Former teammates, opponents and friends of ex-Colts linebacker Mike Curtis are making a push to get him in the Hall of Fame
By Michael Olesker
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Curtis played both ways at Duke. In fact, the Colts made him their No. 1 draft choice thinking he'd play fullback. Then came a moment in Westminster, at Curtis' first training camp, that began to change such thinking.
Unitas apparently decided to have a little fun with the intense young rookie. As Curtis went out for a pass, Unitas threw while Curtis still had his back turned. The football nailed Curtis in the back of the head.
"You ever do that again," Curtis screamed, "and I'll [bleeping] kill you. You hear me? You can stand there behind all your linemen, and all your buddies, and you won't be able to play again this season."
Nearly half a century later, during a phone call from Tampa, Fla., where Curtis now lives, he still remembered the moment and chuckled about such youthful bravado.
"He's standing there with his linemen all around him," Curtis said drily, "and I'm a third-string rookie running back. But, you know, I felt I had to counsel him on the proper behavior modes. And he never said a word -- and he never hit me in the back of the head again."
As legend has it, coach Don Shula watched this and said to himself, "I think this young man's aggressiveness might best be channeled elsewhere -- such as linebacker."
Curtis played that position for 10 years with the Colts, then finished up with Seattle and Washington. His dramatic interception during the closing moments of Super Bowl V led to Jim O'Brien's last-second winning field goal for the Colts.
"He should have won the Most Valuable Player award for that game," Accorsi said. "But he got a terrible break. They took the vote early, when it looked like Dallas was going to win, and gave the MVP to Dallas' Chuck Howley -- the only MVP winner on a losing team."
It's been roughly 35 years since Curtis turned in his cleats, and the Hall of Fame hasn't come calling. Now it's come down to the seniors' vote, a roll call of players whose careers have been finished for at least 25 years.
A pool of veteran football writers does the voting. But, after all this time, many of them are being asked to consider a guy they never saw in action.
"There's a whole new set of voters," Accorsi said, "who don't even know who Curtis is. One of them told me, 'No more guys from that era.' I said: 'Why? Because you didn't see him play?' "
(Recently, though, Curtis was named as a 2013 inductee to the Hall of Very Good -- a list of honorees the Professional Football Researchers Association started a decade ago to help preserve the game's history. Among this year's inductees, beside Curtis, are Daryl Lamonica, Cookie Gilchrist, Donnie Shell and Gabriel.)
All of this leaves Curtis with some mixed emotions.
"I never thought much about the Hall of Fame or awards," he said. "There were so many darned good players around. I'm a little embarrassed that people would endorse me and actually campaign to get me in, and so many have worked so hard at it. It's awful nice of them. If I get in, that'd be great. If I don't, I'm not gonna throw stones at anybody."
On the phone from his home in Tampa, Curtis said he didn't want to talk about his health. But he has talked about it with friends. And Curtis now has a part-time caretaker, as part of the NFL Player Care Foundation's "88 Plan," named for former Colt John Mackey, who wore No. 88 and suffered from dementia after retiring from football.
"Mike says he never had any concussions," said one of Curtis' friends, who requested anonymity when speaking about Curtis' health. "He'll say, 'I took everybody else down.' You know, joking about it. Or he'll say: 'The doctors say I have brain damage from playing. What do they know?' "
Another Curtis friend, who also wished to remain anonymous, said Curtis was aware of his mental deterioration.
"It frustrates him," the friend said. "He'll say, 'They say I have brain damage from playing,' trying to make a joke of it."
In 2011, Curtis told Fox Sports writer Dave Scheiber: "I had a physical to see if I had a loose brain. It was an eight-hour physical, and they saw certain signs that the brain had scar tissue or something in it. That was a sign, theoretically, that you're a head case."
The tests revealed significant memory impairment, and the data were consistent with dementia.
"Put it this way," Curtis told Scheiber. "I didn't notice any difference. I'm trying to think if there's any difference now."
Sonny Odom, Curtis' former Duke teammate and longtime friend who is now a professional photographer in the Washington, D.C., area, said: "Mike always says: 'I never hit anybody with my head. I was too smart for that.' But the tests registered that he had head trauma."
Curtis' old Duke teammate Futrell works in the stem cell arena.
"It's a huge issue, this connection between football and brain injuries," Futrell said. "Frankly, it's pretty undeniable. What I think is going to happen, there's evolution. The sport is in transition. Parents are not allowing kids to engage the way they used to. I don't think there's any question it's contributed to Mike's situation."
But during a lengthy phone conversation, Curtis was smart, funny, insightful -- and his memories seemed vivid.
He still remembered the time he seemed ready to decapitate Gabriel -- "Nah, I shut down right before I hit him," he laughed -- and the time he leveled that fan who tried to swipe the football from the field of play.
"I didn't want this guy to change the mood of the game," he said. "We're out there in the middle of a war, and this guy thinks it's funny."
For Curtis, football wasn't funny. It was wartime, and he fought with uncommon skill and ferocity. Now comes a final struggle for Hall of Fame recognition.
Michael Olesker is the author of "The Colts' Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the Fifties," published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Issue 186: June 2013