From time to time during the game I watched Unitas on the sidelines, hands thrust into the pockets of his blue wind-breaker, standing alone, occasionally turning and restlessly stubbing at the ground with the toe of his football shoe. He was not saddled with the job of talking on the phones to the spotters on the stadium rim, which is often the duty of a back-up quarterback. The times I looked, he was alone, occasionally behind the bench, usually gazing away from where Domres huddled with the offensive coaches on the sidelines.
That last Baltimore scoring drive ended with just a minute and a half left in the game, when on fourth down Domres passed 13 yards to his flanker, Jim O'Brien, completely alone in the end zone, kneeling there to be sure of the catch. O'Brien received the pass to his midsection like a supplicant, bowing over it in gratitude. With this play the Colts went ahead 20-17. But then in his final series, Joe Namath reared back on third down and pegged an 83-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Bell that worked only because one Colt defender jumped in front of another and tipped the ball to the astonished Bell.
The locker room after a defeat of this sort is not an easy place to visit. Football players can pull themselves together after a rout, because one rationalizes that no amount of personal effort would have had any discernible effect on the outcome. But a close game—well, perhaps a block here or a tackle there, or a pass gathered in would have made the difference...and the players sit on the stools in front of their cubicles and think about it.
The Colt custom after a game, whatever the outcome, calls for a short prayer, invariably offered by Bob Vogel, the big offensive tackle. Vogel's prayer is a personal, very chatty address, as if God were sitting atop a ladder placed in the middle of the locker room, chin in hand, like a character in a "meaningful" Broadway play. Vogel told Him that they had messed up on various assignments and that they were going to have to knuckle down and work harder. He thanked Him for seeing to it that the Colts had gone through the game without serious injury, and he promised Him that the next time they would do better. Then the locker-room door was opened and the press was let in.
In Carroll Rosenbloom's day the Colt locker room after a game was open to anyone who took the trouble to cadge an invitation. The players had to pick their way through the crowds to get to the showers. Usually a number of youngsters stood about, in awe of where they were, holding their blue woolen Colt caps in their hands. It was very informal and friendly and it was part of the tradition of the "Colt family."
All of this Joe Thomas had changed. He had announced that the locker room was off limits to everyone except players, club officials and the press. No exceptions. Not even young Jimmy Irsay, the owner's 13-year-old son.
So for one who remembered the cocktail-party atmosphere of the Rosen-bloom era, the locker room seemed almost empty. Marty Domres did have a considerable group of reporters around his cubicle. He has a lean, intelligent face, with light-hued eyes, and he bears a startling, if youthful, resemblance to Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada—the same long-shaped head, the high forehead and the hair thinning in front. He kept his voice low, the reporters leaning in on him, and it occurred to me that he was doing it out of deference to Unitas, just down the line, who, not having done anything more athletic on the sidelines than shrug his shoulders forward under his windbreaker, had taken a quick shower and was bent forward on his stool, lacing his shoes. No one was questioning him.
I continued to wander around. The players were beginning to come out of their shells. One of them pointed out Joe Thomas to me. A slight, thin figure, he was very nattily dressed in a dark pinstriped suit, moving through the locker room somewhat nervously and with an abstracted air, as if he had put an expensive pair of cuff links down and could not remember exactly where. I introduced myself and asked if I could come down to Baltimore the following week and ask him what was going on.
"Any time," he said expansively.
I stopped by Bob Vogel's cubicle. He sat with a towel around his middle. He and I share an interest in bird-watching. He has a bird-feeding station on the lawn in front of his house on the Chesapeake Bay, and he once told me that the most exciting moment of the previous year—this from a man who spends his autumn Sundays trying to remove the likes of Deacon Jones and Bob Lilly and Merlin Olsen from his path—was when a painted bunting came to feed at his station.