A plaque marking the 1961 championship of a 130-pound boys football league in Towson might seem nothing special. It’s faded and a little beat up from the years, and its players, too, have entered old age. But what makes it valuable is the autograph of our team’s very special coach: Gino Marchetti, the Hall of Fame defensive end of the Baltimore Colts, who died Monday at 93.
Our team photographs show Gino as well as his assistant coaches, fellow Colts Alan Ameche and Joe Campanella. Occasionally, Johnny Unitas even dropped by to watch our scrimmages. All of them lived close by in Campus Hills, a middle-class bedroom community of split-levels and ranchers by Goucher College. Playing for the Campus Hills Colts, we were conscious of being the luckiest young men in Baltimore: typical teenagers coached by men who were already football legends.
In that now-forgotten age, it seemed perfectly reasonable that our heroes earned ordinary incomes, just like our moms and dads. NFL careers were part-time gigs, with most players surviving through off-season jobs. Johnny U. owned a bowling alley over the hill from our practice field, just off the beltway at Providence Road. My father even sold real estate in Towson alongside Tom Matte, the Colt halfback turned reserve quarterback (after strapping the plays to his wrist). Even though they were professional athletes, football in that pre-Namath era still had much in common with amateur athletics.
We always addressed our coaches as “Mr. Marchetti,” “Mr. Ameche” or “sir,” something our parents expected even more than the coaches. I can remember being especially conscious that these men possessed standards of excellence that made them admired by other men, who were equally tough and talented. Clearly this was a superb opportunity to show what we were — or might one day be capable of.
Occasionally those lessons were learned the hard way. During one close game, I traded increasingly hard hits with my opposite number. Just before the ball was snapped on the next play, he snarled something nasty and personal. My retaliatory blow flattened him, even separating him from his helmet. Seeing only the impact, the referee instantly threw me out of the game.
Waiting for me on the sidelines with arms folded and a deep scowl creasing his forehead was Coach Marchetti, the largest human I had seen to that point in my 14 years. Leaning down, he demanded to know what had happened. I told him, lamely adding that it had been a clean hit.
“Well, the ref didn’t think so and now we have a 15-yard penalty. And you’re out of the game, so you let the team down too. Now go over on the bench and think about that.”
So began the second longest walk of my life, interrupted only when Coach Marchetti called my name again. Then, Gino the Giant cracked a smile and said, “Hey, you oughta’ hear what they call me in the games sometimes!” Leadership gurus call this technique: “Knock ‘em down, then build ‘em right back up.”
Until the flood of press stories emerged this week, I didn’t know that Gino Marchetti had also learned some of his lessons as a machine-gunner in an infantry unit during World War II. He credited that experience with building his body into the ferocious engine of destruction feared by his gridiron opponents. But close calls with German artillery during the Battle of the Bulge taught him something even more important about making second chances count. As he told Sports Illustrated in 2016, “Joining the Army was the best thing I ever (did) because without that kind of discipline that they teach you, I wouldn’t have been able to play football.”
The irony is that he never mentioned those experiences to the Campus Hills Colts, relying instead on his character to reinforce any lessons we needed. Whether intended or otherwise, that schooling was constantly reinforced during my military career of almost 30 years — from draftee to West Point professor and Dean of the National War College. While I rarely consider football players to be either heroes or great men. Gino Marchetti was both, another hidden legacy of the Greatest Generation.
Rest in peace, Coach, and thanks for the memories and those timeless lessons.
Colonel Kenneth Allard (email@example.com) is a retired U.S. Army officer and NBC News military analyst (1997-2007) who graduated in 1965 from Towson High School. He now lives in San Antonio.