But Domres made it easy for Unitas

PACKING UP MEMORIES ...

October 03, 1991|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Evening Sun Staff

On Dec. 3, 1972, John Unitas threw up a prayer and Eddie Hinton answered with a 63-yard touchdown romp to cap the Baltimore Colts' 35-7 rout of the Buffalo Bills.

It stood as Unitas' last hurrah in a Colts uniform at Memorial Stadium and ranks as one of the great moments in Baltimore's football history.

It almost didn't happen, though. On a number of counts.

Before Unitas wrote the fitting climax to his Colts career, a number of events had to unfold.

There was manipulation. It was necessary that starting quarterback Marty Domres go out with an injury, which he did early in the fourth quarter. Unitas had been demoted in the fifth week of the season. In the new regime of owner Robert Irsay, and under the edict of general manager Joe Thomas, coach John Sandusky had been instructed not to play Unitas in the final home game of the season. And it was clear Unitas would have no part in a ceremonial appearance. He would play only if needed.

There was the element of luck. On the play before Unitas threw his final touchdown for the Colts, Lydell Mitchell had fumbled a short pass. Center Bill Curry recovered for the Colts on their 37 to save the moment if not the day.

There was a ring of movie-script magic. Hinton, who had not made a reception all day, made a good catch and a better run to reach the end zone. He had to come back on the ball to get Unitas' wobbly third-down pass at the Buffalo 40-yard line. Then he weaved his way down field, breaking tackles, to complete what seemed a run of destiny.

A crowd of 49,014 that had erupted when Unitas entered the game now gave him a bigger ovation as he went out.

Domres remembers that "a lot of guys had tears in their eyes as John was coming off the field," all of them aware they were sitting in on a historic moment.

But there was also a lingering suspicion about Domres' injury, which supposedly occurred as he scored on a 15-yard touchdown run to make it 28-0. As Evening Sun columnist Bill Tanton wrote at the time, "The whole thing, especially Domres' injury, seemed almost contrived."

Asked after the game if he had faked his injury to afford Unitas one last chance to whip the Colts down the Memorial Stadium turf, Domres said, "No, I would never do anything like that."

Nineteen years later, as the Orioles are preparing to bring down the curtain on Memorial Stadium, Domres tells a slightly different story.

"A guy had hit my hip as I crossed the goal line [on the touchdown run]," he said yesterday. "I had a bruised hip. I went to the sideline and John [Sandusky] asked if I was all right. I said I was fine.

"He said there was no way John [Unitas] would go in the game unless it was necessary. So I said I can't play any more."

Then Marty, you could have finished the game?

"Oh, sure."

Ernie Accorsi, an executive vice president with the Cleveland Browns who was public relations director with the Colts at the time, remembers the moment this way:

"I knew in my heart Domres was faking. He said, 'I can't go back in.' But it was a very classy move on his part."

Ironically, Domres enjoyed his finest game as an NFL quarterback that day, throwing for three touchdowns and running for a fourth. He was named the NFL's offensive player of the week for his performance, but it was Unitas and Mitchell who received game balls.

After his touchdown pass, Unitas came back on the field for one more play to start the next series, but only because Sandusky wanted him to get one final ovation. On what was his final play at Memorial Stadium, Unitas handed off before giving way to Jack Mildren.

"It was a great day all around," Domres said. "It was like seeing Babe Ruth hit his last home run, or Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last at-bat. It was a great moment in sports. It couldn't have worked out any better."

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