solid.”

Following the team’s 16-7 loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, Mr. Szymanski retired in 1969. He remained with the organization as a scout, offensive line coach and director of player personnel.

In 1977, Mr. Szymanski was promoted to general manager and stayed in that role until 1982 when he resigned. Mr. Accorsi said Mr. Szymanski dealt with every issue “calmly.”

“He always had an even keel about him,” Mr. Accorsi said. “I had the feeling that the general manager’s job wasn’t the ultimate goal. It happened, and I’m sure he was happy that he became the general manager, but he always felt he made his mark as a player. The rest of us who are career administrators, we didn’t have that.”

After leaving the franchise, Mr. Szymanski joined the Atlanta Falcons as a scout for three seasons. He then became vice president for chapter relations for the NFL Alumni and then executive director from 1991 to 1992.

Szymanski observes practice from a ladder in 1980.
Szymanski observes practice from a ladder in 1980. (PHILLIPS / Baltimore Sun)

Mr. Szymanski met the former Patricia Ann Kennedy in 1963 at a hotel in Baltimore where she worked and he and his teammates stayed the night before home games. Mrs. Szymanski admitted it was love at first sight.

“As soon as he came in, I saw him, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, who is that handsome man?’” she said. “The ladies said, ‘That’s one of the Baltimore Colts.’ From then on, I had my eyes on him to get him.”

Mrs. Szymanski said they went on nine dates and got married in 1964 at St. Joseph Fullerton Catholic Church in Nottingham. “He was a real quick worker,” she quipped.

Mrs. Szymanski said her husband worked during the NFL offseason, in the sales department at Bethlehem Steel and in the public relations office for Buckeye Brewing and Canada Dry. She said he declined opportunities to make more money.

Szymanski was a player, assistant coach, scout and general manger for the Colts. He later worked for the Falcons and for NFL Alumni.
Szymanski was a player, assistant coach, scout and general manger for the Colts. He later worked for the Falcons and for NFL Alumni. (Handout)

“Almost every Sunday, Dick went out and spoke at a church, and when they would give him something for coming and speaking, he would tell them, ‘Put it in the poor box,’” she said. “He just did whatever he thought was good in life.”

Michael Szymanski, who said his father rarely missed one of his football and baseball games and wrestling matches at the Gilman School in Baltimore, said his father enjoyed watching old mysteries.

“He couldn’t tell you who Brad Pitt was,” Mr. Szymanski said. “But if you turned on one of the old movies, a black-and-white, he could tell you about almost every actor and actress in it. And we would look it up and say, ‘Hey, he’s right.’”

Besides his wife and son who lives in Lakewood, Florida, Mr. Szymanski is survived by a daughter, Debra Hoskins of Street, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

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Services are pending.

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