Someday, after Frank Kush has taken the Baltimore Colts to the playoffs a few times, he'll be sitting around with a few writers and someone will bring up his opening day in the NFL, on an uncomfortably hot, humid Sunday in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, and Kush will groan and close his eyes and say, "Don't remind me."
And like a recurring nightmare in which your feet turn to glue and your arms become spaghetti and you stand there powerless while some inexorable force gradually overwhelms you, it will all come back to Kush: the way he stood on the sidelines watching his army of Foreign Legionnaires getting picked off one by one, until the only thing left to do was arrange the terms of a merciful surrender.
And he will remember trying to make decisions: Do we lift the guy we activated Tuesday and bring in the guy we activated Wednesday—what was his name again? He'll recall trying to coach players whose identities he wasn't quite sure of, and he'll take a deep breath and mutter, "No, it won't ever be like that again."
There was nothing humiliating in the Colts' 24-13 loss to the New England Patriots in a game that marked the NFL coaching debuts of both Kush and the Patriots' Ron Meyer. It was nothing like last year's Stupor Bowl between these two teams. That was the last game of the season for both clubs, a comedy of errors, and it closed them both out at 2-14, the worst record in the league. The 17,073 fans in Memorial Stadium outnumbered the no-shows by only 19.
September 19, 1982
There was even a heroic quality about the Colts' performance this time. Ten of their 22 starters were filling that role for the first time in the NFL, and they were still even with the Patriots, at 10-10, at the half. When rookie Quarterback Mike Pagel suffered a concussion, they came in with David Humm, and even this 30-year-old warrior, who has bounced around the NFL in recent years, caught some of the new-era fire. Humm led Baltimore on a long drive in the opening minutes of the third quarter and got his team in front 13-10. Then the law of averages took over.
The Colts' regular halfback, Curtis Dickey, was out of the game with various miseries. Their fullback, Randy McMillan, was on the sidelines getting a breather. Their flanker, Raymond Butler, was battling leg cramps, and their split end. Matt Bouza, a free agent who would lead all the receivers in this game with six catches, would soon retire with the same ailment. Their regular tight end, Reese McCall, hadn't even dressed, and their starting offensive line, which included three free agents and a rookie, had become a juggling act. A couple of acquisitions from that Monday, Guard Glenn Hyde and Tackle John Sinnott, saw frequent action.
The Patriots blitzed the rather immobile Humm and forced him into an interception that set up the go-ahead touchdown, a 30-yard pass from Matt Cavanaugh to Ken Toler. Back came Pagel on the Colts' next series, and the 39,055 people in the stands, with the exception of Patriot owner Billy Sullivan and his family, cheered. This was the new era, the era of Kush and Pagel, the quarterback he'd coached at Arizona State, a fourth-round draft pick who had beaten out Art Schlichter, a first-round selection. It was time for a legend to be born.
"Mike felt his head was O.K.," Kush said. "The doctors asked him four times, and each time he said that he was O.K. We kept him out an extra series anyway, but he said he was feeling good, so we took a chance."
Pagel had taken a blow to the head from Cornerback Mike Haynes as he rolled out and dived for a first down on the New England three-yard line in the second quarter. The force of the tackle had sent his helmet flying. Three plays later he'd sneaked the ball over for a touchdown to put Baltimore in front 10-3, but he didn't recall doing it.
"I remember picking up my helmet after the first-down play," Pagel said. "The chin strap was still buckled, if you can believe that. Then I remember lying across the goal line and hearing our center, Ray Donaldson, yelling. 'You're in! You're in!' I don't remember coming off the field."
"He was out when he scored that touchdown," Haynes said. "He was fuzzy. When he came back in in the second half I could tell he was still hurt. I could see the look in his eye."
"I felt pretty good, but I really wasn't picking things up," Pagel said. "On one play I saw a blitz coming, and I was thinking, here...comes...a...blitz, like I was thinking in slow motion. I couldn't adjust to it."
His two series were a disaster—a fumbled snap, two incompletes, a sack and an interception. He had had it for the day, and so had the Colts. A fumble by Baltimore Running Back Cleveland Franklin in the fourth quarter gave the Patriots the ball on the Colts' 21; six running plays gave New England the clinching touchdown, on a one-yard plunge by rookie Running Back Robert Weathers.
The Patriots' ground game had been greatly feared by Kush and his defensive coordinator, Bud Carson. The New England offensive line is the Pats' strength, a bastion of talent—including four former No. 1 drafts—and size, unbelievable size. Their tackle-to-tackle average of 6'5", 283 pounds gives them one of the biggest, if not the biggest, offensive lines in NFL history. In their winning years of the recent past the Patriots punished people with their ground game, then shocked them with passes to Russ Francis, Darryl Stingley, Stanley Morgan and Harold Jackson. Last Sunday they were at their best running the ball tackle to tackle, getting 227 yards on the ground, including 137 by Tony Collins, last year's second-round pick from East Carolina. But when the Pats tried to get fancy, the Colts' young defense stopped them.
Right now the Patriots are further along the road to recovery than the Colts are. New England spent the last week of the preseason shuffling the deck and searching the waiver wires, as Baltimore did, but while Kush was looking for starters, the Patriots were filling in the lower part of their roster. Twelve of the 17 rookies they drafted this year made the squad. Seven drafted rookies remain from 1981. There are 12 No. 1 picks and nine No. 2s on their squad. There are some disappointments, such as Kenneth Sims, the No. 1 pick in the entire 1982 draft, who played left defensive end against Baltimore and got a lesson from the Colts' right tackle, six-year veteran Jeff Hart. And there are some extremely pleasant surprises, such as free agent Middle Guard Luther Henson, a sawed-off 275-pounder who was cut by Cincinnati last year and cut by the Patriots six days before Sunday's game. New England reclaimed him three days later. He came in during the third quarter, and the result was electric. All of a sudden the Patriots had an inside pass rush.
The game, which had been billed as a sort of college bowl between Meyer's SMU program and Rush's Arizona State operation, came down to a battle for survival in the oppressive heat. Kush simply ran out of people.
The two coaches' approaches to the 1982 season had been similar in a lot of ways. Both had imposed college-style discipline. Neither had been bashful about clearing their rosters. Of the 90 players who dressed for the Stupor Bowl, only 44 were in uniform on Sunday—19 for the Colts, 25 for the Patriots. Both coaches had drawn fire from the veterans, Kush for his punishing, full contact practices and his relentlessness in cleaning house, Meyer for his rah-rah approach, which includes the full repertoire of motivational gadgetry.
Every Monday Meyer's players get a chart, which they're expected to fill in and return by Friday, signed. On the top of the chart are six column headings: GOALS, ROADBLOCKS, SOLUTION, PROGRESS TO DATE, TARGET DATE AND PERSONAL REWARDS. Some of the veterans have taken a light approach to the whole thing. Under PERSONAL REWARDS Cavanaugh once wrote "Doing Skol and Miller Lite commercials." Under GOALS, Right Guard Bob Cryder wrote, "Going into a bar and having the girls pick me up."
"Well, I take it seriously," Meyer says. "I even fill one out myself." His goals for opening day included "Win first NFL game" (he did); "Develop great game plan" (uh, maybe); "Rush for 210 yards" (he beat it by 17); "Pass for 200 yards" (he fell short by 97); "No turnovers" (on the money); "30 yards in penalties" (the Patriots had 87, the Colts just 10, but they were the home team); "Poise, class, control and discipline" (well, on their way into the locker room after the final gun, one of the Patriots yelled, "Strike! Strike!" and another shouted, "We can't, we're on a roll!" Shortly thereafter one of the linebackers asked a writer, "When do we get our rings from the Stupor Bowl?" and the answer was, "As soon as they get them off the cigars," but you'd have to rate this as poise).
More Meyer goals: "Outcoach and outtough Kush" (the jury's out) and, finally, "Weight, 191 pounds." Under ROADBLOCKS he'd written the simple notation "Eating." The logic is irrefutable.
"I weighed 193 this morning," Meyer said, "so I skipped breakfast."
"Some of Meyer's things don't sit too well with the veterans," one Patriot says. "When we came to camp we felt we had to make the team and beat the rookies out, instead of the other way around. For the most part we've got college coaches putting in a college system. What I want to see is what happens when, after 10 games, these coaches look up and say, 'My god, there are still six games left.' "
The Patriots have a brand-new song, The Patriots' Game. The Colts have new game pants, silver with a horseshoe at the hipbone. Their housecleaning didn't stop with the players and pants. They even replaced their maintenance man at the training complex and their team doctor.
Meyer has said he's shooting for a winning record this year. Kush's aims are to show steady improvement, establish some semblance of sanity and get himself some players.
"The unfortunate part is that we're still looking for linemen," he said a day before the game. "We've picked up five since Monday and they all might play. That tells you something."
Sinnott, a Brown graduate, had been cut by the Giants the previous week and had gone home to Massachusetts and begun thinking about the Boston Breakers of the USFL. Then he got a call from the Colts. The Friday before the game he was projected as a starter. A day later he was second string.
"I tried out with two other linemen," he said. "They were going to keep one of us. Andre Hines and Barry something...I never caught his last name. We sat there in a room for about half an hour, waiting for one of us to be called. I was the one. It was kind of a nerve-racking thing. It was the fifth NFL camp I'd been through. I came down here so quickly when I got the call that I didn't even have time to pack. My brother had to drive my clothes down from Dedham.
"After a while you see the same faces bouncing around the camps. One veteran, Garry Puetz, came in here—he'd played for four or five teams over the years, who knows how many camps he'd been through. He said his goal in life was to go through all 28 camps."
"In some ways it's like an orphanage," Jeff Hart says. "People leave, people get adopted."
"When I was coaching last year in Hamilton, in Canada," Kush said, "we kept bringing in new players, and someone asked, 'Where'd you find them?' and I said. 'Oh, we picked 'em up off the QEW,' the Queen Elizabeth Way. Here we say, 'We found 'em in the Inner Harbor.' I saw an old guy the other day with a hat on and a suitcase and a beard, and I told someone, 'There's one of Carson's defensive backs. He found him in the Inner Harbor.' "
Someday it'll just be a memory. But not yet.