Weeb And Night To Remember

April 25, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

They were there to be with their coach, known by the distinctive name of Weeb since the day his young baby brother began to talk and couldn't say Wilbur. He made the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the basis of transforming two of the world's worst teams into world champions and winning classic games that created an indelible imprint on the records of the sport.

Wilbur "Weeb" Ewbank was in the company of four of his former Baltimore Colts, the team that won what's referred to as the greatest game ever played, the sudden-death victory over the New York Giants in 1958.

Ewbank came to Baltimore from his home in Ohio for an appearance at an autograph party and his host, Larry Brocato, had a dinner in his honor. He was flanked by Andy Nelson and Jim Mutscheller on one side; Ordell Braase and Madison "Buzz" Nutter on the other.

Next month, Ewbank will reach his 88th birthday. He's mentally alert, quick to recall past events and has a special fondness and loyalty to old friends -- especially his former players. It was an occasion for "do you remember when," of fond recollections, laughs and nostalgia.

Ewbank was coaching the Colts when the player limit was 33 and there were only 12 teams. It took an extraordinary talent to make a roster. For a third- string quarterback, to be used in only an emergency, Ewbank always had a defensive halfback ready to fill the breach, if necessary.

He utilized Don Shula, then Andy Nelson and Ray Brown in the standby role. "When Brown took a couple snaps, he had trouble taking the exchange," said Nutter. "You wanted to know, Weeb, what was going on.

"Brown claimed I was sweating on the ball and it was too slippery to handle. Then you jumped all over me Weeb and said if I didn't drink so much beer I wouldn't be sweating."

Laughter filled the room. Nelson recited how he was so intimidated with the thought of coming to the National Football League he was late reporting. "I came running down the hill at training camp at Western Maryland College and L.G. Dupre looked up and said, 'You mean to tell me this skinny guy is what we've been waiting on for 10 days.' "

But Nelson showed he could play and became a starting safety man. "You got to remember I was from a small town in Alabama called Athens and the NFL was like a different world in my mind."

Then Andy mentioned that Ewbank in his first practice had him defending Raymond Berry. "I think you wanted to get me out of there in a hurry, Weeb."

Nutter talked about a game in Cleveland against the Browns in 1956. Tackle Tom Finnin and end Don Joyce pounded on two veteran Browns, Abe Gibron and Lou Groza, so bad that Gibron was traded in midseason and Groza became a full-time kicker.

"Finnin and Joyce were about as physical as you can get," agreed Ewbank. "I remember how they dominated Gibron and Groza. And how about Bill Pellington? He was a great fellow and tough as they come."

Ewbank said in a game against the Detroit Lions he told Pellington to give Jim Doran something extra to think about, meaning to box him in, to bump and harass him. The next thing he sees from the sideline is Doran going down for the count.

"Pellington was coming off the field when the ball changed and I asked him what happened to Doran. He held his thumb and forefinger up and said, 'Weeb, honest to God, my fist only went this far.' "

It was an era of the NFL when taking a battering was part of the game. Face masks weren't being worn. "I think Pellington was the best outside linebacker I ever saw anywhere," insisted Mutscheller. "He knew the technical part of football, was smart and mean."

Ewbank looked toward Braase. "The best thing that happened to him was going in the Army, where he grew physically. As a rookie he was only 210 pounds and couldn't compete at that weight."

But he answered the draft call, played at Fort Ord and returned two years later 30 pounds heavier. "Weeb, we had a really great team back then," and Ewbank knew what he meant.

"Yes, I always believed you win with good people. You need talent, but each player in a team concept has to be a good person. I put emphasis on that."

Ewbank coached with four assistants in Baltimore and six with the New York Jets, when he later beat the Colts in the most monumental upset in Super Bowl history. He thinks it's ridiculous NFL coaching staffs now number 11, 12 and even 13 assistants.

"Yes, and I was my own offensive coordinator. I actually think the more assistants you have the greater chance there is for mistakes. The coaches don't have enough to do and things slip by."

Ewbank has continually refused to compare title teams in Baltimore and New York.

But he did agree with a sportswriter's assessment that the greatest team he ever saw was the 1950 Cleveland Browns, where Ewbank was an assistant to Paul Brown. "I've thought about that and am of the same opinion," he was quick to say. Case closed.

It was Ewbank, when coaching in Baltimore, who brought back what was dubbed the flea-flicker. He recycled it in the mid-1950s and every team now has it in its playbook.

Ewbank was built for the long haul, a survivor. The four Colts -- Braase, Nutter, Mutscheller and Nelson -- surrounded Ewbank for a "team picture" before they called it a night.

Ewbank has been married for 68 years, no exaggeration, to the former Lucy Massey. They have three daughters, eight grandchildren and so many great-grandchildren Weeb may have lost count.

About the longevity of his marriage, he mentions there was never a doubt; it seemingly has a chance to stick.

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