Memories of 'The Iron Horse' in focus Film by ex-Colt's son looks at dad's Alzheimer's disease

November 03, 1993|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

Every so often, Mark Pellington can see sparks in his father's eyes, the sparks that made Bill Pellington "The Iron Horse," the defensive captain of the 1958 world champion Baltimore Colts, not to mention a devoted husband and father.

But more often these days, what Mark sees in the eyes of his dad is a fog of confusion, a haze brought on by Alzheimer's disease, the degenerative ailment that has robbed Bill Pellington of his memories, and his son of the father he once knew.

"There was a great sense of sadness and anger, anger at my loss," said Mark Pellington. "There were things that I couldn't get from him anymore, and I didn't know how to vent my rage."

To cope with his frustration, Mark, an acclaimed film and music video director, began sifting through old home movies as well as clips of his father in action with the Colts and began to film footage of Bill Pellington in his current state.

The result was "Father's Daze," a 24-minute documentary that ++ aired this July on PBS and will be shown tonight at the Senator Theatre as a part of "A Celebration of Memories," an observance of the 35th anniversary of the Colts' 23-17 overtime win over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship game. It is also a fund-raiser for the Alzheimer's Association.

The film, originally commissioned by KTCA-TV in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., for its "Alive TV" series, is an uncompromising, but loving trip through the life of Bill Pellington, 66, from the days when he romped with his children on the Jersey seashore to today, when he cannot remember that Mark, 31, is his son.

"What I wanted to do was give an impression of my father and the disease. It's about putting memory in perspective and the fragility of memory," said Mark, who has a sister, Stacey, 35, and a brother, Bato, 34. "The fact that he no longer recognizes me as his son meant that I had to re-evaluate my relationship. I wanted to show the joy of his life and that he was a happy person and heroic."

For thousands of Colts fans, Bill Pellington was a hero, as both an offensive guard and linebacker in Baltimore.

Pellington, who was 6 feet 2 and weighed 234 pounds in his playing days, hitchhiked to the Colts' old camp in Westminster after being cut by the Cleveland Browns in 1952, caught on with the team and was a mainstay for 11 seasons.

xTC To be sure, Mark Pellington has included many happy recollections of his father as a football hero, whether it's standing up Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung, or receiving his framed jersey during his retirement ceremony in "Father's Daze."

But they are interspersed with gut-wrenching shots of his dad sitting slumped in a chair in his Timonium home, unable at times to recall thoughts that were presented just seconds before, apparently in what Mark calls the middle to latter stages of the disease -- where he is losing motor skills and some of the ability to speak.

"It's just the aspect that it [Alzheimer's] is so drawn-out and cruel. It's kinder to happen quickly," said Mark. "Everybody can watch it and see their own parents and deal with the notion of your own mortality."

Indeed, Mark's mother, Mickie, who says in the film that her husband's disease makes him "dead, but he's not dead . . . he's alive, but he's not alive" has said that she has discouraged some of Bill's teammates from visiting him, although Jim Mutscheller, Ordell Braase and Art Donovan have been supportive.

"All it would do would be to bum them out. It's such a frightening disease, and there's nothing they can do," said Mickie Pellington, 66. "I think it [the film] will hit them like a ton of bricks. I'm not an optimist. I'm a realist. I know that things aren't going to get better, but we take the good days with the bad."

Mark's credits include Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" video, which earned him four MTV Video Awards, including best director and video of the year. He dedicated "Father's Daze" to Mickie. She has been married to Bill for 36 years, which matches the jersey number he wore in Baltimore, and is, in many ways, a testament to the love and admiration Mark has for her strength.

"People have said that this [the film] is very brave, but what is brave is what my mother is doing or what my dad is doing by hanging on," said Mark. "This is not an issue that's going to go away. We're all strong enough to deal with it and talk about it."

FACTS AND FIGURES

What: "A Celebration of Memories" to include a Colts memorabilia display, performances by the Colt Marching Band, the local premiere of "Father's Daze," a documentary of the life of former Colt Bill Pellington, highlights of the 1958 NFL championship game and the dedication of a commemorative sidewalk.

Where: Senator Theatre, 5904 York Road.

When: Tonight, 7:15.

Cost: $35, with proceeds to benefit the Baltimore/Central Maryland chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. For information, call (410) 435-4933 or (410) 254-0471.

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