Salata, with his Colt and movie star past, couldn't help but get in on city's NFL act

John Steadman

August 25, 1992|By John Steadman

You'll never hear a boast or brag from Paul Salata, who played in the movies and also for the Baltimore Colts when the team once lost 18 games in a row. It was 1950, the first year they were in the National Football League. He was an in-season pickup, but stayed long enough to catch 50 passes in six games and tied Cloyce Box for third place among all receivers.

Salata was a part of a team that was short of everything. It ended the schedule with only 25 men in uniform. But he never forgot the spirit the city had for football. This is why he's going to be in Baltimore for Thursday night's reunion of former Colts and, along with 70 others, will be introduced at halftime of the Miami Dolphins-New Orleans Saints exhibition.

An ability to catch was such a natural reaction for Salata. He had played in the St. Louis Browns' farm system as an outfielder and had hands like a magnet. Put him with Raymond Berry, Tom Fears, Don Hutson, even Brooks Robinson, or any Hall of Fame player you want to name.

He was a standout at the University of Southern California, scored a touchdown in the 1945 shutout of Tennessee and was a member of the celebrated Randolph Field Air Force team that became the Fort Worth Skymasters. After his experience with the Colts, who folded at the end of 1950, he rebuffed both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles.

The Canadian Football League called, offering twice as much money so he became a Calgary Stampeder. Meanwhile, he was playing in the movies, with roles in "Stalag 17," "Angels In The Outfield," "Ten Commandments," "Jokers Wild" and probably 50 other feature films. But never an Academy Award nomination.

"You're not right about that," he said facetiously. "I put my own name in once. Unfortunately, I didn't get any support. I guess John Wayne, Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck crowded me out."

Salata never made the mistake of taking himself seriously. He turned from films and football to finance and today, at 65, is protecting his investments. John Unitas, the Colts' Hall of Fame quarterback, a friend of Salata, likes to tell of a visit to his California home.

"Actress Ann-Margret lived nearby in Newport Beach," recalled Unitas. "I didn't want to ask him how much his house cost but a friend said the cheapest place you could buy in the neighborhood was for $2.5 million. I never had a chance to play with Paul. He was slightly before my time, but everyone talks about his remarkable talent in catching the ball."

Most of the money Salata made came from underground construction, the installation of sewer lines. "We used to say 'flush without fear' and then changed it to 'go with the flow,' " he quipped. "That led to another business, rock and gravel. Now I tend to investments."

Salata is one of the most in-demand banquet speakers in the country. He gets up without a note and extemporaneously, via a subtle sense of humor, usually mocks himself. It was his imagination and ingenuity to conceive a plan to honor the last player drafted by any NFL team.

The anchor-draftee is brought to Orange County for a week of festivities, presented at a banquet and given a carload of valuable gifts. It's called "Irreverent Week," a Salata production, to salute the man who is the league's final selection.

"I'm coming to Baltimore for the crab feast for Joe Ehrmann's charity and hope to be with Art Donovan, John Unitas, Art Spinney, Sisto Averno, Ed King, who was our teammate with the Colts, and all the others. King became governor of Massachusetts. Now that's not done every day. When I was with the Colts, they were erecting Memorial Stadium and only half the stands were completed. Now I'm coming back and they're going to build a new one.

"Do I believe Baltimore is going to get an expansion team? Absolutely. Baltimore can't be denied. The NFL and Baltimore complement each other. This city has it all."

In his baseball life, Salata was playing in the Texas League with San Antonio and, in an exhibition against the Milwaukee Brewers, turned to run down a long drive. He thought he had a chance of making the catch, but the ball was headed out of the park, which Paul didn't realize. Suddenly, the fence. Boom. A dreadful collision.

Knocked unconscious, the trainer put a cold pack to his head and said he had taken a severe blow. What then did Salata say as he looked up from a horizontal position? "That wasn't so bad. I had been hit harder than that by Marion Motley." But it was maybe the only time in baseball history an outfielder blasted himself against the wall on a ball bound for a home run.

Salata is a committee member for the Pigskin Classic played tomorrow night in Anaheim between Stanford and Texas A&M, the opening of the college football season, but is giving that up to come back for a Colts' homecoming. Class of 1950 and proud of it.

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