Mike Curtis understood in his bones the tribal love affair between Baltimore and its football team the Colts, and he articulated that bond about as passionately as anyone ever did.
We were talking one night in some neighborhood bar, in the wilderness years after the Colts had been stolen away, when Curtis started reminiscing about the fans here who turned that team into a kind of secular religion.
“We were connected at the hip with these people,” he said. The muscles in his jaw clenched, but his tone had an unaccustomed tenderness. “It felt like we were attached to this town at our very core. You understand what I’m saying? It felt like we were attached at our souls.”
Those words come back now because Curtis, the Colts’ ferocious linebacker during the glorious Don Shula and Don McCafferty decade, died Apr. 20, at 77, after a years-long slide into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, the neuro-degenerative disease associated with football’s routine violence.
The conversation goes back a few decades but lingers in the air, along with old notes scribbled that night.
The love affair, he was saying, was a two-way romance shared by the town and the team, no matter what Robert Irsay did to steal it away.
“You know what I used to do after games?” Curtis said. “I used to drive down to East Baltimore and find a bar and sit there with all those guys from Highlandtown and Middle River. They were our people, see? They were hard-working guys like us, and they loved us.
“I don’t know if you can have that anymore. These guys move around so much now, and they’re making all that money. It’s two different worlds, isn’t it? It’s like royalty. What we had was different.”
For those of us who never quite got over the betrayal of the Colts’ move to Indianapolis, the words have a consoling power. They remind us that there really was an emotional bond back there, and the players felt it as deeply as the fans.
Curtis was there at the heart of it.
He was known as “Mad Dog,” a nickname he understood. The first time I interviewed him, early in his career, he sat in the Colts’ locker room, wearing only a small towel, his body looking like burnished steel, and said, “I need football.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“If it wasn’t for football,” he said, “I’d be out in the street knocking people down.”
The last time I spoke to him, seven years ago, PressBox had me write a long feature on Curtis in his twilight years. The dementia was beginning to affect him, though he still sounded smart, funny and insightful.
And he still had most of his memories, such as his first practice session with the Colts when he was trying out for fullback and John Unitas decided to have some fun with the intense young rookie.
As Curtis went out for a pass, Unitas threw the ball while Curtis still had his back turned. The ball hit him in the back of his helmet.
“You ever do that again,” Curtis screamed, “and I’ll [bleeping] kill you. You hear me? You can stand there behind all your linemen, and all your buddies, and you won’t be able to play again this season.”
Curtis remembered it years later, all right, and could finally laugh about it.
“He’s standing there with his linemen all around him, and I’m a third-string rookie running back. But, you know,” he said drily, “I felt I had to counsel him on the proper behavior modes. He never said a word, and he never hit me in the back of the head again.”
And in that moment, Coach Shula saw a player whose aggressiveness made him a natural linebacker, a position from which he went to several Pro Bowl games and had 25 career interceptions, including one that helped the Colts to their last-second Super Bowl V triumph against the Dallas Cowboys in 1971.
“He should have won the Most Valuable Player award for that game,” said former Colts General Manager Ernie Accorsi, who spent years in the team’s front office. “But he got a terrible break. They took the vote early, when it looked like Dallas was going to win, and gave the vote to Dallas’ Chuck Howley — the only MVP winner on a losing team.”
In Accorsi’s mind, by the way, Curtis “absolutely should be in the Hall of Fame.”
He never got there, despite a letter-writing campaign by such Hall of Famers as Shula, Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, Ozzie Newome, Joe Namath, Mike Ditka and more than two dozen others.
Curtis knew about the letter-writing campaign. “I’m a little embarrassed that people would endorse me and actually campaign to get me in,” he said. “It’s awful nice of them.”
But he preferred to talk about other moments, such as the time a fan ran onto the field in mid-game and tried to swipe the football away. Curtis, reacting instinctively, decked the fellow.
“I didn’t want this guy to change the mood of the game,” he said. “We’re out there in the middle of a war, and this guy thinks it’s funny.”
Like so many football players, Curtis paid a price for the years of violent contact. He felt dementia’s encroachment. Friends say he’d joke about it, and talk of better times.
He remembered the best of moments on the field. More than that, he remembered the best of moments off the field, in a community that embraced its football team.
Curtis, for all his toughness, was a guy who tried to return the embrace.
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, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.