Contrary to what used to be said in the cereal ads, it's my opinion that champions are born, not made. It seems to me that exceptional athletes are so filled with desire, so blessed with physical abilities that they must have been born under a special sign of their own. But if players are subject to fate, why not fans? I, for one, believe I was destined to be an ardent fan; I was even born under a special sign, too—one of those tacky National Bohemian beer jobs that blink on and off and have a colt jumping over a crossbar. And if the gods hadn't intended me to be a manic rooter, they wouldn't have set me on this earth in the environs of Westminster, Md. There I grew up at the knee of the Orioles and, more important, in the lap of the Colts. By the time I was 10, I fit the description of the perfect football fan. I was short for my weight, wore thick glasses, had small hands and a salty vocabulary and was ready to second-guess the coach at the drop of a flag.
Many of my friends spent their summers tucked away in camps with phony Indian names. Those little Hiawathas returned in late August with only a handful of ill-made gimp belts for our annual fall show-and-tell. On the other hand, I had the good fortune of being dropped off daily, with 60¬¨¬®¬¨¢ in my hot little pocket, at the greatest day camp ever. My buddies and I spent our summers sitting on the hill at Western Maryland College watching the best football players in the NFL. I am still a bit of a snob when some rube wants to know if I "ever watched the Colts practice." I never considered myself a mere fan; I was a part of the team. I did everything except shower in Gill Gym and sleep in Albert Norman Ward Hall. I knew who was injured and who was beating bed check. I went to the same barber as John Unitas and knew Gino Marchetti before he became a famous hamburger.
In our early years with the Colts we would jog down the hill from Gill Gym and fall in just on the other side of the ropes for calisthenics as Coach Weeb Ewbank bellowed the cadence. After loosening up, I'd sneak up behind another of the guys, scream, "Ready! 4-3! Gold! 47! 52! Hut! Hut! Hut!" and then make my drop and look off an imaginary cornerback. My friends and I had an important advantage over the players. We never had to soak out the nightly soreness or feel the anxiety a fourth-round draft choice experiences as the last cut nears. Kids have no-cut contracts. We would always be back the next year, imitating, idolizing and kibitzing.
The little town of Westminster was proud of the team, and the squad was honored at an annual Colt night at the old State Theater. We kids packed the place and passed our little footballs forward during the autograph session. I can remember distinctly a conversation with my friend Hartzler in the late summer of 1956. "Who is Uni-tas?" he inquired after getting his ball signed. I went on at length, explaining that Uni-tas was a sixth-round choice brought in to replace aging Tackle Tom Finnin. I was off just a little. Unitas was not a sixth-round choice or a lineman. He was the product of the most famous phone call since Alexander Graham Bell stepped into the next room and shouted into the receiver. And thank God Don Kellett, the Colts' general manager, made that call, because soon we stood in awe of Unitas, and the team did, too. Those of us in the fraternity called him John. Johnny and Unitas were for fans. We did not pull at his shirt for autographs or for a sign of recognition. When eye contact did occur, we nodded, said "John" softly and let it go at that. This was a busy man with championships to win, and we would not stand in his way.
On hot summer Saturday nights I would beg to go to the movies, though I cared less what was playing. The place was always packed with Colts. The Carroll Theater on Main Street in Westminster was large, but it had hardly been designed with the comfort of 260-pound tackles in mind. The bigger players really spread out, sitting in every third seat and draping their feet over the row in front of them. That way the offensive and defensive lines almost filled the house, leaving little room for the ends and backs, let alone us kids. We looked forward to comments like "Pellington, that looks like you," as some ghastly character crossed the screen. One of my fondest memories is of a 9 o'clock showing of Attila the Hun. I stood at the back of the theater spellbound while the credits rolled and approximately 30 behemoths marched up the aisles to the crash of symbols and roll of drums from the movie's theme. When it came to special effects, no theater in the country could come close to matching what the Colts did for the Carroll.
In the late '50s the team jelled and the championships came. There is nothing happier than a winner. The camps in those years were the best. There were lots of laughs, most of them provided by the fun-loving defensive linemen. Big Daddy Lipscomb often sunned himself during the "gassers" and hot-dogged during the sprints. His "helmet" during these romps was a tiny golf hat rolled up all the way round; he could have easily been mistaken for Yogi Bear. Weeb seemed to handle Eugene, as he called Big Daddy, in the same fatherly manner he later used with Joe Namath.
Art Donovan, the good-natured Irishman and All-Pro lineman, did more than strike fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. He served as the camp's court jester. The early days of training camp were always a happy reunion, and Artie seldom passed up a chance to kick things off with a laugh. One year his costume provided it. The rookies had been training for several weeks, and the majority of the veterans were already working out when Artie made his grand entrance. There he stood on the hilltop overlooking the field of sweaty players, stuffed into a pair of shocking-pink slacks, pretty unconventional attire back in those tamer days. When the squad spotted him, Artie gave a gracious bow, and a raucous wave of laughter that could be heard halfway to Baltimore swept the practice field.
I was chubby then and felt empathy with the "fat boys" who had to wear rubber suits. Equipment man Eddie Schubach gave these players their fat jackets even before he handed them their jocks. Donovan, Lipscomb, Jim Parker and Sherm Plunkett were all charter members of Weeb's Weight Watchers. I was the hit of camp one afternoon when I waddled in wearing my usual football get-up with a rubber jacket, which had been made from an old raincoat, hanging from under my shirt. Parker came over and gave me an understanding pat on the head. That made my day.
As I grew up, hero worship was replaced by a sense of appreciation for the game. I began to see how each drill and how the careful design of each play could add up to touchdowns once the season began. Raymond Berry set the best example any kid could ever witness. Aside from having great hands, Berry had unmatched dedication. His fingertip pushups before team calisthenics were a ritual. And the running of down-and-outs, for as long as John's arm would hold up after practice, was also a daily routine. And when Unitas tired, Berry would enlist the ball boys and run patterns in front of a special net that was set up in the end zone. I had to chuckle when I heard someone say during the season, "How did he do it?" Practice made him perfect.
I was in my teens during the early Shula years—1963 to 1969—and rapidly coming to the realization that a 5'6" 180-pounder wasn't likely to be drafted, so I began to identify more with the coaches. In fact, our gang started holding our own drafts. And when the Colts actually made their picks, we checked out the choices thoroughly, poring through Street & Smith's magazine for vital statistics: "Average speed, good hands—coming in at 220 but will beef up to 245." When July rolled around, it was time for us to make our cuts. Jimmy Orr, I must apologize. In your later seasons I cut you every summer and cheered you every fall. We were very competitive among ourselves, and if my cuts coincided with Shula's, I was proud.
Throughout the '60s we remained perched on our hill. John Mackey, Tom Matte, Earl Morrall, Willie Richardson and Mike Curtis were now the guys we pinned our championship hopes on.
In 1965 Curtis was the Colts' No. 1 pick. Everybody knows what a tough guy he was, but Killer Hilton and I found out about that before just about anybody else did. Early in the '65 camp a fight broke out between the 232-pound Curtis and Hilton, a 240-pound defensive end, that brought the whole camp to a halt. We knew that when two guys named Mad Dog and Killer went at it, we wouldn't be disappointed. Soon the whole team was grappling in the dirt, and when the melee ended, Mad Dog was sitting atop the Killer, snarling and trying to rip off Hilton's helmet and anything that might be attached to it. Shula watched as eagerly as we did, finally blowing his whistle repeatedly to end the fracas. Perhaps he feared that Killer hadn't had a recent tetanus booster.
In 1967 we could smell another title coming. We were one player away, and when the draft was ended, we were sitting pretty. We had the No. 1 pick and it would land us a new Big Daddy.
"Hey, Billy Ray, when's Bubba coming?" were the words heard in the early days of camp that year. The Rabbit was a good ole boy from Arkansas and a fine defensive tackle, but his job was in jeopardy. There was a great deal of kidding between Billy Ray Smith and other veterans about his would-be replacement. The day finally came and Big Bubba Smith strolled nonchalantly down the hill, helmet in hand. We showed him as much respect as possible—short of tossing palm fronds. Before any of the other veterans could strike, the silence was broken by Billy Ray's loud southern drawl. "Hey, Bubba, Sully wants some of you," he said. The linemen were in the middle of a one-on-one drill. Poor Dan Sullivan had been duped, and Bubba had been given an offer he couldn't refuse. He quietly slipped on his helmet and strolled to the head of the line. The blast of the whistle and Bubba's charge seemed to come simultaneously, and before Sully knew it, he was knocked off balance and Bubba's huge right paw was coming around for the finishing touches. The thwack could be heard across the field as fist met helmet. Sully went down like a sack of cement. His bell had been rung publicly, and you could see his embarrassment through his face mask. Bubba had arrived!
We still weren't there though. Even Bubba was not quite enough. That upstart Namath beat us in Super Bowl III. It was a long winter, but when summer finally arrived, I had joyously reached a new plateau. I was now of age to drink with the team. The favorite watering hole was a place called Oss and Jenny's, but we called it "the Pit." It was located down a steep hill in the basement of an old building. There you would find the players—laughing, playing shuffleboard and jammed into booths or sitting at long tables. We inconspicuously sipped our beers, feeling big and important to be drinking with our guys.
But growing up also meant I had to get a summer job, which cut down the frequency of my visits something fierce. The Colts were facing a change in lifestyle, too, because Shula had gone south and Don McCafferty was named as his replacement. With the help of God and Earl Morrall, he brought us a Super Bowl victory in 1971. The out-of-town writers called it a poorly played game. I hadn't noticed.
After high school the Colts and I both grew up and moved away. I returned home several years ago to find that my team had been pulled right out from under me. First Towson State and then Goucher College became the Colts' summer home. I stopped by Towson one day to watch practice, but everything was different, except the blue and white uniforms and horseshoed helmets. I didn't like it. Nobody even knew who I was. Oh well, maybe they never really did. But I still say "we" when I talk about the Colts, and if I were to pass him on the street tomorrow, I would still nod and softly say, "John."