In the 36 years that I was a sports writer every day, there was no one I ever met who I admired more than Bill Curry. Believe me, I painted with a broad brush back in the day and met, interviewed and watched millions of people. Bill Curry is easily one of the finest people I have ever known in my entire life.
Early Wednesday morning I got a phone call that Bill was announcing his retirement at the end of this season as the Georgia State football coach in Atlanta and I started to go but then realized it would be a media frenzy and sometime before he actually retires at the end of this season maybe I can slip down and spend some time with a guy who has been such a big influence in my life.
You see, I was with Bill when he was losing at Georgia Tech before he started winning. I was in the room when he was named football coach at Alabama and was there, too, when he left under a bitter cloud. And we were both in Lexington that very next day when he was named head coach at Kentucky. Yeah, we’ve been together a lot over the past 30 years and I look forward to seeing him without all the hoopla, the TV cameras and the pressing crowd.
My pal Curry was the very last pick in the 1964 pro football draft. He went on to be an All-Pro center for four years of the 10 years he played in the NFL. What’s more, Bill started at center in three Super Bowls with the Packers and the Colts. Both Georgia Tech and Alabama won national championships the year after he left the cupboard bulging at both schools. He even studied a year in divinity school and to this day can recite Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I could go on and on.
But my favorite Curry moment came one night in Kansas City. The NCAA had invited 20 of the top college coaches to some kind of symposium and also invited 20 writers from around the country. The big idea was to form friendships and it was great fun. One night after dinner Bill and I were talking and suddenly the conversation got pretty deep. He suggested we go up to his room and it was the first time a coach told me a story that made both of us cry.
Bill Curry is the first man in NFL history to play in the Super Bowl for two different teams. He played in his first for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers and in his second for Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts. He adored the Packers and idolized Lombardi but when the New Orleans Saints were formed, there was an expansion draft and, unexplainably, All-Pro Curry’s name got on the list because each team had to list good players as well as dogs.
He told me, “I got a call that the Saints had taken me and I just sat on the edge of my bed and cried like a baby. It was easily one of the worst moments in my life and I was crushed. The next morning I got another call, this from Baltimore, and was asked if I would go along with a huge deal to play for Baltimore instead. Are you kidding? Don Shula, Unitas, Berry and those guys!”
He immediately started as center and that first year the Colts were (almost) invincible. They were 11-1-2 but the next year, in 1968, Baltimore went 13-1 in the regular season, whipped the Browns 34-0 for the NFC championship and were an overwhelming favorite to paste the upstart New York Jets and Joe Namath in the Super Bowl III.
After Namath’s legendary “I’ll guarantee it!” quote on Thursday before the game, the Jets beat the Colts, 16-7, but that wasn’t what we were talking about that night in Kansas City. We’d been talking about forgiveness, about why it is so hard for men to do, and that’s why Curry wanted to speak privately in his room. You see, it was very emotional for him.
“The week of the Super Bowl III both teams were in Miami and the writers caught on to the fact I had played in the first Super Bowl with the Packers. So there was a huge swarm of reporters standing there when somebody asked the difference in playing for Lombardi and Shula. This was the moment that I had been waiting two years for and, brother, I unloaded all my rage on Lombardi after he sent me to the Saints, of all places.
“Of course, every newspaper in America jumped on the story because Lombardi was such a football god no one dare slam him and I was pretty proud that I had finally gotten even,” said Bill, “but the secret truth was that after I did it I’ve never been so ashamed of myself in my life. I felt horrible about it, and still do to this day.”
Bill said he never heard from Lombardi at the time but that some of his old Packer teammates got a little riled about it. And, remember, it was eating hard on Bill in the months that followed. “I wasn’t that kind of person … at least, I didn’t think I was!”
About 18 months later it was widely known Lombardi was fatally ill with cancer. As it happened, Curry went to Washington to attend the President’s Prayer Breakfast and afterwards, as he walked down the steps outside the ballroom where he had just spoken about God’s love and grace, he met former Packer teammate and close friend Paul Hornung, the great running back who was walking up the same steps.
“Hornung looked right into my eyes, ignored my smile and said, ‘Bill, the Old Man doesn’t have much longer. He really wants to see you.’ I felt like Paul had just stuck a dagger in my heart. Coach Lombardi was at the National Health Institute hospital in Washington and, after walking about three hours outside in the cold, I finally went inside the hospital and knocked on the door.
“Coach’s wife, wonderful Marie, just fell in my arms and said, ‘Bill, we knew you’d come!’ and, oh my gosh, that just made it about 10 times worse. Coach Lombardi was in the next room and yelled, ‘Curry, you get in here!’ and that famous grin on his face reduced me to rubble. All I could say was ‘I’m sorry … I’m so sorry I said what I did…’ and Coach Lombardi – with tubes going everywhere -- just laughed, tried to wipe away my tears and boomed, ‘Don’t you think I’ve ever been misquoted! Stop it. I’m so glad to see you!’
“I shook my head, ‘No, coach, I said a lot of hateful things and I’ve regretted it every day since. Please just know I’m so sorry.’
“Coach Lombardi, who was dying of cancer, kept patting me and finally said, ‘Now you know how I felt when the Saints grabbed you ... I was assured they wouldn’t touch you … it was for show … but they did and back then I was the one who couldn’t talk. Now, it’s all over and let’s never mention it again. How are Carolyn and the children?’” Curry still remembered the moment with vivid clarity.
“I spent all afternoon with the Lombardis and realized that day what a magnificent gift it is to receive forgiveness,” Bill told me that night and, from that night on, we have enjoyed a friendship that I have cherished. If he moves me that way, how many lives do you think Bill Curry has molded down through the 70 years he has stood on this earth?
Mercy, they still talk about the years he enjoyed at Chattanooga’s Baylor School and the principles and values he has instilled in building the Georgia State football program from quite literally the ground up. But the most heartening moment on Wednesday, just after Curry told his players this would be his final season, a running back named Parris Lee tweeted his friends, “This man has changed my life forever … it will be hard to see him go ... I’ll do whatever I can to help him leave with a bang!!”
Coach Curry on the job at Georgia State