Braase, alone at the reunion Football: Today's gathering of the 1958 Colts will be a celebration and a time for one ex-player to reflect on the loss of his wife.

November 19, 1998|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Unitas and Berry. Moore and Marchetti. Even now, the names quicken the pulse as they roll off the tongue.

Forty years ago, the Baltimore Colts edged the New York Giants, in sudden death for the NFL title in what is unabashedly called The Greatest Game Ever Played.

Tonight, 28 members of that championship team plan to huddle for a sentimental reunion at Martin's West.

The '58 Colts are back, racing the clock one last time.

"If we don't do something now, there may not be many guys around for the 50th," said Ordell Braase, who helped organize the anniversary affair.

It's the first reunion of the team, said Braase, 66, a Colts defensive end for 12 years.

"We'll tell all the old war stories -- plus the lies," he said. "We'll relive the memories of some of the best times of our lives, when we were young and full of ourselves and members of the best football team in the whole world."

Widows of six of the eight deceased Colts will be there. Braase, too, must come alone. His wife, Janice, died last year of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Braase insisted that proceeds from the banquet and a luncheon tomorrow go toward ALS research. Both events are sold out and are expected to raise roughly $200,000 to help Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions study the disease.

"Seeing what Janice went through convinced me that this [benefit] had to be done," he said.

College sweethearts, the Braases had been married 43 years when Janice contracted ALS, a fatal neuromuscular ailment that leaves its victims unable to swallow, speak or move. About 30,000 Americans suffer from the disease, which usually kills in two to five years.

Janice Braase lasted six months. She died in October 1997, at 63.

"Her mind was sharp to the end," Braase said. "The day before she died, she asked the doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital when she could go home. He thought she meant Towson. 'No,' she said, 'when can I go to heaven?' "

Braase still wrestles with his loss. Their home in Towson remains just as Janice left it, including the flower garden that the former All-Pro struggles to maintain. From time to time, his 3-year-old retriever, TJ, fishes Janice's shoes from the bedroom closet, places them at Braase's feet and stares quizzically up at him.

After her body was cremated, Braase placed Janice's ashes in a white marble box on a living room table. Surrounding the box are a small ceramic angel (a gift from the widow of Colts great Alan Ameche), a photograph of the happy couple and one fresh red rose.

During her illness, a friend had given Janice a rose bush. Braase planted it in the front yard. Curiously, the shrub bloomed in December -- two months after her death.

"I swear it was a sign from Janice," Braase said.

One night last winter, he awoke at 3 a.m. with the odd sensation that he wasn't alone.

"I had this unbelievable warm feeling that Janice was there beside me," he said. "I swear to God, she was there hugging me."

Briefly, Braase basked in spiritual joy, a moment he'll cherish forever.

"Janice loved to talk, to communicate," he said. "I'll bet she said, 'I'm going to break away [from heaven], go back down there and give it one last shot.' "

Braase's continuing devotion to his wife is not surprising, given their closeness throughout the marriage. Their relationship flourished despite the demands of pro football.

Before the 1958 championship game, Colts management broke tradition and banned players' wives from the team flight to New York. "Weeb [Ewbank, the coach] thought the wives would be a distraction," Braase said. "Janice didn't like that."

When Braase checked into his hotel room, the telephone was ringing. It was the Mrs.

"I don't care what Weeb says, I'm driving up there," she told him.

That she did, though seven months' pregnant. On Dec. 28, Janice Braase sat in the stands with several other wives she had talked into making the trip and watched the Colts win.

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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