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Front Row: Tom Nowatzke Was Colts' Cinderella Man

November 12, 2010

Tom Nowatzke Arrived In Time To Help 1970 Baltimore Colts Become Kings Of Super Bowl V

About this time two score years ago, the Baltimore Colts were preparing to embark on their second six-game win streak of the 1970 season, one to carry them into Super Bowl V in Miami's Orange Bowl.

It was indeed a motley crew manning the battlements for the Horseshoes, who had moved to the newly-formed American Conference of the NFL that year. The coach was a veteran assistant in his first year as a headman. The quarterback was on the downside of his fabulous career. The rookie placekicker was a longhaired child of the Sixties, and injuries had played havoc with any plans to field a consistent starting offensive lineup.

Despite all those obstacles, coach Don McCafferty and his loyal aides somehow cobbled together a winning team of overachievers, and when it was done, the Colts rode Jim O'Brien's field goal over the Dallas Cowboys, 16-13, and brought the Lombardi Trophy to Baltimore.

They called it the "Blunder Bowl" and certainly no other team has ever turned the ball over seven times and still won a major championship. According to the men who played in it, though, many of those gaffes on Jan. 17, 1971 were committed only because of the ferocity of play.

One of those who can attest to the violence of Super Bowl V is the man who bucked over for the Colts' tying touchdown with less than three minutes to go in the game. Tom Nowatzke, now 68 and a successful businessman in Michigan, became a true Cinderella hero with that play. Today, he still has vivid memories of the game and that season.

"It was early in the year," Nowatzke said recently as he awaited the opening of deer season in his Michigan hunting cabin. "Joe Schmidt, then the coach at Detroit, had cut me after five years with the Lions, and Tom Matte had been knocked out for the season in the Colts' opener at San Diego. The fullback, Jerry Hill, was hurting, too, and coach Don McCafferty was in trouble.

"He called, and we agreed on a contract right on the phone. He said he would use me at running back, linebacker or tight end. So I got myself to Baltimore just in time to see the Colts get plastered in their second game (Kansas City, 44-24)."

Nowatzke was well-suited for any role the Colts needed him to play. The strapping farm boy was a first-team All-American at Indiana and highly sought after by both the NFL and the flourishing AFL in the 1965 draft. He chose the Lions over the competing New York Jets and enjoyed five decent years in Detroit before the team decided to go with speed over brawn.

Nowatzke had his best year with the Lions in 1966, gaining 516 yards from the fullback position and also catching 54 passes. At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, he was a sizable presence in those days when most teams employed a two-back system, utilizing the fullback as more than just a road grader for speedy scatbacks.

"One of my fondest memories," Nowatzke said, "was walking off the field after we had lost a tough game to the champion Packers. Someone came up and gave me a big hug and said, ‘You played a great game, young man.' I looked around and it was Vince Lombardi."

When Nowatzke got to Baltimore, the Colts' backfield was in total disarray. With Matte gone and Hill limping, rookie No. 1 draft choice Norm Bulaich was the only real threat. Sam Havrilak, a jack-of-all-trades who played quarterback at Bucknell, and Jack Maitland, the pride of Williams College, were taking regular turns as runners. The Colts needed muscle, and Nowatzke was equipped for the task.

"Tom was a terrific athlete," recalled Havrilak, who became a competent receiver and after retiring continued his schooling to become one of this city's most respected dentists for the last 35 years. "He was what the newspapers call one of those ‘rawboned' guys who could play several positions."

Running backs coach John Idzik soon became convinced placing Nowatzke and Bulaich in the same backfield made sense, and the two started the rest of the season.

Nowatzke's arrival helped to trigger the beginning of the first six-game win streak. He came in with no pretensions or chips on his shoulder. Other Colts readily accepted him, and soon he was spending his Friday afternoons with the rest of the troops at John Unitas' Golden Arm restaurant.

Baltimore finished the regular season with an 11-2-1 record, then easily took playoff victories over Cincinnati and Oakland, leading up to the Super Bowl against the Cowboys. Nowatzke was in his element in a game when practically every play was described as brutal.

"It was the hardest-hitting game I was ever involved in," he said.

The Colts had numerous chances to put the game away because of their superb defense, having not suffered the debilitating injuries inflicted on the offense. That defense created four turnovers of its own, and three late interceptions decided the back-and-forth contest.

Baltimore's linebacking trio of Mike Curtis, Ted Hendricks and Ray May was better than almost any unit, and safeties Jerry Logan and Rick Volk were having their finest seasons. End Bubba Smith was the scariest defender in the league, and along with linemates Fred Miller, Roy Hilton and raging Billy Ray Smith, comprised a front four thriving on quickness.

"They were good, and bailed us out a lot," Nowatzke said about the defense. "We didn't have any great offensive linemen, but they were all solid and played as a unit. Their togetherness enabled them to get the job done."

A Volk interception and return to the Cowboys' 3-yard line set up Nowatzke's bullish plunge for the tying touchdown, but the big fullback had to talk quarterback Earl Morrall into the play.

"The first time we ran it I got the block wrong and got stuffed," Nowatzke said. "I told Earl to call it again and we would score. He did and we did."

That of course set the stage for Curtis' pick off the fingertips of Dallas receiver Dan Reeves. Three plays later, O'Brien kicked the 32-yard field goal to make history. Logan's steal of Craig Morton finished off the day.

That crowning moment of Nowatzke's career. He hung around another season and even played some linebacker. But Matte was back, and the Colts had drafted Don McCauley and Don Nottingham. The following season, along came Joe Thomas, the grim reaper who wiped out the Colts early in the 1972 season.

Nowatzke had become involved with a heavy trucking company during his days in Detroit, so he had a comfortable option to butting heads with the likes of Bob Lilly and Jethro Pugh. He soon owned the Nowatzke Truck & Trailer Co. in Whitmore Lake, Mich., and there he dwells today. A documentary on his career is in the works, and he still is active in retired players' groups.

Like Nowatzke, many of the members of the 1970 team are involved in various charitable activities. Havrilak says there are no formal plans for a 40-year celebration, but there is talk of a possible retired players' event in the spring, perhaps in conjunction with later successful Baltimore teams of the ‘70s.

"It was a great time, a great season," said Nowatzke. "I played 11 games, two playoffs and the Super Bowl with the same guys. The Baltimore fans were fabulous and the Colts could do no wrong. I still stay in touch with Danny Sullivan, Ted Hendricks, Earl Morrall, some others. Losing John Unitas (Sept. 11, 2002) really hurt. You don't forget people like that."

-- Larry Harris

Issue 155: November 2010

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