Spinney was block of intensity Colts came to admire

June 01, 1994|By John Steadman

BOSTON -- There was almost a spiritual devotion in the way Art Spinney played football. He had an intensity that set him apart as he blocked with proficiency for Baltimore Colts teams that won two world championships.

Two former teammates from the Colts and Boston College, Art Donovan and Ed King, were present today for Art Spinney's funeral in the nearby community of Saugus. Spinney, 66, died from a heart attack last week after telling his wife he was having trouble breathing.

Spinney played in two Pro Bowl games as a Colt and was voted All-Pro in 1959 during a nine-year National Football League career. Spinney, like the other highly dependable guard, Alex Sandusky, was a converted defensive end. They became a vital part of the interior line during the Colts' most successful reign. Art was the complete offensive lineman, a solid blocker for the passer who led running plays with equal competence.

Against the New York Giants and opposing defensive tackle Roosevelt Grier, it was no contest. Spinney nullified Grier's size and strength in a way that made it appear the Giants were playing with only 10 men. Coaches and fellow players, in an effort to exhort Grier to greater heights when they got ready to meet the Colts, would accuse him of catching a "case of Spinneyitis."

But Art never gloated. He was too much a professional. After the 1959 title game, the second championship for the Colts, Spinney sought out Grier and told him, "Big fellow, you were tough to handle."

Quarterback John Unitas, whom Spinney always referred to as "our meal ticket," remembered the domination and related an on-the field anecdote.

"In the 1958 championship," Unitas remembered, "Grier complained of being held. On the next play, Art drove Rosey off the line with a tremendous block, then looked at the official and said, 'How was that, Mr. Official?' The official smiled and answered, 'A great block, son, a great block.' "

Donovan, a teammate of Spinney's in the college and pro ranks, shook his head in obvious respect and exclaimed, "What a tough guy and competitor. He never took a cheap shot. He gave the game everything and never let up. I loved him like a brother."

King, the only NFL player ever to become governor of a state (Massachusetts), also played with Spinney at B.C. and the Colts of 1950.

"He was the toughest single person I ever encountered," said King. "He handed out punishment with clean, hard-hitting, but he'd play himself into total fatigue. As an individual, he was one good, solid American man."

Donovan and King recalled he was the only non-war veteran, just a kid out of high school, who started on a talent-laden B.C. team comprised of older players returning from World War II. He played four straight varsity seasons, joined the 1950 Colts and then, three years later, returned to Baltimore from the Cleveland Browns in the same trade that brought Don Shula, Carl Taseff and Bert Rechichar.

"He was held in the highest esteem as a player and gentleman," said end Jim Mutscheller, another former Colt who attended the funeral. "A lot of times, players on the line would forget their assignments on a play but Art would tell them as they headed to the line of scrimmage. He could have played on any team in any era of football."

Spinney was one of the few Episcopalians to play at Boston College, a Jesuit school. That came about after Cornell forgot it sent him to Manlius, a military prep school in Syracuse, N.Y., and he was left "high and dry" after coach Ed McKeever resigned at Cornell. Fortunately, Spinney's high school coach, Dave Lucey, had joined the B.C. staff and provided entree for him to enroll there.

During the glory times of the Colts, the Bethlehem Steel Co. hired 12 players for an off-season training program that would lead to top management positions.

When it was over, Steve Eusted, a Bethlehem official, said, "All the players performed well. But it's our opinion the standout is Spinney, who has exceptional leadership qualities. I believe he could go to the top in our company if that's what he wants to do."

But Spinney wanted to marry Mary G. Pappas, a girl from his hometown of Saugus, Mass., and live there. He rejected the Bethlehem proposal and went into coaching with the New England Patriots, later turning down Don Shula when he wanted him to become an assistant with the Miami Dolphins. For the past 15 years he worked for the Massachusetts Port Authority and then the State Department of Transportation in public relations capacities.

Art Spinney was tough, tenacious, talented. He possessed well-developed techniques that made him one of the most skillful guards in an era when salaries were modest and pro football players were a select fraternity -- only 12 teams with 34 players on a roster, which tells you much about the quality of the game and the men on the field.

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