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Mike Curtis, fiery Pro Bowl linebacker with Baltimore Colts, dies at 77

Mike Curtis, the ornery, whip-smart linebacker who led the Colts to victory in Super Bowl V and laid out a drunken fan at Memorial Stadium the following season, died Monday morning at his home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

He was 77, and family members said that he died peacefully, surrounded by loved ones.

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Known to Baltimore football lovers as “Mad Dog,” Curtis used his rare combination of power, speed, intensity and intuition to make four Pro Bowls in 11 seasons for the Colts. His interception with a little more than a minute left on the clock in Super Bowl V set up Jim O’Brien’s 32-yard-field goal to beat the Dallas Cowboys.

Though Curtis is no longer as familiar to casual fans as Dick Butkus or Ray Nitschke, former teammates rated him in their class as an all-around linebacker and expressed bewilderment that he was never elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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“How Mike could be left out is beyond me,” said former Colts center Bill Curry, who also played with Nitschke in Green Bay. “You really missed the thrill of getting to see a great NFL linebacker if you didn’t get to see him play. … It was like watching a guy with the muscularity of a defensive tackle who could run like a corner. It was incredible to see him run people down. How could he do that? But he did it every day.”

Curtis was known as one of the nastiest players in the NFL, so committed to performing his work with furious passion that he would regularly spar with teammates during practice. Curry was his roommate for five years but as the team’s center, suffered Curtis’ wrath during those weekday sessions.

“I knew Sunday was going to be my easiest day of the week,” he said, recalling his relief at lining up against opponents’ lesser middle linebackers.

Another former Colts linebacker, Stan White, said Curtis earned his “Mad Dog” nickname. “It was hilarious to see him go at it with his teammates,” White recalled. “I remember we were scrimmaging one time and he and Tom Mitchell got into it, and I think Mike put his thumb into Mitchell’s mouth and tried to pull his teeth out, so Mitchell put his thumb into Mike’s eye and tried to pull his eye out. It was crazy stuff, because with Mike, it didn’t take much to get him going.”

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Other teammates found Curtis inscrutable off the field. “He was a different kind of guy,” recalled flanker Jimmy Orr. “He stayed to himself when we were out of practice. He was independent.”

Once, an acquaintance of halfback Tom Matte approached a table of Colts as they dined in New Orleans. “Mad Mike Curtis?” the man said upon meeting the All-Pro linebacker.

Curtis turned to Matte and said: “Get him out of here, or I’m going to whip you.”

But Curry glimpsed a more tender side when his wife went into labor with the couple’s first child during training camp. As Curry paced nervously in the wee hours, Curtis — normally protective of his sleep — urged him to ask coach Don Shula for permission to fly home. When Curry could not find a ride to the airport, Curtis tossed him the keys to his new Ford Thunderbird, which had been strictly off-limits to everyone at camp.

“He basically just took charge and took care of me,” Curry said. “Nobody hears stories like that about him.”

Similarly, White remembered how Curtis took him under his wing. “Most of the guys stayed away from Mike, but somehow I developed a nice relationship with him,” he said. “He really helped me learn about being a professional linebacker, which Mike was.”

Curtis was born in Washington D.C. and grew up in Rockville, where he played at Richard Montgomery High School and earned All-Metro recognition from the Washington Post in 1960. He went on to Duke, where he earned All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors as a fullback in 1962 and 1964. He also threw the javelin for the Blue Devils and earned Academic All-American honors, majoring in history.

The Colts drafted him in the first round, 14th overall, in 1965.

Curtis quickly established that he would back down from no man, even All-Pro quarterback Johnny Unitas. When Curtis was a rookie, still playing fullback, Unitas plunked him in the back of the head with a pass. Curtis told Baltimore’s idol that if it happened again, they’d fight.

“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,” he later said of the incident.

Curtis’ career took off after the Colts made him a full-time linebacker in his second season. He was selected first-team All-Pro in 1968, when the Colts led the league in scoring defense and rolled through 15 of their first 16 games before they ran into a cocky young quarterback named Joe Namath in Super Bowl III. Curtis and his teammates suffered one of the most famous upsets in NFL history that day, but the disappointment did nothing to derail the star linebacker’s career. He made the Pro Bowl each of the next three seasons after switching from outside to middle linebacker, and in 1970, he intercepted five passes as the Colts worked toward Super Bowl redemption.

With Ted Hendricks and Ray May, he formed a trio of linebackers who made brilliant plays all over the field.

The team hit a wayward patch in the middle of that season, tying the Buffalo Bills and losing to the Miami Dolphins by 17 in consecutive weeks. Curry recalled what Curtis, who didn’t usually speak up in team meetings, said at that juncture.

“We have all these meetings and we say, ‘We’re gonna do this and we’re gonna do that,’” he told teammates. “And a lot of times we’re don’t do what we say. But I’m gonna be watching and I’m gonna make sure that every single one of you does your job. If you don’t, I’m gonna make sure you pay.”

Sure enough, the Colts won their last four regular-season games and swept through the playoffs.

In 1971, the 6-foot-3, 232-pound Curtis left a different kind of imprint by flattening an intoxicated fan who’d run on the field and scooped up the game ball during a Dec. 11 home victory over the Dolphins. The Colts had played brilliantly on defense that day, holding an excellent Miami team to three points, and Curry said Curtis had no patience for an interloper besmirching their masterpiece.

When Curry and defensive end Bubba Smith expressed concern that the fan might sue, Curtis replied that he’d simply enforced a city ordinance.

“The way I see it, he was invading my place of business,” he explained. Video clips of the incident have lived on, endearing him to new generations of fans.

With all the focus on his ferocity and quirkiness, teammates said Curtis’ intelligence was underappreciated.

“It was interesting with Mike, but Mike was a smart guy. He moved the defensive fronts. He called all the slants and pinches and everything we needed up front,” said former Colts safety Bruce Laird. “Great tackler. In my humble opinion, he should have made it into the Hall [of Fame] with other people of his caliber who are in there. I’m deeply saddened that the committee didn’t get him in. He was a player’s player.”

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Curtis made his fifth and final Pro Bowl in 1974. The Colts left him unprotected in the 1976 NFL expansion draft after a 1975 season in which he’d played just six games because of a knee injury. The Seattle Seahawks selected him and he became a co-captain for the new franchise. He then finished his career with the Washington Redskins in 1977 and 1978.

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Curtis struggled with memory loss later in life, and his family donated his brain to the Brain Injury Research Institute to aid doctors investigating chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

He’s survived by his sons, Clay Curtis of Florida and Ryan Curtis of Connecticut; his daughter, Caitlin Ehlke of Virginia; his sister, Karen Norris of Massachusetts, and seven grandchildren. Details of a memorial service were still being finalized Monday.

Baltimore Sun columnists Mike Preston and Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

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