Catching Up With ... former Colts punter Tom Gilburg

Tom Gilburg coached football at Franklin & Marshall for 28 years.
Tom Gilburg coached football at Franklin & Marshall for 28 years. (Courtesy of Franklin & Marshall)

Two years ago, during a triathlon relay race, Tom Gilburg rode a bicycle 26 miles. He was 73 at the time.

"I didn't set any records, but I got the job done," the onetime Colts punter said. Ditto, his football career.


For five years Gilburg punted for the Colts, averaging 41.4 yards a boot before quitting in 1966 with a bum knee. Three times, he finished among the NFL's top 10 punters while doubling as a second-string offensive tackle. Yet he's largely overshadowed in Baltimore sports lore because of the success of his heir.

David Lee, who replaced Gilburg, made All-Pro and played 13 seasons for the Colts.


And Gilburg? He became a college coach and retired in 2002, having led Franklin & Marshall for 28 years. His 160 football victories are a record at the academic-rich college in Lancaster, Pa., where Gilburg still lives.

"I never had a job I didn't like," he said, "and it has gotten better since I retired."

The Colts' second-round draft pick in 1961, Gilburg arrived from Syracuse as an imposing (6-5, 260) lineman who helped the Orange win the 1959 national championship with a Cotton Bowl win over Texas. He'll not forget that game in which he blocked for star runner Ernie Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner, who was abused by Texas players.

"They shouted racial slurs and really roughed Ernie up in the pile-ups," Gilburg said. "There was a lot of junk going on out there, but Ernie just returned to the huddle, then went back out and beat them down again. He was named the game's outstanding player, but the site of the banquet was for whites only — so our whole team elected not to attend."


At Syracuse, Gilburg also played lacrosse for the first time, at the behest of coach Roy Simmons, who also coached the football team's punters.

"My freshman year, Simmons said, 'Tommy, come to my house, there's something I want you to have.' He handed me a lacrosse stick and ball and said, 'Be able to throw and catch by spring.'"

Gilburg did as told and made All-American. Named Syracuse's football MVP in 1960, he was also the school's athlete of the year as a senior.

His selection by the Colts was a stunner.

"I was in San Francisco, returning to my hotel room after playing in the East-West Shrine game when [Colts assistant coach] Charlie Winner tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'We just drafted you No. 2.' Heck, I didn't even know it was draft day.

"Things were different then. Players all had jobs in the off-season. I worked one year as an elementary school teacher and another at a mental hospital in New York."

Playing for coaches Weeb Ewbank ("He could coach any position on the field") and Don Shula ("He had every detail covered") prepared Gilburg for his own clipboard career.

The Colts were 45-24-1 during his time here and reached the 1964 NFL championship game, losing 27-0 to the Cleveland Browns.

"That was a bitter end to a great season," Gilburg said. "I have a football signed by all of those Colts, but the names are so faded you can hardly see them."

Dealt to the Los Angeles Rams in 1966, he chose coaching instead. For a time at F&M, Gilburg held two jobs in winter, recruiting players by day and working in a Lancaster stockyard at night. Better that than vice-versa, he said.

"When you work at a small college and you've got five kids, you have to keep your feet shuffling," he said.

Coaching the Diplomats returned Gilburg to Westminster regularly to play Centennial Conference rival McDaniel, where the Colts used to train.

"I kept remembering my rookie year there [at then-Western Maryland College] and the third-floor dorm room where I slept with no air conditioning," he said. "I'd lay there with the sweat running off of me all night. My sheets were soaked every morning."

Now 75, Gilburg works out, plays some golf and attends local sporting events with JoAnne, his wife of 51 years.

"We have three children coaching and four grandsons playing," he said. "I live in the stands and enjoy every minute of it."

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