Charley Winner doesn't take old age lying down. At 90, the former Baltimore Colts coach plays tennis five times a week, for 90 minutes a day.
"That's about all I can stand," Winner said from his home in South Fort Myers, Fla. "All of us in the group are 70-and-up. We all like to win, but nobody argues about points. Life's too short."
A defensive coach for the Colts for 12 seasons, Winner is the last surviving coach of either team from the 1958 NFL championship, dubbed "The Greatest Game Ever Played." Baltimore defeated the New York Giants, 23-17 in sudden-death overtime. Winner spent the day shivering on a windswept platform above Yankee Stadium, binoculars and telephone in hand, passing information along to head coach Weeb Ewbank on the sidelines.
"Weeb had given a great pregame pep talk, going around the room and telling players, 'Nobody wanted you so you wound up here and now it's time to show them all how good you are,'" Winner said. "The truth was, most of those Colts were extremely self-motivated; if you pick the right guys, you don't have to pump them up."
A graduate of Washington (Mo.) University, where he played for Ewbank and wed the coach's daughter, Winner joined the Colts in 1954 as an aide on Ewbank's staff. Winner and his wife, Nancy, have been married 64 years.
"Before I met her in college, I remember Weeb telling the players, 'One of my daughters just married a halfback from Brown. I'd appreciate it if none of you halfbacks would marry my other two daughters.'
"I thought, why the heck would I do that? Then I met Nancy on campus and asked her out for ice cream. We've been eating it ever since."
His wooing the coach's daughter irked Ewbank, Winner said.
"Weeb used to grade all the game films, and I scored pretty well until I started dating his daughter. Then my grades went down," Winner said. "Sometimes on dates Nancy and I would just stay home. Come 11 p.m., Weeb would start taking off his socks, which was his signal for me to leave."
The two men later coached together for nine years.
"I'm prejudiced, because Weeb was my father-in-law, but he ranks right up there with coaches like Don Shula and [Cleveland's] Paul Brown," Winner said. "The difference was, Weeb never blew his own horn. He took two down-and-out teams [Baltimore and the New York Jets] to championships. When he took the Colts' job, Brown told him, 'You don't want to go there — all they have is a big fat tackle named [Art] Donovan.'"
During the Colts' heyday, Winner coached defensive backs, a hard-nosed lot led by All-Pros Milt Davis and Andy Nelson. That the Colts repeated as NFL champs in 1959 was due in part to their league-leading 40 interceptions.
Unitas, Winner said, was a longtime favorite of his own daughter, Lisa.
"Once, we got a call from Lisa's grade school teacher in Towson who said she'd been selling John's autograph to students for 25 cents apiece," Winner said. "We told John not to sign stuff for her anymore. Years later, when Weeb passed away [in 1998], John idled up to Lisa at the funeral and said, 'Hey kid, you owe me some money.'"
When the Colts fired Ewbank in 1963, Winner remained under the new coach, Shula. Three years later, Winner became head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals for five seasons and, later, the New York Jets (1974-75), going 44-44 lifetime. He retired in 1992 after 37 years in the NFL, most recently as director of player personnel for the Miami Dolphins.
He'll never forget where he started.
"I've worked for five championship teams, but that 1958 ring is one of my most valuable possessions," Winner said. "I wear it a lot. Today's championship rings are gaudy and unattractive. Size makes no difference; that first one was the beginning for me."