Lipscomb was never sure himself. One day he might play the ebullient, knee-slapping comic and raconteur, the Colts' most irrepressible cutup; the next day an altogether different incarnation might appear in one of his tailored suits: a sullen, unapproachable ogre who wore a scowl for a mask, the phantom of his own dark opera. More than once, says Moore, Lipscomb inexplicably burst into tears. One night when Moore and Lipscomb were roistering through Baltimore in the back of a cab, Moore says, "he just broke down and started crying, and I said, 'What's wrong with you, man?' He said, 'Ah, the Daddy ain't right. The Daddy ain't right.' "
"He cried periodically," Luke Owens, a Colts teammate, says. "You'd walk up, and his mind would be somewhere else, and you'd look, and he was crying. 'Just a sad day,' he'd say."
Given to bouts of insomnia, Lipscomb paced the nights away. In the hot and airless dormitory at Western Maryland College, where the Colts set up training camp each summer, the players kept the doors and windows open in their rooms. Baltimore defensive end Ordell Braase recalls seeing Lipscomb, like a sentry on duty, walking the narrow hallways at night.
"He was a troubled guy," says Braase. "I remember waking up at four in the morning, and he'd be pacing those halls. I think the haunts of his childhood pursued him to the end of his life."
Lipscomb was born in Uniontown, Ala., to a family of cotton pickers, on Aug. 9, 1931. He never knew his father, who fell ill and died in a federal Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and he was only three when his mother, Carrie, took him, her only child, north to Detroit. They lived in a rooming house in the Black Bottom ghetto on the East Side. "His mother was a fast lady, and she was tough," recalls Charles Bailey, one of Lipscomb's boyhood friends. When Gene, as his childhood pals knew him, was 11, Carrie's boyfriend stabbed her 47 times at a bus stop on Lafayette Street. Gene was fixing himself breakfast when a policeman came by to tell him what had happened, his hand on the boy's shoulder. She had died on the street.
Owens still wonders where Lipscomb got those gruesome photos he used to carry with him. Owens was visiting Lipscomb one day in Pittsburgh in the early '60s, and they were having lunch at a hot-dog place downtown when Lipscomb pulled out a sheaf of photos: black-and-white highlights from his early years as a Ram, from '53 to '55; photos from his glory days as a Colt. In this group was a gallery of pictures taken in a grainy winter dusk in Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, 1958, showing scenes from the Greatest Football Game Ever Played, in which Baltimore beat the New York Giants 23-17 to win the NFL championship in the first sudden-death overtime in league history. Lipscomb also told Owens about his childhood, about growing up in Detroit, about the day his mother was killed. Owens didn't know if he had heard right. "Your mother was killed?" he asked. Here Lipscomb pulled out another passel of photos, taken by a homicide photographer.
"This is my mother," he said. "She was murdered."
Owens suspected this was Lipscomb's idea of macabre humor. He says, "I asked him, 'Are you serious?' I waited for him to tell me it was a joke, but he was very serious. They were pictures of his mother's murder scene...a horrible death. I looked at her, and I looked at him, and he had the strangest look on his face. I finally said, 'Let me see some more football pictures.' "
After he was orphaned, Gene moved in with his maternal grandfather, Charles Hoskins, in the old man's Detroit apartment building. The boy had already worked for years, setting pins in a bowling alley when Carrie was still alive, and he did even harder time after she died. "I had to buy my own clothes and pay room and board to my grandfather," he told The Saturday Evening Post in 1960. "I washed dishes in a café, loaded trucks for a construction gang and helped around a junkyard. One year I ran a lift in a steel mill from midnight until seven in the morning. Then I changed clothes and went to school."
At 6'4" and 220 pounds, he was a sixth-grade Sasquatch, and schoolmates teased him about his clothes, which he was forever outgrowing, and about the special desk he needed in class. "I was a freak," he would tell his Colts teammate Joyce. When he struggled to spell simple words such as apple, the other kids giggled and called him Dumbo. All through his life, nothing could arouse the fury in him faster than the old taunts of dummy and big stupe that he had heard as a boy.