It is certain now that James Michael Curtis (below), the Baltimore Colt linebacker, will be remembered as something more than, as many have termed him, "the ideal defensive animal." But those who thought they knew him will still be surprised that it was Mike Curtis who became the first professional football player of any stature to break the NFL Players' Association strike and report to camp. For in the game he is simple, direct in his approach, a particularly brutal man in what he calls "a war on the field." Only off the field is he revealed as a combination of childlike exuberance, youthful idealism, stubborn conviction and, most importantly, defiant belief in himself. All this, and perhaps more, was influential in his decision to join the rookies in the Colt camp at Westminster, Md. last week when the owners' lockout was officially lifted.
On the surface his motives are uncomplicated. "I'm a football player," he says. "Football is my profession, not negotiating contracts. I can't kid myself. I have one job. This game. I have to prepare myself. And to prepare properly, I have to be here." There is more, though. "It was a moral as well as a practical decision," he adds.
Curtis was first approached about striking by Colt Center Bill Curry, the team's player representative and Curtis' roommate, who called him in mid-June. He was against it then and remained so during the weeks of negotiations. At 9:30 a.m. last Wednesday, when the Colt veterans were due to report, Curtis was there. The lockout was still in effect, so he left, driving back to his farm in Leesburg, Va. The next morning the owners, testing the strength of the Players' Association, decided to allow veterans to report at 6 p.m. Curry called Curtis again that afternoon, this time appealing to his loyalties to the team. Curtis wavered, but at 6:15 he drove his gold Stingray into camp, went to dinner and was applauded by 34 rookies. After eating he went to his room, where he installed his own television set and portable air conditioner.
"I didn't think it would be such a big deal," he says. "I thought more guys would come. I know there are some who want to. But when I drove up and didn't see any of the vets' cars, I started getting an idea."
The night after he reported, Curtis passed up watching the All-Star Game, opting for a steak and a couple of bottles of beer at Angelo's, a local bar. Earlier he had watched a TV report of Charles Manson's trial, which included a drawing of the cult leader with an X on his forehead, symbolizing that he is an outcast from society. "Maybe," said Curtis, "I should put something on my helmet to show I'm a scab."
At Angelo's it would have been more practical to have something to show he was 21. Curtis is so boyish that a waitress asked for proof of his age. (He is 27, but he got his beer only after the owner recognized him.) His youthful looks are in keeping with his attitude toward football. "My job," he says, "is playing football, not working at football. I like the money, sure. I treasure it. One of my dreams has always been to have control of $1 million 10 years after I entered pro ball. But if you go out only for money you're not going anywhere. I play football. It just happens to pay well. But still I'm a football player, not a football worker."
What he does work at, he claims, is a definition of life. He feels that in his five years with the Colts he has changed from a narrow-minded individual to a listener, able to appreciate, rather than merely dismiss, the opinions of others. But intact is his continuing belief in himself.
"Maybe I'm wrong in what I'm doing as far as someone else is concerned," he says, "but I'm not wrong for myself. I made my mind up. And nothing's wrong if you believe what you're doing is right. I know that sounds like the hippies, the ultraliberals. I'm certainly not that. But I'm not wrong to myself. In others' eyes I may be. I guess it's just that nothing is totally right or wrong, that it depends on how people interpret you.
"Understand, I basically agree with the players. I work with them. I trust them. I just don't believe in their tactics. I'm optimistic enough to think everything will work out. I don't believe in striking, though I don't know of any other way.
"I signed a contract that says I should be in camp. It's as simple as that. I've always been a loner, which maybe makes it easier. I'm following true to form. I guess I'd have made a good soldier. I follow orders. I'm not always asking questions."
Appropriately enough, the man who has become an idol to Curtis is the late General George S. Patton. "I hate to bring up the movie," he says. "There've been so many jokes about Nixon seeing it before making his decisions. But, God, was it great! I can identify with Patton. Remember when he had those mules shot? People thought it was cruel. But it was what had to be done and he did it. If something doesn't matter, hell, swing like a damn door. I know it sounds trite, but I can't compromise.
"It is the whole [Robert] Frost thing. The road not taken, and all that. Remember the poem? I don't know what's down the other road. I don't know what's down this one. But I'm following it. For me, there's no other way. There's no turning back."