Former Colt Stark faces team he fled Familiar foe: Punter Rohn Stark, the last active Baltimore Colt, left the team after 13 years to play with a winner in Pittsburgh. Now those teams meet Sunday for the AFC championship.

January 10, 1996|By Rick Gosselin | Rick Gosselin,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

PITTSBURGH -- Rohn Stark was tired of all the losing. He wanted to play for an NFL team that could make the playoffs and compete for championships. Thirteen years of losing were enough for any player.

So Stark signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers and now finds himself one game away from the Super Bowl -- but the team standing in his way is the team he fled in the off-season, the Indianapolis Colts.

The Colts visit Pittsburgh on Sunday to play the Steelers in the AFC championship game. Stark certainly didn't expect to see his old team playing this late in January, much less against his new team.

"I don't think anybody did," Stark said. "They surprised a lot of people."

Put Stark at the top of the list. He is the last of the Baltimore Colts, having been drafted in 1982 before the team moved to Indianapolis. He spent the next 13 seasons establishing himself as one of the great punters in NFL history. But it's a team sport, and his team was killing him.

The Colts managed only three winning seasons in Stark's 13 years and qualified for the playoffs just once, winning the AFC East title in 1987 with a 9-6 record.

The Colts were blown out by Cleveland in that lone playoff game, 38-21, so Stark's one playoff experience was easily forgotten amid the rubble of an 0-8-1 season by the Colts in 1982, a 3-13 season in 1986 and a 1-15 season in 1991.

When free agency arrived in 1993, Stark started counting down the days. His contract with the Colts expired in 1994, and Stark didn't look back.

"When you play in one playoff game in 13 years, that doesn't inspire you to want to lengthen your career with a team," Stark said. "When an opportunity like this with the Steelers came along, you have to take it."

The frustrating part for Stark was that, despite Indy's mountain of defeats, he never felt the Colts were that far away.

"I was an optimist," Stark said. "I felt we were close every year. They were doing all the right things when I was there. You could go down the list of the moves they made to make that a better football team. . . . They got Eric Dickerson. Over the last three or four years they've had an abundance of No. 1 draft picks, and they've done well in free agency, signing guys like Tony Bennett."

"For 13 years they searched for the right combination, but nothing ever seemed to work."

Stark won three NFL punting titles for the Colts and went to four Pro Bowls. He ranks fourth in NFL history in punts with 1,044 and fifth in average at 43.8 yards.

Oddly enough, Stark did some of his worst punting for his best team. His 40.1-yard average and 33.3-yard net average this season were dreadful by his standards. Only in 1987 -- his other playoff season -- was he worse. Still, he had no punts blocked and none returned for touchdowns as the Steelers surged to an AFC Central title with an 11-5 record.

Two more victories would give Stark the best season of his

14-year career, regardless of his statistics, so he's not looking at the Colts on Sunday as his ex-team.

"Playing the Colts really pales in comparison to what everybody feels in this locker room," Stark said. "We all have a responsibility to each other. I would rather play well for the guys in this room than for me personally because it's the Colts."

NFL playoffs

AFC championship

Teams: Indianapolis (11-7) at Pittsburgh (12-5)

Time: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Line: Steelers by 11

NFC championship

Teams: Green Bay (13-5) at Dallas (12-4)

Time: Sunday, 4 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Line: Cowboys by 9

Super Bowl

Jan. 28 at Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz., 6:20 p.m.

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