A few more weeks
and it would be time to report to training camp—time to get ready for the 1969
season—but something was telling me that I faced a decision. I had awakened
with a case of the hives. Whenever I get the hives I know it's time for a
change. Usually I solve the problem by going off on a fishing trip or flying up
to Baltimore to have a few drinks with my fans (mostly bartenders, petty
hoodlums and worthless newspapermen), but lately I had been brooding about my
career. Mind you, I had no illusions—I had not expected great things of myself.
It's true that the first year a thumbnail sketch of me appeared in the
Baltimore Colts' press book, I was described as a "fleet breakaway
threat," but, of course, publicity men write press books grimly determined
to find a compliment for every player. In my case it was a terrible struggle.
Becoming less of a threat each year, I was demoted to "the hard-running
blond," then to "the solid-socking blond." Finally, publicist Jim
Walker reached the bottom of the barrel. He put down that I was "loose and
fun-loving off the field" and let it go at that.
But no, it was
not my station that I brooded about. Actually, you could say my career had been
unique. I mean, how many football players can you name who in 10 years in the
National Football League played six positions—cornerback, halfback, fullback,
split end, flanker and tight end—and did none of them justice?
Although I would
be 32 in just a few days, I wasn't worried about being able to take the
football grind for another year. On practice days our coach, Don Shula, used to
say to me, "Well, Hawk, what are you going to do today?" I'd say,
"I think I'll warm up the quarterbacks and later I'll go over and bat the
breeze with the kickers." Shula would say, "Good. Just stay out of
everybody's way." It was a routine I could live with.
Nor was I worried
that I might not be able to retain my position as the No. 6 man in the Colts'
six-man corps of receivers. Having risen to the captaincy of the suicide squad,
I commanded a certain amount of prestige, and while it's true that Shula's
better judgment often told him to release me, he always managed to rationalize
his way out of the decision by noting that I knew the plays at six positions
and that if I happened to turn up in the right saloon at the right time I
usually could talk Lou Michaels out of a fight before the cops arrived. No,
Shula wouldn't cut me. But for reasons I'll get to presently, I had become
dissatisfied with life as a pro football player. The hives were telling me to
take stock. Their message was clear. I decided to quit while I was still on the
From my home in
Atlanta I telephoned Baltimore and called a press conference. The club was damn
well not going to, but I still had a little Super Bowl money left that would
pay for a nice luncheon, so I booked the back room at the Golden Arm, which is
owned by John Unitas and Bobby Boyd, and leaked the word that I intended to
announce my retirement. The turnout was huge and, I might say, enthusiastic.
Shula showed up, and so did a number of my teammates. The newspapermen already
were charging drinks to my tab before I arrived. Also, there were bellboys and
bookies and thieves and even a few thirsty priests. If I shock you by admitting
that while playing pro football I associated with hoodlums, let me explain that
in Baltimore there is no such thing as a clever hoodlum. One of my good
friends, for example, made his getaway from a bank robbery by hailing a cab.
After traveling five blocks he was caught, owing to the fact that he had
neglected to tell the driver he had robbed a bank and the driver had stopped
for a red light.
The speeches were
terrific. Bert Bell Jr., the son of the late NFL commissioner, got up and said,
"I think the Colts ought to retire the Hawk's jersey. Ball clubs are always
retiring the stars' jerseys, but they never do anything for a stiff."
Gussie the Bookie
got up and said, "Does anybody know who win the second at
The sight of all
my old pals so touched me that I arose and said, "I can't go through with
it. I'm not going to quit." Shula threw down his napkin and stalked out of
When the shouting
died away and my resolve to remain active had been vetoed, the celebration
began in earnest. The luncheon ended at 9:30 the next morning, at which time I
awoke on the barroom floor, knowing that I had gone out in style.
Actually, I quit
for two reasons. One was that my teammate, Tom Matte, had made the Pro Bowl the
previous season. I hold no personal grudge against Tom, but the more I thought
about his selection to the Pro Bowl the more I wondered what the game had come
to. The way Tom got to be a star, you see, was that the newspapermen ran out of
questions for John Unitas. They said, "Good Lord, how many times can we ask
Unitas the same questions?" So they looked around the room one day and
there was Matte.