PRESTON: Former Colts linebacker ‘Mad Dog’ Mike Curtis is a Baltimore legend
As the tributes poured in for former Baltimore Colts great Mike Curtis on Monday, I couldn’t help but watch some tape from old Baltimore Colts games. And with each ferocious hit by Curtis came the goosebumps and cringes.
I got hooked on the NFL on Sunday afternoons by watching middle linebackers like Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Willie Lanier and Curtis play. Some liked the glamour-boy quarterbacks, like Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr and Joe Namath, but I preferred the gritty, grimy, wild guys.
I loved watching Curtis play.
On Monday morning, one of his caretakers called to inform me that Curtis had died peacefully at home surrounded by loved ones in St. Petersburg, Florida, from complications of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries, according to his family. Curtis was 77.
Like most people, when you first hear such news, there is silence for a few minutes. But you eventually smile because Curtis left the image he wanted people to remember about him.
A man's man: He was a man’s man, direct and gentle when needed but surly when the situation called for it.
He was smart, articulate and had that unconventional sense of humor often filled with one-liners.
And he had that glare, the one that could pierce armor.
It was always there on Sunday afternoons, when Curtis was often the most vicious player on the field.
A vicious tackler: Curtis did not just tackle a person, he exploded through him like the textbook form you were taught in Pop Warner. As the late Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr once said, “If Butkus was scary, Curtis was scarier.”
Tackling was Curtis’ forte, and there should be a bust of him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds, the only middle linebacker faster during his time was Lanier. Curtis was named to the Pro Bowl four times during his 14-year career and was an All-Pro at both outside and middle linebacker.
He could cover any running back or tight end, which is why he had 25 interceptions, but also rush the passer, which is why he had 22 sacks. Curtis was the AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1970.
Disdain for media, but connected with fans: Then why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame?
A major reason is that Curtis did not care much for the media and a lot of sports journalists make up the selection committee.
Curtis, though, connected with fans in Baltimore, where his family is planning to have a memorial service. After games at Memorial Stadium, he would go to Sparrows Point or Highlandtown to hang out with fans because he thought they were down to earth people like himself.
When the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984, Curtis still hung around the Baltimore-Washington area and appeared at functions. In 1996, I sat with him at a Ravens Roost Banquet in Hagerstown. I was scared because he looked like he could still play.
His body looked firm and tight. As Curtis was sitting, he was stretching his neck and hands as if he were getting loose. I wanted someone to do something silly to him so he could tackle them, like he did that fan when he tried to steal the ball at Memorial Stadium in 1971.
The kid in me will never die.
One regret: I don’t know if Curtis had many regrets in life, but there was at least one. He never got over the Colts losing Super Bowl III to the New York Jets in 1969. A fire in his eyes would reappear whenever he talked about that game, a 16-7 Colts loss.
Curtis had been battling with CTE for several years, but fans will not forget him. The extent of his legacy was evident Monday, when young children were talking about what their parents and grandparents thought of Curtis.
According to his two caretakers, Vivian Wright and Victoria Gates, there is a table in Curtis’ house about a foot high with letters and gifts from fans. Gates said that Curtis always had her and Wright read them, and he would autograph each one before mailing the letters back.
While watching film on Monday, I saw Curtis running out on the field during pregame introductions with the Colts fight song playing in the background.
A tough guy: There were times when he would crush Miami Dolphins running back and tough guy Larry Csonka or nearly rip the head off Los Angeles Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel.
Curtis once threatened to punch out Unitas as a rookie fullback and warned his teammates that if they did not win their last six games of the 1970 season, they had to deal with him one-on-one.
The Colts then won the Super Bowl.
Intensity lives on: I missed Curtis after the 11 seasons he played in Baltimore. He went on to play for the expansion Seattle Seahawks in 1976, where he was named the team’s first defensive captain, and the Washington Redskins for two years.
But you cannot forget the intensity with which he played, or his No. 32, or that nickname, “Mad Dog.”
That stuff is legend.