Matte's band still binds, 40 years later

Reading plays taped to his wrist, a halfback forced to play quarterback rallied the Colts and captured the fancy of football fans

December 25, 2005|By MIKE KLINGAMAN | MIKE KLINGAMAN,SUN REPORTER

As sports relics go, it is nondescript: a 3-inch vinyl wristband covered with tiny writing.

Visitors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame are apt to walk right past it to gawk at the more inviting lore displayed nearby.

Hey, Dad, check out the size 19 Hall of Fame ring worn by Bronko Nagurski! And look at this square-toed kicking shoe that belonged to some dude named Agajanian - it says here he had one toe on his right foot!

FOR THE RECORD - A photograph that accompanied an article Sunday on the Baltimore Colts and Tom Matte was incorrectly identified as being from a game in 1965. The photo was from a game in 1969.
The Sun regrets the error.

Though a less obtrusive keepsake, the brown wristband represents a seminal moment in the rich history of the Baltimore Colts. Forty years ago, their offense gutted by injuries, the Colts hobbled into the postseason behind a makeshift "instant" quarterback who strapped a crib sheet to his forearm to remember the plays.

On Dec. 26, 1965, the Colts and Green Bay squared off for the NFL Western Conference championship. The Packers boasted four future Hall of Famers, plus legendary coach Vince Lombardi.

The Colts pinned their hopes - and that wristband - on Tom Matte, 26, a reserve halfback who'd been bumped up to quarterback after late-season injuries to John Unitas (knee) and backup Gary Cuozzo (shoulder).

"I had to learn so much offense that I didn't have time to be nervous," Matte said last week. "I remember that we walked through the plays in the ballroom of our hotel in Green Bay."

Undersized and overmatched, the 6-foot Matte cowed no one. He hadn't taken a snap since college as an option quarterback at Ohio State. His running style earned him the nickname "Garbage Can." His hands were barely large enough to throw a spiral. And he barked signals like a yippy chihuahua.

This was the man the underdog Colts followed onto muddy Lambeau Field the day after Christmas.

They darn near won the game.

Directing a dumbed-down offense laced with rollout passes and quarterback draws, Matte kept the Colts moving; he completed five of 12 passes for 40 yards and rushed for 57 more. But Green Bay triumphed, 13-10, in overtime, thanks to a suspect field goal in regulation that even kicker Don Chandler later said was wide.

The Packers went on to win their first of three straight NFL titles. The outmanned Colts flew home to a groundswell of appreciation, having captured the fancy of the nation.

"Think about it," said Raymond Berry, the Hall of Fame receiver who played on that team. "We came within a whisker of playing for the world championship, with Tom Matte at quarterback. That's one of the darnedest things to happen in the history of football."

After the game, a disconsolate Matte tore off his wristband and threw it on the locker room floor. It was salvaged by John Steadman, the venerable Baltimore columnist who packed it off to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. There it remains, in the museum's rotunda exhibit that logs the first 100 years of pro football.

"When we first put the Colts' wristband on display, it was seen as an oddity," said Joe Horrigan, Hall of Fame spokesman. "Now that other teams are using them, Matte's is the start of a chronology."

The New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers are among the clubs whose quarterbacks have worn wristbands. But the Colts launched the concept.

Instant quarterback

They didn't have a choice after Unitas and Cuozzo were sidelined on successive weeks in December. When Cuozzo went down in the next-to-last regular-season game, coach Don Shula looked skyward, rolled his eyes and beckoned Matte.

Instantly, Judy Matte gasped, sat bolt upright in her seat at Memorial Stadium and grasped the nearest arm.

"Oh my gosh, Lorraine - Tom's going in at quarterback! What are we going to do?"

Lorraine Sullivan, whose husband, Dan, was playing offensive tackle, turned to her and said, "There's not much we can do."

Matte ran seven plays, throwing an interception in the Colts' 42-27 loss to Green Bay.

A few snaps was one thing, but the next week the Colts faced an entire game with Matte at quarterback and the playoffs at stake. Their opponent: the Los Angeles Rams, who were riding a three-game winning streak. The Associated Press made the Rams 18-point favorites.

Desperate, Shula needed a plan. First, he streamlined the Colts' attack, paring the offense from several hundred plays to several dozen. Then Shula and his staff scrawled those plays on an index card and placed it beneath the plastic sheath of a wristband they'd fashioned for their new-found quarterback.

"We simplified everything - a few runs, a few passes and some goal-line plays," Shula said last week.

"Our whole objective was somehow, some way, to make a first down. And then another."

The strategy worked. Relying on a menu of traps and draw plays, the Colts defeated the Rams, 20-17. Matte ran for a game-high 99 yards and attempted two passes, both incomplete. However, his understudy, Ed Brown - a 37-year-old journeyman signed off waivers two days earlier - connected on a 68-yard touchdown pass to John Mackey. And Lou Michaels, the club's left-footed kicker, punched a 50-yard field goal.

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