On Jan. 12, 1969.with 25 seconds remaining in the first half of the Super Bowl and the New YorkJets leading 7-0, Baltimore Quarterback Earl Morrall handed off to Halfback TomMatte, took a lateral in return and threw downfield to Fullback Jerry Hill. Thepass was intercepted. The play called for the ball to be thrown to WideReceiver Jimmy Orr, who was all alone in the end zone, frantically waving hishands. In a rage, Baltimore Linebacker Mike Curtis (whose helmeted head loomsbehind Craig Morton on the cover) jumped off the bench, raced onto the fieldtoward the dejected Morrall, shaking his fist and cursing him.
The play wasintended to be the equalizer and, indeed, it should have sent the Colts intothe locker room with the score tied 7-7. Instead, they left the field in atrance. The disastrous play was an augury of the bitter defeat that haunted theteam throughout 1969 and continues to haunt them even today.
'I couldn'tbelieve it," Curtis said last week, both excited and depressed by thememory. "Ecch! I just couldn't believe it. But there it was, the wholetragic, stupid loss summed up in that one lousy play. Everyone could see Orrout there by himself. Everyone but Earl. My behavior was irrational, but thenthe game was like a bad dream.
"My God, noone knows the despair, the abject humiliation the Colts felt. The 1968Baltimore Colts, a perfect football machine. The 1968 Baltimore Colts whocrushed every opponent but one on a tough schedule. The 1968 Baltimore Colts,the first National Football League team to lose the Super Bowl."
Just six days shyof two years later the Colts were spending their last day in Baltimore beforereturning to Miami, the scene of their humiliation. Head Coach Don McCafferty,an assistant to Don Shula in 1969, had just left the practice field where thosetwo worthy ancients, Defensive Tackle Billy Ray Smith and Orr, had presidedover a brief workout. McCafferty called it the Comedy Hour and only shook hishead as Smith and Orr, both notorious goof-offs, led the calisthenics. WhenBubba Smith tried to cut short the wind sprints, Billy Ray (Rabbit to theColts) bellowed, "No shortcuts, Bubba, you hear?"
"Damn,Rabbit, and you want to be a coach," said Bubba. "This is why you'renot going to make it."
The abbreviatedpractice allowed the players time to finish their last minute chores. Unlike1969, the wives would remain home until the Saturday before the game. The Coltswould also be staying in a different hotel and practicing on a different field.The practices would be closed.
Curtis, wearing awhite Stetson, boots, Levi's and an unpressed cowboy shirt, moved quickly aboutthe locker room. "Let's see, I have to go home and wash my undies and mywhite socks," he said, working his face into a good imitation ofConservative spokesman Bill Buckley, whom he often takes off on. "Yes. I'ma conservative and I wear white socks—but only under my boots." Next Curtiswondered whether he would be able to get permission to fly to New York onMonday to tape a Dick Cavett Show. "Undoubtedly, it's the Animal Hour,"he said. "That's why I'm invited. For an opening, I might come out andgrowl, or else bite Cavett on the shoulder."
There are otherplayers in the league who are admiringly called animals, although none butCurtis to his face. "Once in New Orleans a few years back," herecalled, "Matte, Orr and I were eating in this swank restaurant. Mattespies a red-neck Baltimore fan and brings him over to the table. He introducesOrr and the guy shyly responds. 'Please-to-meet-cha.' Then it's my turn. 'Andthis is Mike Curtis,' says Matte. "Animal!' the redneck roars. My God, itwas wild. But the red-neck was the animal, not me."
In trueperspective, Curtis turns out to be the Colts' resident eccentric. "Mike isa man apart," says his road roommate, Bill Curry, who admires many ofCurtis' qualities but finds him curiously independent for a football player."He's a purist," Curry says. "Totally dedicated to football andobsessed by winning."
"I've warnedmy fiancée that neither love nor anything else is a wall against my emotions orthe team," said Curtis. Poor Marty Boone, the pretty school marm—sheteaches retarded children—has been overwhelmed with advice, most of it dealingwith football. Some, however, has to do with domestic arrangements. "Idon't want marriage reduced to a nit-picking existence," said Curtis."I need my freedom, my independence. It all frightens me. Sometimes I feelas if I were being closed in.
"It's all bigtalk," he said later, laughing. "I'll end up like all husbands,emptying the garbage and walking the dog. But I'll do it because I want to. I'munderstanding as hell with Marty. Because she doesn't play games, she doesn'tthreaten me."
Standardpremarital oratory? Perhaps. But the declaration of independence was very muchin character. Curtis broods about independence. He works at it, too, beginningwith his dress. While most young players (Curtis is 26) are fascinated by themod look and tend to dress up, he dresses down. "In camp it's evenworse," says Curry. "There are three pairs of Levi's and some scrubbyDuke T shirts which have to be at least eight years old." On the fewoccasions when Curtis goes out with his teammates, the others will split thebill equally: Curtis insists on paying only for what he ordered. There arefurther signs of his frugality. "I've still got those tad-thin, stripeyties I've had since high school," he said, "and darn it, they're stilllooking good."
Curtis claimshe's an independent person: the Colts contend he's a loner and an introvert,but they concur on his massive commitment to football, which is why so many ofhis foibles are overlooked. Even his inexcusable threat to Morrall was passedoff as just another mad-dog impulse. Curtis' intensity is often directed atquarterbacks, and he doesn't back off from attacking passers, even duringpractice, his own. "That's the way the cat's programmed," says one Coltplayer, "and you can't turn him off."
No one is exempt."Curtis does what nobody else dares to do, he tackles Johnny U. inpractice," says Curry admiringly. "He really puts it to John, and onoccasion John has come up swearing." One time, Curtis viciously knockeddown Running Back Terry Cole, and Don Shula sent Curtis to the sidelines tobrood for half an hour.
"He's justwild," said Cole. "I'm glad he's on my side."
Perhaps that'sthe answer—that Mike Curtis is their wild man, their mad dog. And, as they seeit, this is the season for mad players and this is the kind of uncompromisingfury it will take to win the Super Bowl. "Curtis epitomizes the ungivingColt defense," says one man in the Colts' front office, whose indulgenthands-off policy is generally credited for maintaining the team's high morale."They don't bug the players," said Curtis.
As a performer,Curtis has been building up to the season's finale, the Super Bowl. He waswrathful in the playoffs. Against Cincinnati, he stopped sweeps at both ends,and when the Bengals tried to go over the top on a dive play, he leaped up anddrove the play back. Later he intercepted a pass thrown over the middle. In theNFC title game against Oakland he was savagely omnipresent. And now comesDallas. "This one will be an emotional bath." said Curtis. "Bothteams know the bitterness and frustration of losing the big game. But here wehave the edge." The edge is a despair so strong it should be bottled inbond. And Mike Curtis? "What Mike is more than anything else is purefootball player," says Curry. "Excellence is more important to him thanacceptance."
In fact, thepursuit of excellence led Curtis to break the players' strike, which was led byhis teammate, John Mackey. But Mike Curtis doesn't care if he is well-liked. Hedoes care about the mortification of losing to the Jets in 1969. It rankled hispurist's soul. He wages his own undeclared war against "bullies, loudmouthsand incompetents," as the AFC discovered this past season. Curtis' enmitycaused a melee in Boston involving both teams. "The tight end, I don't knowhis name, threw a good block at my knees after the whistle," he said."He threatened my security." In return, Curtis kneed his offender andthen threw a few punches under his guard before being thrown out of the game.On another occasion, Curtis kicked a player in the head, "because he washolding."
"Holding! Inthe Super Bowl, those damn Jets held as if they were never going to holdagain," he said, "and they haven't quit yet. They're still grabbing,and the worst offender of all, Winston Hill, makes All-AFL." But the zenithof Curtis' anger is not reached until he comes to Johnny Sample. "I hateguys who steal a pass and then stuff it in their victim's face, humiliatethem," he said. "It's cheap and miserable, the act of an incompetentand a loudmouth, and Sample is a perfect example of both.
"Going intothat game, I continually heard you've got to beat that longhair. Yeah, Ithought, we've got to beat the longhair. But there was no dishonor in losing tothe best—and that's what Namath was. Losing to the Samples and the Hills, thatwas degrading."
In the two yearssince, Curtis has changed. He now has curls on his neck, and his sideburns areinching toward the corners of his mouth. He no longer believes that all collegeprotesters are Spockian radicals. Some, he now thinks, are sincere andprotesting for the right reason. But one conviction remains unchanged. "Themoney is unimportant," he said. "I want the ring."