Anything that moved on a football field attracted Mike Curtis' attention. He came to play and to hit. A thoroughbred. Totally consumed with knocking down ball carriers. Yet a man whose own individuality nearly always compelled him to profess and defend an unpopular view.
Personally and politically, he was different from the masses. He had a separate and distinct identity. Strong-willed and, at times, mysterious. It was once his desire to run for the U.S. Senate from Maryland and then he changed his mind which, if you'll pardon an individual observation, was a setback for his native state.
Curtis' career as a linebacker for the Baltimore Colts brought him such professional respect that the New York Jets, in Super Bowl III, designed their offensive plans to avoid his position. It was the sincerest of compliments, not a gesture.
He once played with a three-pound cast to protect an injured arm, resigned from the players association when he didn't agree with its policies (demanding his membership fees be returned) and tackled a spectator who tried to steal a football in broad daylight. In so many ways, he walked alone, which gave him a rare distinction in a sport where individuals usually subjugate themselves to boring similarity.
Curtis came off as something of a rebel but this is a false reading because, bottom line, he was devoted to fairness and had a deceptive shyness about him. With all this as a preamble, it is most appropriate tonight that the Atlantic Coast Conference, holding its postseason banquet at the Omni Hotel, will present him its Distinguished Football Alumnus Award.
Duke University, his alma mater, has every right to be proud. Curtis, in return, is indebted to what the school was able to do for him. "It taught me how to focus on things that were important," he said. "Nothing ever made me happier than when I got a diploma from Duke. As a freshman, I had three failing grades and I was embarrassed."
Before he left, his name was on the honor roll. He wears a Duke University ring instead of the Super Bowl ring he won with the Colts when they defeated the Dallas Cowboys in 1971. Why? "Simply because Duke put me on a whole new path. It represented four years of hard study. The Super Bowl was only one football game. It didn't change my life. But when I consider what Duke meant in what's important, I realize it was an experience that will always be with me."
At present Curtis lives in Potomac, Md., and is associated with the Vector Realty Group in Washington, specializing in the sale of apartment buildings. After being a No. 1 draft pick of the Colts, who first thought of him as an offensive fullback, he played 11 years in the National Football League and, in four of those seasons, was voted to the Pro Bowl.
"I liked playing for Don Shula," he said. "His screaming and yelling could get on your nerves, but I do know that he could put a team together and make it win. His talent was such that he could take a lot of average players and get them to play way above their ability."
His college coach was the much respected Bill Murray. "He was an honorable gentleman who wouldn't cheat or take advantage of anyone. Some assistant coaches might want you to hurt an opposing player to get him out of the game but that wasn't Bill Murray's style. My respect can hardly be put into words. I imagine George Washington was a lot like Bill Murray."
The two Super Bowls, the loss to the Jets and the win over the Cowboys two years later, are paramount in his mind. "Losing to the Jets was the most painful, negative thing in my life. It was only one silly little football game but it made an impact. What hurt is we lost to a team that was far inferior. That's more than an impression. We should have won easily but didn't.
"Beating the Cowboys was far from pretty. We weren't the same type team that got upset by the Jets. The game with the Cowboys was far from super. It had all kinds of blunders, fumbles and interceptions. Maybe the Cowboys deserved to win. But, to me, it was as if a power in heaven felt we were owed the win for losing to the Jets. That's how I've always looked at it."
Mike Curtis . . . a forceful physical specimen. But never a cheap-shot artist in delivering crushing-type tackles that created intimidation. Within him, there's a noble sensitivity and a commendable willingness to respond to needed causes. In person, he's deceptive, belying the intrigue and erroneous reputation that was built around him.