Finding my Colts

NFL: A winter visit to Memorial Stadium sent an ex-ballboy in search of those who wore the blue and white in the team's final 10 years here.


All this reminiscing about the Baltimore Colts started when a collection of business folks and political figures finally decided to tear down Memorial Stadium. I kept thinking back to my days as a Colts ballboy and training camp assistant. Then I decided to make a farewell visit to the long-vacant stadium.

On a brisk morning in late January, I spent half an hour in the building that once felt to me like a shrine. I walked alone through the old Colts locker room and slowly made my way through the dark, narrow tunnel leading out to what used to be the field.

More than 17 years had passed since I last made this walk with the Colts. Yet I could still vividly imagine the loud click-clacking of cleats striking the concrete floor in that tunnel. It was such a defining sound of my youth. My Colts were the post-John Unitas teams of the final decade in Baltimore - 1974 through 1983 - before the infamous departure to Indianapolis.

My Colts were both mighty and feeble: from the Bert Jones-led teams that won three straight division titles starting in 1975 to the sorry squads that collected a grand total of nine victories during their final three seasons. Win or lose, though, they were my Colts.

People of a certain age in Baltimore will forever cherish their memories of the great Unitas years above all else. Others are now thinking only of the high-flying Ravens. But those Colts from the final decade in Baltimore - my Colts - those will always be the football players who mean the most to me.

Walking around the stadium now - as a 38-year-old free-lance writer - I was flooded with memories.

This is where I used to play catch with Bert Jones on the sideline.

There is that section in the upper deck where the plane crashed after the 1976 playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

This is where Bruce Laird made that big interception against the Oakland Raiders in that double-overtime playoff game in 1977.

More than anything else, though, I kept thinking about all the players with whom I had worked and traveled and even shared a dormitory with during training camps. So many of them had taken the time to care about me, to make me feel like part of the team, to help me grow from boy to man.

I had kept in touch through the years - at least intermittently - with about a dozen former Colts. But now I started wondering: What about the rest of them from that final decade in Baltimore? Where were they now and what were they doing with their lives? What were their most enduring memories from being with the Colts?

As I walked out of Memorial Stadium for the last time, the sun just peeking over the closed end of the upper deck, kissing a "field" that was now nothing more than gravel and clumps of weeds and patches of ice, I knew exactly how I wanted to spend my afternoon.

I wanted to start looking for my Colts.

Part of it was just plain curiosity. But there was something more: I did not want to mourn a structure made of concrete and brick. I wanted to celebrate a collection of gifted athletes who once filled the place and gave it life.

During those last 10 years in Baltimore, a total of 212 men played for the Colts. I ended up finding 185 of them. A vast majority had moved out of the area long ago. Most had stayed in touch with only one or two teammates - if that. But they still spoke fondly of friendships forged and had favorite stories that will last a lifetime.

With the piece-by-piece dismantling of Memorial Stadium coming to a close, here are some of the memories my Colts shared with me.

Dec. 14, 1975

Time was running out in overtime against the Miami Dolphins. The Colts were on the brink of completing the greatest single-season turnaround in NFL history: from an ugly 2-12 record in 1974 to an amazing 10-4 record and the AFC East Division title in 1975.

But first Toni Linhart would have to make a 31-yard field goal through a dense fog that only heightened the intensity.

The football sailed straight through the uprights at the closed end of Memorial Stadium for a 10-7 victory. Then came the craziness.

"I remember all the players running out on the field," said Linhart, now president of Baltimore-based Alternative Mail Delivery. "And I was trying to hide from some of them. I mean, some of those big guys, like Mike Barnes and Joe Ehrmann, you really don't want to be hugged by them at a time like that. They could hurt you."

Sept. 6, 1976

The entire Colts organization was in chaos. Head coach Ted Marchibroda, reigning NFL Coach of the Year, had just resigned after owner Robert Irsay first berated him in front of the team and then failed to back him in a power struggle with general manager Joe Thomas.

And now - only six days before the season opener - the players were threatening to strike in support of Marchibroda.

"It was one of the most bizarre events I've ever been involved in," Bert Jones said. "But I also think this was when we really grew up together as a team."

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