'Grass Was Real': And so was the game

October 25, 1993|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

With Baltimore's bid for an National Football League expansion team in its stretch run -- NFL owners will vote tomorrow on which two cities to add -- it's an appropriate time to look back at the way things once were for football fans in this city.

That's why Baltimore fans who are old enough to remember those grand days, and even the ones that are too young to remember them, will enjoy "When the Grass Was Real."

Although the book opens with the storied 1958 championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, it is a story of the 1960s -- which the book cover calls "the 10 best years of pro football."

It would be hard to argue with that assessment.

It's unfortunate that those days couldn't be frozen in time. Things change -- and unfortunately they changed for the worse.

That was the last decade of just pure football for the real fans. Pro football wasn't yet the thing to do. There wasn't any big money in the game. There were no luxury boxes or club seats. The fans were captivated by the game itself.

It might have been the last age of heroes. The book cover mentions Johnny Unitas, Jimmy Brown, Vince Lombardi, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Joe Namath and "All the Rest."

The strange thing is that the last people who got the message that pro football was on the verge of a great leap forward were the owners themselves. As the decade started, there were only 12 NFL teams. The owners had no intention of adding any more.

"Occasionally someone called for expansion. Nothing was done," Carroll writes.

Sound familiar?

What happened next was that a young Texas oilman named Lamar Hunt had a "light bulb go on over my head." Noting that groups from so many cities were trying to buy the Chicago Cardinals to move them, he decided to try to start his own league. He first contacted another Texas oilman named Bud Adams.

"If he hadn't been interested, I wouldn't have gone on and we never would have proceeded," Mr. Hunt said.

Of course, Mr. Adams was interested, the American Football League was founded in 1960, and we know the rest. The war between the two leagues led to a merger, the Super Bowl and the explosion from 12 to 26 teams in that decade. That was the end of the era of growth in the NFL. Even with next week's expansion, the league will have only 30 teams.

On the field, the dominant team was Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, who won five championships. But the Baltimore Colts had the glamour player -- Mr. Unitas at quarterback -- and were always in the race. They just fell a bit short, losing the 1964 championship game in Cleveland, the Tom Matte wristband playoff game in Green Bay in 1965 and the season finale and a playoff berth in Los Angeles in 1967 (despite going in with an 11-0-2 mark). Then there's the Colts' defeat by Mr. Namath's New York Jets in Super Bowl III in 1969.

Don Shula is such a revered figure now that it's easy to overlook those times in the early to mid-1960s when he was the Colts' coach during those big losses. As Mr. Carroll writes, "Hence, the whispers: Shula couldn't win the big one." Mr. Shula silenced the critics with two Super Bowl victories in the 1970s. Alas, he did it as coach of the Miami Dolphins.

But the Colts were always playing in the big games in those days. They were the victims in the best game of the decade -- a 20-15 loss to the Detroit Lions in 1960 at Memorial Stadium. Mr. Unitas threw a touchdown pass to Lenny Moore with 14 seconds left, but Detroit's Earl Morrall trumped it with one to Jim Gibbons on the final play.

Unfortunately, Mr. Carroll brushes off that game in one sentence was immortalized in George Plimpton's "Paper Lion.") This book is often too superficial and misses many of the nuances that made the game so interesting in those days.

For example, he writes about how George Allen's Los Angeles Rams beat the Green Bay Packers -- on a blocked punt -- and the Colts in the final two games of the 1967 season to win the division title.

What he left out was that the Packers had clinched their division championship, but it wasn't Lombardi's style to let his team coast and rest his starters. They played all-out in a game that meant nothing to them and would have won it but for a blocked punt. Those were the days when Lombardi was a larger-than-life figure stalking the sidelines. He wasn't just a name on a Super Bowl trophy.

Those games, and those times, built the foundation for the league's success in the next two decades. It culminated in billion-dollar TV contracts.

Unfortunately, their success tarnished the game. It also led to antitrust trials, player strikes and franchise shifts -- including the heartbreaking move of the Colts in 1984.

Baltimore fans will find out soon if they'll get another chance to root for a home team. This book gives them a chance to remember the days when one of the best belonged to them.

Vito Stellino covers pro football for The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "When the Grass Was Real"

Author: Bob Carroll

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 302 pages, $27.50

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