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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 bottom.
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 Monmouth?"
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 the room.
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.