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
In the long-ago innocence of his rookie training camp with the Baltimore Colts, a young Mike Curtis once threatened to commit extracurricular bodily harm against a teammate named John Constantine Unitas. In pro football circles, such behavior is considered a God-given killer instinct.
Later, when playing linebacker for the Colts against the Los Angeles Rams, a blitzing Curtis once yanked at quarterback Roman Gabriel's helmet so ferociously that observers expected stuffing to come flying out of Gabriel's head. This, too, was a moment deemed marvelous among the aficionados of organized hitting.
For these and other acts, Curtis was affectionately known as Mad Dog during his playing days. Throughout his dozen years in the National Football League, most of them with the Colts, Curtis was the only player ever named All-Pro at both middle and outside linebacker. Once, he was the American Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
He went to one Pro Bowl after another. He had 25 career interceptions, including one that helped give the Colts their last-second Super Bowl V triumph against the Dallas Cowboys. He did enough to be named that game's Most Valuable Player, but that honor went to Dallas' Chuck Howley.
There's another accolade Curtis hasn't received: induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And a lot of people, still vividly recalling Curtis' exploits from a distance of nearly four decades, find this a terrible oversight.
Curtis' friends have been crusading for several years now to convince Hall of Fame voters to let him in. Some of these friends are old teammates, and some are old foes. Many Hall of Fame inductees have sent letters of support.
All of this is a kind of last blitz, a final grasp at immortality.
And Curtis' supporters would like it to happen while he, now 70 and his memory starting to slip, can still appreciate it.
"Absolutely, this guy should be in the Hall of Fame," said Ernie Accorsi, who knows a few things about the game.
Accorsi was the Colts' director of public relations during the early 1970s -- the latter half of Curtis' career in Baltimore -- and also held jobs as the club's assistant general manager (1977-81) and general manager (1981 and '82) before becoming GM of the Cleveland Browns and then the New York Giants.
"In my mind," said Accorsi, now a consultant with the NFL, "this guy's not even borderline. He's absolute Hall of Fame. As a linebacker, he dominated his era -- he and maybe Willie Lanier. He was the Dick Butkus of his era. But Mike could drop and cover better than Butkus.
"He wasn't pretty. He wasn't stylish. But you ask a guy like Bill Curry" -- the Colts' center for much of Curtis' career, who had to butt heads with him all week during practice -- "he'll tell you, the toughest job he had all week was blocking Curtis. Game day was a relief."
Curry has repeatedly said that Curtis was a great player, and an absolute Hall of Famer.
"When this guy played ball," Curry said, "it's like he was going to war."
Other old teammates confirmed Curtis' ever-burning volcanic fire.
"[Curtis was] a great player who gave you 150 percent at all times," said Tom Matte, an ex-halfback who still remembers Curtis clotheslining him one day during practice maybe 40 years ago. "We didn't get along too well, to be honest with you, and I think some of our own guys were scared of him. But [he was] a hell of a football player, let me tell you."
Former Colts defensive back Bruce Laird said Curtis was tenacious, tough and a terrific football player.
"Once you got past a week of practice with Mike," Laird said, "the actual game was a day at the beach."
Among the people who have sent letters endorsing Curtis' Hall induction are former Colts Hall of Famers, such as Gino Marchetti and Art Donovan, Lenny Moore and Don Shula; old foes, such as Ozzie Newsome, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, Mike Ditka, Paul Hornung, Bobby Mitchell, Sonny Jurgensen, Bob Lilly and Fran Tarkenton; and more than two dozen others.
And yet, in all the years since Curtis' retirement in 1978, Hall of Fame voters have bypassed him -- a distinction highlighted by a 2003 book, "The Gridiron's Greatest Linebackers," by NFL historian Jonathan Rand, in which Curtis is listed as the 19th-best linebacker of all time. Of the 25 linebackers featured, Curtis is one of only three who are currently eligible for Hall of Fame induction and not yet enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
For Baltimoreans of a certain era, Curtis is a reminder of the glory days on 33rd Street. It was a time before Robert Irsay became owner of the Colts and began his destruction of a championship organization, and a time of special bonding between players and fans. That bond later disappeared, until the arrival of the Ravens brought it back to life.
But, even by traditional measures of affection, Curtis stood out.
After games, he felt the need for more contact. Some years back, over a late-night drink at the Mt. Washington Tavern, Curtis remembered: "You know what I used to do after games? I used to drive down to east Baltimore and find a bar and sit there with all those guys from Highlandtown and Middle River. They were our people, see? They were hard-working guys like us, and they loved us."
Behind the tough guy's façade, sensitivity shone through.
"We were connected at the hip with these people," he said, clenching his jaw repeatedly. "It felt like we were attached to this town at our very core. You understand what I'm saying? It felt like we were attached at our souls."
That was a tender moment from a fellow considered a killer even among his sport's toughest guys. It went against Curtis' entire football reputation, dating back to his college days at Duke.
In fact, some of his old Duke teammates have been the biggest lobbyists in the Curtis Hall of Fame campaign.
"Knowing Mike from his time in college, and knowing how tough and skilled he was, and then following his pro career, he should have been elected the first time around," said Dr. J. William Futrell, a clinical professor of surgery at the University of Pittsburgh who played college ball with Curtis. "He was our best athlete, and our toughest. I have a memory, and Mike denies it, but it's true. A rainy game -- he's linebacker and I'm defensive halfback -- against Michigan, I think it was.
"He and I hit somebody together and took him down. I got up and looked down at Mike, who made the main tackle. He was the last to get up. He put his hand on this guy's helmet and face, and turned it, so it was face down in the mud, and got up like that. The guy may have known it was Mike, because he didn't say anything. But it was right in front of the opposition's bench.
"I said, 'Damn, Mike, if you're gonna do that, do it near our sideline, not theirs.' He looked at me like, 'Shut your mouth, or I'll do it to you.' You know, he wasn't a dirty player at all. It was just, 'Let's go out there and break some bones.' But not in an ugly way."
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Issue 186: June 2013