The domination of the NFL's Western Division by the Green Bay Packers, interrupted last year by the loss of Paul Hornung and injury to Bart Starr, now is being threatened by four young running backs—three of them virtually unknown and one prematurely famous (some might say notorious). All are employed by the Baltimore Colts and. thanks in part to them, the Colts are in first place after beating Green Bay and Los Angeles and demolishing the defending champion Chicago Bears 52-0.
The four runners are Tom Matte, 25, who is in his fourth year with the Colts; Jerry Hill, 24, in his third; Tony Lorick, 23, a rookie; and another rookie, Joe Don Looney, 21. In themselves these young backs are nothing much as yet; what they provide is the balance the Colts have long and badly needed to release the marvelous throwing arm of Johnny Unitas (left) and to spring the slashing halfback, Lenny Moore (right). Both of these results have been accomplished, and something more, most notably in the case of Looney, the New York Giants' first draft choice.
Looney is the young man who failed his indoctrination test with the Giants. The New York staff considered him moody and intractable, because he refused to cooperate with press agents and rebelled against the hazing most pro clubs inflict on rookies. To cite one example of the latter, the Giants expect rookies to help the trainers tape the ankles of veteran players before practice. Looney not only refused to do this chore but also refused to be taped himself. A resulting argument with Coach Allie Sherman brought a $500 fine for Looney and, subsequently, a decision to trade him to the Colts. Obviously, Looney did not fit the Giant image. But he may be the perfect prototype of the new Colt image—he ran 58 yards for a touchdown against the Bears.
No one ever looked more like a pro back than Joe Don, who stands 6 feet 1, weighs 230 and is an exceptional runner, punter, blocker and receiver. When he arrived in Baltimore, Looney was given the usual silent treatment, but he was not subjected to the humiliating types of hazing. Moreover, when Looney spoke someone listened. One day, practicing punting, he was squibbing most of his kicks. Coach Don Shula asked him what was wrong. Looney complained that his pants were too tight. This might have seemed capricious in another player—or been so considered by another coach—but Shula took it seriously, noting that Looney's thighs bulge fantastically with muscle.
"Have special pants made for him," said Owner Carroll Rosenbloom, and soon Looney, in his new, baggier pants, was booming punts 70 yards and more. Shula put him on the kickoff team, and he worked off some of his aggressions barreling downfield and beheading would-be kickoff returners. By the time the Colts played the Chicago Bears in the third game of the season Looney was an accepted member of the team, and the personality problem he had in the Giant camp apparently was solved. He got into the game in the fourth period as a running back and promptly burst through the big Bear line, ran over a linebacker, shrugged off an arm tackle by the safety man and went on for a touchdown. He was mobbed by Colt players when he came to the bench; later in the game, slamming violently into the line again near the Bear goal line, he popped out of both his shoes and received another tumultuous greeting as he padded back to the sidelines, shoes in hand.
Tony Lorick, the other rookie in the backfield and the Colts' No. 2 draft choice, was never a problem for the coaches. Although arriving late from the All-Star camp, he showed brilliance during the exhibition games and really began to roll against the Bears. Lorick is not as big as Looney, but he hits with almost the same power and with as much speed.
While Looney's contribution to the Chicago debacle—the worst defeat any Bear team has ever suffered—was a small one, it dramatically signified the rebirth of the Colts and perhaps the beginning of a new Baltimore dynasty. Despite an opening loss to the Vikings, fans—and experts—are now comparing the new Colts with the championship teams of 1958-59. This Colt team actually might be better, primarily because of its ground game. The players certainly think so.
After the rout of the Bears, Alex Hawkins, who plays on the Baltimore punt-and kickoff-return teams, sat happily in front of his locker.
"I wasn't surprised," he said. "We're that good. Maybe the Bears aren't that bad, but we're that good. It's been coming a long time. We just put it all together this afternoon, and we'll do it again."
John Unitas, who completed 11 of the 13 passes he threw, grinned. "We got the weapons now," he said. "They don't tee off anymore. They've got to look for the run, and they can't put on the pressure the way they used to. I think they only got to me twice all day."