Accorsi not retiring Colts regrets

October 05, 2007|By RICK MAESE

This summer, for the first time in decades, Ernie Accorsi didn't have to worry about training camp. He didn't have to worry about the NFL draft, the salary cap, the combine or the depth chart either. With a little extra time on his hands, the newly retired Accorsi hopped into his car and hit the road for a 4,200-mile tour of the Midwest.

He visited Commerce, Okla., to see where the Mick grew up. He saw the Field of Dreams diamond in Iowa. And caught a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field. But when he approached Indianapolis, he just couldn't bear to pass through it.

"I rerouted myself," Accorsi said. "I drove all the way up around Fort Wayne. I didn't even want to see Indianapolis."

Still, all these years removed, the pain of the Colts leaving Baltimore feels fresh for Accorsi, the team's final general manager here, who finally walked away from football after the 2006 season. Retirement has afforded Accorsi an opportunity to catch his breath, a chance to see the things he never had time for and reflect on others that might look like specks in the rearview mirror - but feel much bigger.

In a recently released book, The GM, by Tom Callahan, Accorsi let his private memories go public, finally sharing the details of the Colts' late-night scurry out of town. It still pains him to talk about it, especially because he feels it was avoidable. "The Baltimore Colts didn't have to die," he said in the book.

Recalling draft

In an interview last week, Accorsi revisited the 1983 NFL draft, in which John Elway was selected by the Colts with the No. 1 pick and traded to Denver. At the time, Elway was balking about coming to Baltimore, threatening to play baseball instead. Accorsi had seen Elway's baseball scouting report and knew the quarterback's future was in football.

"I felt I owed it to the city [to draft Elway]," Accorsi said. "I just felt I couldn't sell this franchise down the river. Everyone's telling me this is the greatest prospect in the history of football, and I felt if this franchise was good enough for Unitas, it was good enough for everybody."

In the book, Accorsi recounts overhearing a conversation between former owner Bob Irsay and his money man, Michael Chernoff. Chernoff was complaining about the money they would have to pay Elway, to which Irsay said: "Mike, Mike, let Ernie have his moment. We can do what we want later."

Shortly thereafter, Elway called Accorsi and said: "Look, I'd rather play football. Let's wait until everything calms down and then we'll talk about it," according to The GM. That same night, Irsay dealt Elway to Denver. Baltimore sports history was changed, Accorsi said, and the Colts' general manager had to learn about it on television.

"Everything would be different," Accorsi said this week. "I think if Elway would have signed, we would have had a burst of season tickets. Basically, our season tickets had bottomed out down to 27,000 after the Joe Thomas years, but we'd gotten back up to 37 or 38 [thousand]. Elway would have sold 12 or 13 - easy - and we'd be back up to 50-52.

"There's just no question in my mind. Elway would've excited the city. The political talks would've changed, the stadium talks would've changed, everything would've changed."

There was no recovering. Accorsi resigned after the 1983 season and went to Cleveland to serve as Art Modell's assistant to the president. He was in a Cleveland Marriott that night in March when he received a phone call from the Colts' video cameraman, Art Eich, who was guarding his equipment while movers packed a football franchise into Mayflower trucks.

Accorsi called Pete Rozelle on his private line and woke up the NFL commissioner.

"I said, `I hate to bother you, but have you heard anything out of Baltimore?' He says, `No,' and I tell him, `They're moving tonight. Right now.' He didn't say a thing. He had no idea. He wasn't forewarned at all," Accorsi said.

Accorsi is a sentimentalist, and even though he went on to enjoy successful GM stints with the Browns and New York Giants, he'll always attach some romanticism to Baltimore.

Goal to be GM

He grew up in Hershey, Pa., and the Colts were his childhood love. He knew from a young age that he wanted to be a general manager but didn't crack the NFL until former general manager Don Klosterman offered him a job in the Colts' public relations department. It was 1970, and Klosterman was going to pay Accorsi $14,000 if he could tear himself away from Penn State's sports information department.

"[Joe Paterno] said to me, 'You're going to be in for a shock now. It's a different world, but don't try to play their game, because they'll eat you alive.' He knew how I was raised and how squeaky clean we were," Accorsi said. "I'll never forget him saying, `Be honest, keep your integrity intact and be humble. They don't know how to handle that behavior any more than we know how to handle theirs.' That rang in my ears."

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