Bad actors of older NFL were mild in comparison

February 10, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SOME OF US can't imagine the Ray Lewis story. We remember yesteryear's bad-boy Baltimore Colts who broke the criminal laws and had the whole town talking. One was Alex Hawkins, the famous Captain Who, whose story made newspaper headlines around the country. He was arrested for playing cards.

Few choirboys were among those old Colts. Some of the livelier fellows would pal around with Blaze Starr at the old Two O'Clock Club on The Block while the vice squad looked the other way. Others, such as Gino Marchetti and Bill Pellington, gulped their beers at Gussie's Downbeat in Highlandtown, the only after-hours club beneath a Chinese laundry, and one that was spared the embarrassment of newspaper headlines by neighborhood cops with a sense of perspective.

Art Donovan once remembered sneaking home from Gussie's at 4 a.m., only to be confronted by his wife.

"Where were you?" she asked.

"I went out early to get a haircut," Donovan said.

The old Colts had a fullback named Joe Don Looney, who lived up to his name by jumping into the ring at a professional wrestling match one night at the old Civic Center and getting himself hauled out by the cops. Another time, police were called because Looney barricaded himself inside his apartment. Later, he explained he was upset that Barry Goldwater had lost the 1964 election.

Some of the Colts hung out at Sweeney's, at Greenmount Avenue and 32nd Street, an establishment declared off-limits to players' wives and other civilized people. One time, linebacker Bill Pellington was arrested for parking his car there and refusing to move it. He was blocking a Fire Department engine company. Pellington said he only wanted to go to Sweeney's and get a "peaceful beer."

Inside the packed Sweeney's another time, the legendary Steve Stonebreaker grabbed a young lady where he shouldn't have.

"What do you think you're doing?" the young lady's boyfriend asked.

"I'm Stonebreaker," the Colts' ferocious linebacker declared.

"Oh, yeah?" the boyfriend said, not terribly impressed. "Well, I'm a bricklayer."

Nobody pulled a weapon over this. Nobody got killed. These were tough, hardened, willful men, but they drew the line before anybody took themselves too seriously. They didn't see themselves operating on a different level of the law than mortals.

The latest on Ray Lewis is a witness saying Lewis was an "active participant" in the fight in which two men were killed and threw at least one punch. But there is a conflicting account, saying Lewis tried to be a peacemaker. We will thus try to console ourselves. An outlaw culture runs through the National Football League -- there are reports that one in five NFL players has a record of "serious crimes" -- but Lewis was not supposed to be that kind of a guy.

He is described as a quiet young man, ferociously hard-working, reveling in his role as the best player in a town hungry to fall in love with its new football team. You'd see him at local crab houses, dining with local folks, respectful and friendly to anyone who approached him.

Then, last summer, there was an incident at a Windsor Mill Road bar when Lewis was charged with assaulting a woman. There were whispers that he was hanging around with the wrong kind of people. Club officials, we are told, wanted to talk to him about some of his friends, but such discussions have to be handled delicately.

Ray Lewis had everything: children, wonderful home, public adoration, enormous money. Some people would look at all of this and opt for a calmer lifestyle to protect what they have. Not necessarily the life of a choirboy, but something where any laws that are broken cause us to laugh, cause us to remember them years later as the actions of a spirited young man.

Such as Alex Hawkins and the card game. It was the back room of a barber shop on Taylor Avenue, 4 o'clock in the morning, and here is Hawkins, in his autobiography, "My Story (And I'm Sticking to It)":

"Four or five policemen burst into the room. The leader of the group blew his opening line when he announced, 'This is a card game ... I mean, a raid.' Since all of us knew it was a card game, we thought it was a Halloween prank. This notion was quickly dismissed when he countered with, 'Everybody freeze, you're under arrest.' "

Hawkins worried that he'd be barred from playing pro football. Oh, the headlines! Oh, the hand-wringing by elders worried about community morals! Oh, don't we long for the days when the ballplayers and their pals, young and tough and full of themselves, got into trouble with card games and illegal parking and partying on The Block -- and we imagined these were the limits of dreadful behavior.

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