"I understand that," I said. "What about the methods...John Unitas?"
"Why couldn't they have accepted it?" he asked, almost plaintively. "Everyone can't be first string. Why can't people like Tom Matte think back when some veteran had to sit down on the bench for him to play? Why can't they accept it the way Bart Starr accepted it? [Starr, now coaching the Green Bay quarterbacks, in fact retired because of a physical ailment to his throwing arm.] We're not trying to sideline anyone. It's very hard. Why can't they be...well, decent about it?"
There is something truly touching about Irsay. He talks about the dream he has always had about owning a great team. Why? To win, of course. "That little win we had over Cincinnati is one of the greatest things I've ever experienced." But what actually motivates him is a child's awe of the players themselves, a blatant hero worship that tongue-ties him. "What I'd really like to do," he said, "is to invite some of them out on the Mighty I, my boat, after the last game this year and we could have a few beers and talk. I'd be proud to have dinner with them. I'm a Colt-lover. I saw Bobo Smith at a banquet in Cincinnati. What a guy! But maybe they won't come to the boat," he said sadly. "Some of them I guess don't like me."
I kept being reminded of what one of his players had said—that Irsay had struck them as the sort of man who wanted to be a friend, desperately, but did not have the slightest idea how to go about it.
Irsay, living in Chicago, is rarely on the scene in Baltimore. He flies in for the games. The players see him in the locker room afterward. "Hi, Tiger. Great game, Big Fellow." Joe Thomas, of course, they see much more of. He comes out to the practices. He stands quietly, often very close to the players, though rarely saying a word. The veterans, who have evolved a number of nicknames for him—"Piccolo Player" is one—refer to him at these times, seeing him come across the field, as the "Ominous Presence." "Oh-oh, look sharp, here comes the Ominous Presence." "He stands and eyeballs you," one of the players told me. "And frankly, it sort of takes the fun out of practice. He's like Poe's raven. He perches there, just a few feet away, and peers at you and you keep expecting him to cry out, 'Nevermore!' "
The routine goes on. The players work hard for John Sandusky, whom they admire. They have growing respect for Domres. With him at the quarterback position they have won four of six games since the Jet loss I saw in New York; but they speculate about what Unitas would have done in the same position, and what the younger players would have learned from his active tutelage. And the rumors continue to fly. The most persistent one is that Thomas will make a clean sweep; that he must start afresh; that subconsciously he never could have accepted a ready-made championship team. In the turmoil players find qualities in their fellows they had not appreciated before. Curry is in awe of his line coach, Red Miller, who through it all has kept his sense of determination and optimism. The humor is always there, whatever the situation; Dan Sullivan, the offensive tackle, suggests that Tom Matte, livid with fury at being sidelined and inactive, be outfitted with leather handles on the sides of his rib cage, if he really wants to contribute, so that he can be set up around the field as a tackling dummy. In the drills, Bill Curry and Mike Curtis go full at each other—almost as if they were bent on canceling their ideological differences. For Curry it is partly a therapy for getting his mind off what has been worse than a nightmare. "But, in fact, it's the best sort of practice in the world," he told me. "After a week of trying to block down on Curtis, the two of us really going at it, the linebacker you go up against on Sunday is so slow that it seems like he's running in water."
Of course, the greatest tonic for a team in the dumps is victory; in Baltimore's case, being a team of such particular tradition, a special kind of victory. The Colts achieved it over Cincinnati, not just "our little win," as Irsay had described it, but a triumph over adversity in which reserves of championship quality had to be tapped. After the Jet game, Baltimore had lost to Miami, beaten New England quite easily, then lost to San Francisco. This was the game in which Unitas came in for Domres, who had been knocked temporarily silly, for one awful play in which, after having received a standing ovation from the 49er crowd, he was not only thrown for a 21-yard loss on a pass attempt but fumbled the ball away to the 49ers, who quickly scored—a humiliation so appalling, considering Unitas' situation, that blessed if I, watching the game on television, didn't find myself comparing it to King Lear's on the heath. But then came the Cincinnati game—and it was the sort of donnybrook that Bill Curry had been talking about—won 20-19 as the final gun went off by a Jim O'Brien field goal. As the ball went through the uprights Curry heard a curious whooping sound behind him—Bob Vogel it turned out to be, the 10-year veteran, and he was leaping straight up and down like a klipspringer gone berserk. He shouted at Curry as they trotted off the field together that it was the best game he could remember since the Super Bowl.
"It came back right there," Curry said to me afterward. "It was like old times. I don't know whether it will stay with us. But it was there."
I had heard that Bob Vogel had decided to retire—after those 10 years at offensive tackle for the Colts. Could he have changed his mind after the Cincinnati game? I doubted it. I wondered vaguely what the true reason was, and I thought of calling him to find out. But then I remembered that in the locker room after the Jet game he had told me about Hawk Mountain, and how he had always regretted that the football season was on during the fall bird migration and interfered with going up to Pennsylvania with his children to see the hawks floating in the thermals by the hundreds above the steep stands of oak and hemlock. It would not have been worth calling to find that was not the reason.