This is an honor Mike Utley knows about and wants so much to receive. It will be a struggle for a partially paralyzed patient, still undergoing therapy, to move from a Denver hospital room to a banquet hall in Baltimore, but he craves to do it. Cheering on the sidelines are his Detroit Lions teammates, who voted him the distinction.
Utley's first "road" trip since the spinal injury sustained in a game against the Los Angeles Rams last season is for the purpose of attending the Ed Block Courage Awards, which are being held in Baltimore for the 14th successive year on March 3. Each National Football League team decides on a player to represent it who demonstrated the highest degree of character, fortitude and determination.
The vote in the Lions' locker room was a mere formality. There were no other nominations. Only Utley. "He told us he's going to be here," said Mary Jones, president of the Block committee. "Mike has a positive focus on what we are all about. It's likely he will be accompanied by his parents, his girlfriend and a doctor."
It's an occasion when the NFL will turn its attentions toward Baltimore and again be impressed with the outstanding record that has been achieved. To date an imposing $1.7 million has been raised for charity, with most all of it going to helping the St. Vincent's Center.
The event has evolved into a three-day participation for the players, in which they are entertained at numerous receptions but are never far away from their purpose in being here -- to realize and assist the immense needs of St. Vincent's and its abused children.
It has all happened because a barber and hair stylist, one Sam Lamantia, who stays so far in the background he refuses even to be introduced to the crowd, has shown extraordinary imagination and organizational ability. He's a strong-willed director who insists on a well-defined program, mixing sports and charity, where brevity is essential.
"The reason our corporate sponsors are willing to put so much into the Ed Block Courage Awards is because they know its purpose and have seen what it accomplishes," explained Lamantia. "American Airlines, the Tremont Hotels and so many others, who have been so charitable in offering their services, truly realize what this is all about."
Lamantia believes his involvement is unimportant, that he's merely an instrument for doing good. Taking bows isn't his style. The office of the NFL commissioner is aware of what has taken place and recognizes its effectiveness and purity of purpose.
Besides the 28 players attending, there will be a Hall of Fame delegation, possibly all 11 former Baltimore Colts, including Art Donovan, Lenny Moore, John Unitas, John Mackey, Jim Parker, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Joe Perry, Y.A. Tittle, Ted Hendricks and coach Weeb Ewbank. Only Marchetti and Tittle have failed, as of this date, to confirm.
A retiring coach, Chuck Noll, a onetime Baltimore assistant who is destined for the Hall of Fame after his sterling accomplishments with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the youngest incoming head coach, David Shula, a former Colts kick returner now in charge of the Cincinnati Bengals, will be present.
Lamantia also is attempting to include center Tom Goode, holder Earl Morrall and kicker Jim O'Brien, who combined on the snap-hold-and-kick that gave Baltimore a 16-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V. Ed McCaskey, chairman of the board of the Chicago Bears, will be honored for his contributions to the NFL and accept a grant for the formation of what is tobe the second "Courage House" erected in a city outside of Baltimore.
"Last year, we established a 'Courage House' for children in Pittsburgh, perpetuating the name of the late Steelers owner, Art Rooney," said Lamantia. "We want to keep the national aspect expanding, to different NFL cities, but, at the same time, supporting St. Vincent's."
The Ed Block Courage Awards have been going on for 14 years, the last eight on a league-wide basis to help fill an identity void when the Colts were stolen away and taken to Indianapolis. The charitable under taking is a remarkable concept that has to be seen to be fully understood. To start with, it's all volunteer. There are no executive directors or committees drawing salaries.
The result of all this goodness and hard work: a combined $1.7 million raised for abused children and their families at the St. Vincent's Home via the banquet and donor contributions.
The three potential owners of a Baltimore expansion franchise will be present to view, probably for the first time, what the Ed Block Courage Awards represent. Block was a Colts' trainer who died in 1983 after giving unselfishly to humanity. It was the idea of The Evening Sun's Larry Harris and Ernie Accorsi, director of football operations for the Cleveland Browns, that this one-of-a-kind banquet should carry his name.