My old newspaper boss, the News-American sports editor John Steadman, used to say he’d get telephone calls in the middle of the night from Bert Rechichar.
“This is 44,” Rechichar would say.
No further identification was needed. Forty-four was his old number when he played football for the Baltimore Colts. This was years after Rechichar had retired. It didn’t matter. He was No. 44, and he’d always be No. 44. That’s how closely he – and an entire town — identified with that football team from its glory days.
Rechichar died the other day, at 89, after a long twilight struggle with dementia. He was never one of the Colts’ stars, but his toughness and his complete lack of inhibition made him emblematic on a team of great characters.
Also, he gave us a jolt of pride in the team’s early days, when they plucked him off the bench one afternoon against the Chicago Bears and Bert kicked a field goal from 56 yards away.
That was a pro football record that stood for 17 years. He kicked it in 1953, a year the team won a total of three games. We took our moments of pride wherever we could find them back then.
In a league of genuine tough guys, Rechichar was one of the toughest. He was the youngest of 11 children and could see out of only one eye. As a kid, he worked the mines around Belle Vernon, Pa.
He was part of a generation of players who’d grown up during the Depression, made it through the war years, and fought hungrily for their football jobs when there weren’t a lot of open spots.
Steadman once wrote, “Rechichar might get beat on a play, but he would always tackle hard or jump on a pile. It was his way of teaching a pass catcher that he’d better not take the liberty to come back in his territory again.”
Often used as a punt returner, no one could remember Rechichar ever calling for a fair catch. In Bert’s world, that was for sissies. Surrounded by tacklers, he charged forward.
It was Steadman who first learned the story about Rechichar and Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, a collegiate star at Ohio State drafted by the Detroit Lions.
Cassady complained to a referee that Rechichar had scratched him. Bert went up to Cassady to explain the new facts of life. The referee heard him growl at Cassady, and later passed the words on to Steadman.
“Listen, Cassady,” Rechichar said, “we don’t scratch in the NFL. That’s for kids at Ohio State. We just tear your f—in’ eyeballs out.”
At the old Western Maryland College, now McDaniel College, where the Colts held summer training camps and slept in the college dorms, Rechichar could be found in his room smoking cigars and wearing nothing at all.
His roommate was Claude “Buddy” Young, who was also his best friend on the team. In a time of routine segregation in American society, they were among the few inter-racial roommates.
It was Young who had to explain to a young rookie named Lenny Moore, in the summer training camp of 1956, “This town of Westminster is very segregated. You can’t go to any of the restaurants here. You can go to the Twin Kiss. Or the duck pond.”
In such an atmosphere, the friendship of tough guy Rechichar and the diminutive veteran Buddy Young made a statement. Nobody made speeches about it. The friendship spoke for itself.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and its Love Affair in the 1950s” (Johns Hopkins University Press). His most recent book, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.