Catching Up With ... Bert Jones

The Baltimore Sun

Thirty-five years later, the triumph remains one for the ages. Behind by a mile, in a must-win game, the Colts stormed back to defeat New England and take the AFC East title. Trailing, 21-3 in the second half, Baltimore scored four touchdowns — the last on a 99-yard drive — to stun the Patriots, 30-24 in the last regular-season game and make the 1977 playoffs.

"What a great comeback," recalled Bert Jones, the quarterback who threw three TD passes and then marched the team the length of the field for the victory. "Why did we win? Because we had to."

It was the Colts' third straight division championship behind Jones, their tough, oft-battered leader whose injuries — and squabbles with team owner Bob Irsay — dampened a stellar career. In 10 seasons, he played with everything from busted ribs to a separated shoulder to, finally, a broken neck.

"My pre-game warmup was to put an 'X' where it hurt the most," Jones, 61, said earlier this week, from his home in Louisiana.

When healthy, he could light up a game. The Colts' No. 1 draft pick in 1973 (second overall) from LSU, Jones was groomed to fill Johnny Unitas' high-topped shoes. Unitas was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player in his fourth year as a pro (1959). Jones did it in three, passing for a league-leading 3,104 yards in 1976.

Eight times, he threw for 300 yards or more, including that game against New England in 1977 which then-Colts' coach Ted Marchibroda called "The greatest comeback in an important game I ever saw." Losing badly in the third quarter, the Colts struck back. Touchdown passes to Glenn Doughty, Raymond Chester and Freddie Scott pulled Baltimore within one point (24-23).

When a Patriots' punt backed the Colts to their own one-yard line, they rallied again, scoring the game-winner on a three-yard plunge by tailback Don McCauley.

During the contest, Jones said, "I remember seeing (New England safety) Timmy Fox standing on their bench, leading Colts' cheers in jest. After the game, I told him, 'I'll bet you won't work on those cheers again.' "

That game was the Colts' last hurrah. They lost to Oakland in the first round of the playoffs and never had another winning season before Irsay moved the team to Indianapolis in 1984. By then, Jones, tired of the owner's endless sniping, was gone, sent to the Los Angeles Rams in 1982 His first year there, he broke his neck, then retired from football and devoted his life to both family and the lumber manufacturing plant he'd bought near his native Ruston, La. in 1977.

The thought of coaching never entered his mind.

"Coaches are hired to be fired. I'd seen the schizophrenic life they have to deal with," said Jones, who opted for a settled lifestyle. Married 35 years, he has four children — a physician, nutritionist, environmental lawyer and businessman – and four grandchildren.

"Do I have regrets? I can't say no. I miss the strategic competitiveness of the game," he said. "But when I look where my children are, and the job I've done, I know I chose the right path."

Ever the outdoorsman, he still enjoys going quail hunting at the family's west Texas ranch with his father, Dub, 88, a former Cleveland Browns running back. When the spirit moves, Jones heads for the fishing camp he owns in Venice, La., to hook tarpon and redfish. On occasion, he takes old Colts' teammates on these jaunts, where they rehash old times.

"I remember that, as a rookie, I didn't have much money, so I'd go to Unitas' Golden Arm Restaurant for dinner, where he'd feed me for half-price," Jones said. "I went there often. John didn't know I'd rented a house, just three blocks away. Finally, (Unitas' teammate and business partner) Bobby Boyd said, 'John, you've got to stop feeding this guy or he's going to break us.' "

On the desk in Jones' office rests a Baltimore Colts' helmet on which three autographs are scrawled: those of Unitas, Peyton Manning and Jones.

That tells all, he said:

"There were two great quarterbacks who played for the Colts — and another one who sure enjoyed it."

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