Someday, after Frank Kush has taken the Baltimore Colts to the playoffs a few times, he'll be sitting around with a few writers and someone will bring up his opening day in the NFL, on an uncomfortably hot, humid Sunday in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, and Kush will groan and close his eyes and say, "Don't remind me."
And like a recurring nightmare in which your feet turn to glue and your arms become spaghetti and you stand there powerless while some inexorable force gradually overwhelms you, it will all come back to Kush: the way he stood on the sidelines watching his army of Foreign Legionnaires getting picked off one by one, until the only thing left to do was arrange the terms of a merciful surrender.
And he will remember trying to make decisions: Do we lift the guy we activated Tuesday and bring in the guy we activated Wednesday—what was his name again? He'll recall trying to coach players whose identities he wasn't quite sure of, and he'll take a deep breath and mutter, "No, it won't ever be like that again."
There was nothing humiliating in the Colts' 24-13 loss to the New England Patriots in a game that marked the NFL coaching debuts of both Kush and the Patriots' Ron Meyer. It was nothing like last year's Stupor Bowl between these two teams. That was the last game of the season for both clubs, a comedy of errors, and it closed them both out at 2-14, the worst record in the league. The 17,073 fans in Memorial Stadium outnumbered the no-shows by only 19.
There was even a heroic quality about the Colts' performance this time. Ten of their 22 starters were filling that role for the first time in the NFL, and they were still even with the Patriots, at 10-10, at the half. When rookie Quarterback Mike Pagel suffered a concussion, they came in with David Humm, and even this 30-year-old warrior, who has bounced around the NFL in recent years, caught some of the new-era fire. Humm led Baltimore on a long drive in the opening minutes of the third quarter and got his team in front 13-10. Then the law of averages took over.
The Colts' regular halfback, Curtis Dickey, was out of the game with various miseries. Their fullback, Randy McMillan, was on the sidelines getting a breather. Their flanker, Raymond Butler, was battling leg cramps, and their split end. Matt Bouza, a free agent who would lead all the receivers in this game with six catches, would soon retire with the same ailment. Their regular tight end, Reese McCall, hadn't even dressed, and their starting offensive line, which included three free agents and a rookie, had become a juggling act. A couple of acquisitions from that Monday, Guard Glenn Hyde and Tackle John Sinnott, saw frequent action.
The Patriots blitzed the rather immobile Humm and forced him into an interception that set up the go-ahead touchdown, a 30-yard pass from Matt Cavanaugh to Ken Toler. Back came Pagel on the Colts' next series, and the 39,055 people in the stands, with the exception of Patriot owner Billy Sullivan and his family, cheered. This was the new era, the era of Kush and Pagel, the quarterback he'd coached at Arizona State, a fourth-round draft pick who had beaten out Art Schlichter, a first-round selection. It was time for a legend to be born.
"Mike felt his head was O.K.," Kush said. "The doctors asked him four times, and each time he said that he was O.K. We kept him out an extra series anyway, but he said he was feeling good, so we took a chance."
Pagel had taken a blow to the head from Cornerback Mike Haynes as he rolled out and dived for a first down on the New England three-yard line in the second quarter. The force of the tackle had sent his helmet flying. Three plays later he'd sneaked the ball over for a touchdown to put Baltimore in front 10-3, but he didn't recall doing it.
"I remember picking up my helmet after the first-down play," Pagel said. "The chin strap was still buckled, if you can believe that. Then I remember lying across the goal line and hearing our center, Ray Donaldson, yelling. 'You're in! You're in!' I don't remember coming off the field."