It has been 41 years since former Baltimore Colts great Mike Curtis retired as one of the best middle linebackers in NFL history. He has been snubbed several times by the selection committee to become enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but this year could be his best and final opportunity.
Because the NFL is celebrating its 100th season, there will be 20 inductees next summer, including five modern-day players, 10 seniors, three contributors and two coaches. Canton, Ohio, might become a new home for Curtis.
“Mike should have been in a long time ago,” said former Colts and Oakland Raiders linebacker Ted Hendricks, a teammate of Curtis who was inducted into the Hall in 1990. “He was a great middle linebacker who had it all; the speed, size and intelligence. He wasn’t that big, but he knew how to beat people. If there is anyone who should be in there, it should be him. There is no rhyme or reason why he shouldn’t. In fact, he should have been there before me.”
As is the case with all nominees, there has been massive support. Curtis, 76, has gotten letters of endorsement from Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Namath and Roger Staubach and Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, urging the selection committee to vote in favor of Curtis joining other Hall of Fame Colts — such as quarterback Johnny Unitas, running back Lenny Moore, defensive linemen Gino Marchetti and Artie Donovan, and receiver Raymond Berry.
It would be a great honor for Curtis, one of the most feared players during his 14-season career from 1965 to 1978. But Curtis doesn’t sound overly optimistic.
“I don’t pay attention, but my managers told me,” Curtis said of his potential induction. “I don’t know if I’ll get in. I’d be glad to get in it. It would be neat, very flattering. I just accept what people vote. That’s life.”
Curtis deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. During his career, he was the only player to be named All-Pro at both middle and outside linebacker. He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and the AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1970.
He should have been the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl V, when his last-minute interception led the Colts to a game-winning field goal against the Dallas Cowboys. But the award was given to linebacker Chuck Howley because the vote was taken early in the game, when it looked like the Cowboys would win.
Regardless, Curtis was one of the most dominant players at his position when middle linebackers were still considered Cro-Magnons. Curtis was mentioned in the same breath with the Chicago Bears’ Dick Butkus, the Green Bay Packers’ Ray Nitschke and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Willie Lanier.
Those three are in the Hall of Fame, but only Lanier could rival Curtis in pass defense. A former fullback at Duke, Curtis once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds and finished his NFL career with 25 interceptions.
“His speed and quickness made him a match for any ball carrier or receiver coming out of the huddle,” Hendricks said.
Former Washington Redskins running back Larry Brown agrees. Brown played eight years with the Redskins, rushing for 5,875 yards and averaging 3.8 yards per carry. Like Curtis, Brown played in four Pro Bowls. Like Curtis, Brown should be in the Hall of Fame, too.
“He should be in there,” Brown said of Curtis. “He is one of the three greatest linebackers I have the most respect for, and the other two are Willie Lanier and Dave Wilcox. I never had the opportunity to play against Dick Butkus, but Lanier was all over the field. I once told him, ‘Willie, if I knew you wanted the ball this much, I would have just given it to you.’ Mike Curtis was in that category.
“He was tough to block, tough to get a step on,” Brown said of Curtis. “I’ve been hit by a lot of players, but those were the three that I remember most. Few players could collide with you like Mike. Even if you got to him, you couldn’t block him.”
Butkus is often given credit for redefining the middle linebacker position. But the late Bart Starr, the legendary Packers quarterback, once said if Butkus was scary, then Curtis was scarier.
There are so many photos and film clips of Curtis tormenting opposing players, including when he nearly decapitated Los Angeles Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel during a blitz. Other times, he would slam opposing ball carriers like a rag doll after a short gain.
In Baltimore, he will always be remembered for crushing a fan that had sneaked onto the playing field at Memorial Stadium in an attempt to swipe the ball.
Old “Mad Dog” Mike, as he was known, would have no part of it. Boom, boom, boom, out went the fan’s light.
Maybe the best Curtis story occurred during his rookie season, when Unitas, apparently trying to mess with the rookie when he was still a fullback, hit Curtis in the back of the head with a pass when Curtis wasn’t looking.
According to some former players, Curtis threatened to beat up Unitas and told him if it happened again, he wouldn’t play again that season. He did it in front of Unitas’ offensive linemen.
There are some who said Curtis even carried the squabble over into the parking lot after practice. After that day, Shula reportedly made Curtis a linebacker.
“I was on offense,” Curtis said. “He hit me in the back of my head with the ball and I told him I’d have to counsel him if he did that again.”
Said Hendricks: “Mike was a competitor, vicious. He was just as vicious off the field.”
Curtis, though, could identify with Baltimoreans. He was often seen around the city, sometimes out in Sparrows Point or over in Highlandtown. Long after he retired, he was still attending events for organizations such as the old Colt Corrals, which later became Ravens Roosts.
“We were once doing a camp for Jimmy Orr in North Carolina and we had been there for a couple of days,“ said Hall of Fame outside linebacker Chris Hanburger, a former teammate of Curtis’ when both were with the Redskins. “I said to him, ‘It was a shame that the NFL wasn’t picking this up,’ so the next day Mike got up and stayed with the kids in the dorm. He wasn’t about to pay for anything like that. That wasn’t him.”
Hanburger was surprised he was selected to the Hall of Fame in 2011. He is aware of the politics involved and believes a lot of good players get overlooked. Time is running out, though, for Curtis. Like a lot of the old NFL players, he has problems with memory loss.
But he wouldn’t change a thing. His approach was to be tough and aggressive. He never cared who he played against — just line them up and move out of the way. Asked if he would do it again, he said, “Sure, I liked playing and competing with all those guys.”
And maybe this time, he’ll find his rightful place among the best of them, and that’s in the Hall of Fame.