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Catching Up With ... former Colts guard Robert Pratt

Catch up with the Baltimore Colts lineman who was once pulled a hamstring running out for the coin toss

They were 60 pounds lighter, on average, than the behemoths who'll man the trenches for the Ravens on Sunday. But the players who hunkered down on the offensive line for the Colts during Baltimore's halcyon years of the 1970s were a rugged and agile group, most of whom remain good friends, said Robert Pratt, the Colts' starting left guard from 1975 to 1981.

In retirement, Pratt, George Kunz, Ken Mendenhall and Elmer Collett have gone hunting and fishing together, often with their old quarterback, Bert Jones. And each year, Pratt said, "I get a phone call from George on December 25 saying, 'Merry Christmas, Robert.'"

Those linemen protected Jones, the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 1976, who owed his biggest honor, in part, to their work. They carved holes for running back Lydell Mitchell who, in 1977, broke the Colts' career rushing record on their watch. And they helped the Colts win three consecutive division titles (1975-77) despite a meddlesome owner and an intrusive front office that oft seemed at odds with success.

"We had a good core group [up front]," said Pratt, 63, of Richmond, Va. "It was a magical time, a wonderful era of my life. I thought we'd be together forever, but all good things come to an end. Before the playoff game with Oakland [in 1977], our line coach, Whitey Dovell, said 'Guys, you don't know what a chance this is because you might not all be here again.'

"I was a 26-year-old kid and didn't believe him. But those words rang true."

Oakland won the game, 37-31 in double overtime. Injuries and contract squabbles then weighed on the Colts, who never again made the playoffs in Baltimore.

Pratt stayed through 1981, served as co-captain and started 105 consecutive games. Quickness and finesse epitomized the 250-pounder from North Carolina, the Colts' third-round pick in 1974.

"My strength was my speed," Pratt said. "Most teams played a 3-4 defense, so I was always blocking linebackers — and I loved playing against guys like me."

On a shelf in his den is the football with which he scored a touchdown in a win over the New York Jets in 1977.

"I was on the punt coverage team, someone hit the ball carrier and the ball popped out and bounced into my hands," he said. "I ran 21 yards and when I got to the end zone, Bert was there with a big ol' smile on his face. He'd run all the way down there from the bench to meet me."

The worst of times? A 1981 game against the St. Louis Cardinals in which Pratt pulled a hamstring trotting onto the field for the coin toss.

"Most embarrassing," he said. "I lasted two plays before leaving the game. I'd never pulled a muscle in my life. It wasn't a shining moment in my career. The same week, [backup quarterback] Greg Landry hurt his back picking up his baby from the playpen.

"That whole season [2-14] was one to forget. Every Monday morning, I'd get my car washed in Towson and see the same guys there. The first four or five years, they congratulated me. By 1981, as soon as I got out of my car to send it through the wash, I got booed."

The following spring, following a purge of other Colts veterans, Pratt asked for a trade and was sent to Seattle. He helped the Seahawks to two playoff berths in four years, then retired.

"The game was changing," he said. "Linemen were getting to be 300 pounds and I never used steroids, so there was no way that I could naturally get anywhere close to that."

He'd invested wisely, having worked off-seasons as a stockbroker.

"I'd tried my best, as a player, to get teammates to invest," he said. "A lot of them weren't concerned for the future but in football, you're one 'hit' away from the end."

Safety Bruce Laird was a good client, he said: "In the locker room, depending on the market's swing, Bruce would sing my praises one day and throw stuff at me the next."

Nowadays, Pratt — married and the father of three — serves as chairman and CEO of Sycamore Creek Golf Course in Goochland, Va.

"I thank my lucky stars every day to being able to get up and go to work ... at a golf course," he said.

He's also grateful to have been part of the farewell salute to Memorial Stadium on Dec. 14, 1997. After the Ravens won the final game played there, a group of aging Colts donned their blue-and-white jerseys, trotted onto the field and ran one last play.

"We had 22 guys out there in the closed end of the horseshoe, and I was the right guard," Pratt said. "Johnny Unitas handed the ball to Lydell Mitchell, who flipped it to Lenny Moore, who high-stepped across the goal line for a touchdown. Being there was a real treat."

There was no coin toss beforehand for the oldtimers, Pratt said:

"We didn't want anyone to get hurt pulling a hamstring."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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