It was a down-and-up week for the Baltimore Colts, who last January won the not-so-Super Bowl and have every expectation of repeating next January. Monday night, in the Cosell Bowl, they lost to the Minnesota Vikings 10-3 when, with 0:42 remaining, Johnny Unitas' fourth-down pass, which could have tied the score, grazed the goalpost crossbar and fell incomplete. Six days later the Colts walloped the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-21, but since the Miami Dolphins, their archrivals in the AFC East, beat the Los Angeles Rams, Baltimore remains in second place in the division, half a game back, setting up a home-and-home, boy-oh-boy series with Miami later in the season.
If the Colts are to beat the Dolphins they will need good games from Norm Bulaich (see cover), the second-year running back out of TCU. Before Sunday Bulaich (it rhymes with goulash) was the NFL's leading rusher with 503 yards in 77 carries and he scored the Colts' first touchdown against the Steelers. But on a slithery field and against a defense that was keying on him he ran for only six yards in nine attempts before being sidelined with a minor injury.
As it turned out, this was one game the Colts didn't need Big Boo. The Steelers concentrated on shutting off Baltimore's heralded running attack, so Earl Morrall proceeded to pass them dizzy.
"We took what they gave us," said Morrall, who had his best day of the season, completing 11 of 19 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns. "They overplayed the run a little and it gave us the bomb."
November 8, 1971
Indeed, the Pittsburgh linebackers stayed so close to the line they were of little help against the pass. When Morrall called plays that isolated his wide receiver on a cornerback, he threw for huge gains. Three of the biggest were the touchdown passes of 19 and 49 yards to Willie Richardson and of 60 yards to Ray Perkins.
And the Colt defense was, as usual, superb, holding Pittsburgh to 26 yards rushing. Again the Steelers paid too much attention to one man—Bubba Smith—and as a result Billy Newsome, an end and tackle from Grambling, gave Terry Bradshaw a very bad time.
"My legs hurt all over," Bubba said after the game. "I kept getting it from the tight end and the tackle, but I don't mind about that. If they give me that much attention, we got other people going to get in on them."
Bulaich reinjured his left foot in the second quarter after a punt and a clipping penalty put the Colts on their own 11. "I was running a draw," he said. "They were looking for the draw all afternoon and I was trying to 'look' the linebacker off by looking out to the side. When I glanced back to take the hand-off, Mean Joe Greene and the ball got to me at the same time."
The ensuing fumble set up the first Steeler touchdown, but by then the Colts had established their superiority. Morrall's deep passes were stinging the Steeler defense and the only question remaining was how big the score would be.
"This was a good one," Bill Curry, the Colts' classy center, said afterward. "We proved to ourselves we can do it running or passing. We'll put it all together one day, and that's it."
When they do, Big Boo will be a major contributor. Bulaich is an extraordinarily engaging youngster, with a smile that reveals a gap between his front teeth. He never expected to be a first draft pick, since he spent half his career at TCU sitting on the bench with a variety of injuries, principally muscle pulls.
"It was a great honor," he said, sitting now in the Colts' dressing room a couple of days before the Pittsburgh game. "I didn't know anybody up here had ever heard of me."
When he learned he had been picked by the Colts, he sat down and wrote a letter to Unitas, beginning "Dear Mr. Unitas...." He said how happy he was to have been drafted by Baltimore and how much he wanted to do well and what an honor it would be to play with a man like Unitas.
Johnny U's reply was brief and to the point. "Run and block," he wrote Bulaich, and Boo has taken that to heart ever since. For a while, in his rookie season, he had the same miseries he had at TCU, what with a bruised knee, but he still led the Colts in rushing.
In 1970, when he first arrived at preseason camp, the veterans made him welcome, but not without a lot of hazing. "I came up here with cuffs on my pants and button-down collars and the guys got on me a little about that," Bulaich admitted. "Tom Matte said, 'We got to get this guy some new threads,' and I bought a new set of clothes, but I still have the button-down collars and the cuff pants in my closet. When I go to Fort Worth after the season, I get them out and wear them."
The two Colt trainers, Ed Block and Otho Davis, gave him a series of stretching exercises and had him swim to loosen his knotted leg muscles. Block, who has been tending Baltimore football players for years, is well equipped to handle muscle problems. From 1955 to 1965 he was a part-time physical therapist at Baltimore's Kernan Hospital for Crippled Children, which at the time specialized in polio cases.
"We gave Bulaich the exercises, and I worked with him on manual muscle resistance," Block says. "His problem was in the back of his thigh. Two of the big interior muscles were tight and short and they had to be stretched and relaxed. I use manual resistance in these exercises because the machines some trainers use don't have the sense and feel your hands do. When you have the player working his muscles against the resistance of your hands, you can sense when the muscle is too tired, when it is time to stop. I worked with Boo a long time—45 minutes a day, twice a day—and it was monotonous and boring for him, but he stuck with it."
Besides the manual muscle resistance regime with Block, Bulaich did an exercise he still performs. When he joined the Colts, he could not come within a foot of touching the floor with his fingertips while keeping his knees straight. "Now I can put my palms flat on the floor," he said. "Every day I still do the same exercise that loosened my hamstrings. What you do is squat on the floor, kind of like a catcher but with your feet flat, then put your hands flat on the floor and try to stand without moving your hands. It's a great stretching exercise. Try it sometime."
When Bulaich reported to camp this season, his hamstring problems were over, he was much quicker than he had been in college and he ran with just as much speed (he had a legendary 9.6 100 to his credit at TCU). No one kidded him about his clothes anymore and he played so well in scrimmages that the defensive players occasionally broke out in admiring cries of "Boo, Boo, Boo" after he had made a spectacular move.
Bulaich has exceptional balance and the ability to pick a hole very quickly and slide to the openings without sacrificing momentum. "He's sudden," one assistant coach said. "That says it all. Sudden. He's there when the hole opens and gone when it closes."
"The big difference I found in pro ball was that you don't have as much time to make up your mind," Bulaich said. "Against a college team you may run into one or two big fast linemen in a game, but no more. Here everyone is big and fast, so when I see a crack, I have to go right now. If I wait, the crack closes and someone dumps me."
Bill Curry explained what a big, quick, fast back like Bulaich can mean. "With power backs who don't have speed, you have to hold a block on the middle linebacker a lot longer," he said. "Now if I get a piece of him, Boo is gone before he can react. I don't have to bury the middle linebacker all the time. If I can get a stalemate with him, Boo is going to make big yards."
A thoughtful man, Curry disagrees completely with ex-players like Dave Meggyesy and Chip Oliver, who have published books decrying football for its dehumanizing aspect. "I respect their opinions," he said, "but they are generalizing from personal experience, and my personal experience is completely different. We have a closeness and warmth on this team that I don't think you find very often anywhere. Just to give you an example, look at Tom Matte."
He pointed across the dressing room, where Matte was laughing at something another player had said.
"Tom is a great football player," Curry went on. "Maybe a lot of people don't realize how great, but the players on this club do. He's done so many good things. And he could be upset and sulky because a kid like Bulaich came along and started getting a lot of ink. Instead, Tom is blocking better now than he ever has."
Bulaich and Matte have impressive backing from two rookies—Don McCauley, a No. 1 draft pick from North Carolina, and Don Nottingham, a No. 17 pick from Kent State. Both had averaged 4.7 yards per carry going into the Pittsburgh game.
Nottingham, who is known as the Human Bowling Ball, is 5'9¾" and weighs 210 pounds. His neck bulges beyond his ears and he has a surprisingly high, squeaky voice. "If you were a bass," Don Klosterman, the Colts' general manager, once told him, "you would weigh 240 pounds."
Nottingham is a formidable runner, since it is very difficult for the giant defensive linemen in pro football to find him and equally difficult for them to get a good grasp on him when they do. He also has tremendous leg drive and an enthusiasm that is reflected in the way he churns for extra yardage. After he was given the game ball for his exploits in Baltimore's 23-3 win over New England, Nottingham was unwilling to let anyone else hold it. "This thing is a piece of gold to me," he said.
Most running backs consider blocking the price they must pay for the opportunity to carry the ball, but Nottingham is atypical. "Sometimes, when I'm not running good and having trouble finding the hole and staying on my feet, I'd rather block," he said. "I guess I've got an unfair advantage as a blocker, because I come in so low the defensive players can't hand-fight me."
Ray May, one of the Baltimore linebackers, found out how tough a blocker Nottingham is in training camp. Nottingham came out leading a sweep and May bent down to fend off his block only to catch Nottingham's helmet on his shoulder. The impact was hard enough to stretch some ligaments in May's shoulder.
"Man, I got down as low as I could get and it wasn't low enough," May said, shaking his head. "And when he hits you, he really pops. After he hit me, when I was lying there, I thought, 'If this man don't make the team, no one is going to make it.' "
Nottingham, who sometimes leads Bulaich into the hole out of a short-yardage set, has the rare distinction of having knocked Dallas' All-Pro tackle, Bob Lilly, flat on his back. "Nottingham covers the hole when the guard pulls," Colt Coach Don McCafferty said. "He hits the tackle about knee high, and he really creams him. After a while the tackle starts looking down for him."
"Big difference for me in pro football," Nottingham piped, "is all the big hits. At Kent State I used to get a few big hits an afternoon, but here every time you get hit, it's a big hit."
The good Colt offense has animated what has always been a very good Colt defense. "We aren't on the field as much now," said Mike Curtis, the middle linebacker who is playing with his right arm in a cast covering half his forearm and his thumb. He broke the first joint of the thumb and it is held together by the cast and two steel pins. "We're quicker on defense, too," he added. "Bubba Smith is great and so is the rest of the defensive line. Used to be, I worried about making a mistake, but now I can gamble because I know I'm going to be covered. Makes it a lot easier, and the linebackers can take a deeper drop, knowing the line will usually handle the run."
On the bus to the high school field where they held their Saturday workout before the Steeler game, the Colts were relaxed and confident. Roy Hilton, the 6'6" 240-pound defensive end, roared, "Hey, Bubba, we took a vote and you won unanimous."
Bubba looked at him, his face expressionless.
"You are the No. 1 alltime great ugly cat," Hilton hollered, and the whole bus rocked with laughter. When it had died down, Hilton said, "You the alltime No. 1 ugly because there is so much of you to be ugly."
To set the record straight, Bubba, who stands 6'8" and weighs 265, is not an ugly man. He might more aptly be described as majestic.
After the workout McCafferty, whose gentle ways have earned him the nickname "Easy Rider" from his players, was a little worried. "I think maybe they're too relaxed," he said, "but how can you tell? There's no way to know until the game starts."
No one could accuse the Colts of being too relaxed after the game. The dressing room was quietly happy, but the players were a mite disappointed.
"They never should have scored," Bubba Smith said, hobbling painfully across the room. "We're a lot better than the score showed."
"It wasn't a very good day for me," Nottingham said. "It was a real bad field for running. Even me, with my stride, I fell down a couple of times. I think we'll do better from here on."
Better could be good enough to put the Colts in the Super Bowl and maybe let the telephone operator in the Colt office keep on answering phones the way she's been doing. Call the Colt office and you'll hear, "World Champion Colts."