Back in the early ‘80s, we finally had the sports department of the former Chattanooga News-Free Press on a roll. We would cover every high school football game in town and it was believed we would cover more college football games on a given Saturday than any other newspaper in the country. We had two full sports sections every week and, if you couldn’t find a story about sports in those 24 pages, that’s because, by golly, it didn’t happen.
At the time there were some Georgia Tech fans who wondered why we just covered all of the SEC and not the Yellow Jackets. So one Monday in late September, I called the Tech athletic department to request a press pass for a game that Saturday. I was told in a rather haughty way that those were only issued to “the bigger papers” and there was no room for us.
I immediately dashed off one of my “heated letters” to the Tech athletic director at the time and informed that so-and-so that the biggest sports section in the South was “too full” to include Tech ever again, to never try to recruit between Cartersville and Knoxville and – effective immediately – we would have a story on arch-rival Georgia every blankedly-blank day. Mailed it registered mail, I did, and I sent a copy to “Head Coach of the Losers.”
Couple of days later a tall, handsome guy stood at my door around 8 a.m. I stood to greet the visitor. “Hey … I’m Roy Exum … what can I do for you?” He smiled back with a firm handshake and replied, “I’m Bill Curry, the losing football coach at Georgia Tech. You can do a whole lot for me … a whole lot. I wanted to deliver your press passes for the rest of our season.”
That was when I fell in love with Bill Curry.
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When Bill graduated from Georgia Tech in 1965, he was the very last player picked in the NFL draft. Nobody gave him a cut dog’s chance of playing for Vince Lombardi, but when the very first Super Bowl was played in 1966, he was the starting center under Bart Starr in the 31-10 win over the AFC upstarts, Kansas City.
Far bigger, about a month later the NFL had an expansion draft for the new franchise in New Orleans. So when the call came that Vince Lombardi had left Curry unprotected and he had been swooped up by the Saints, the All-Pro center sat on the bed and wept like a small child. “The Packers were everything to me. But when Lombardi, who I loved like a father, left me exposed … I was so crushed I could hardly speak.”
Curry refused to return calls to the eager Saints. He wouldn’t leave the house until another call. “Bill, this is Don Shula. I’m willing to make a trade with New Orleans if you’ll agree to snap for (Johnny) Unitas. Would you think about it and call me back?”
“Coach Shula, I can be in Baltimore by tomorrow morning.”
So a great trivia question is this: Who was the first NFL All-Pro to ever play on different teams in the Super Bowl? That’s right. After Curry was a mainstay on the 1968 NFL champions, Baltimore was set to play Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. The Colts were huge favorites, of course, and the fact Namath was partying and mocking the Colts all week in Miami only added to what will always be my favorite Super Bowl in the 40-plus that I’ve watched, both in person and on TV.
When you would cover a Super Bowl, Tuesday was always media day where every player would be available. A covey of writers gathered around Curry, a cause celebre because Bill was the first guy to play in two. Everything was rolling along fine, especially since Bill was, in essence, more or less the captain of the Colts. But then somebody asked the difference in Lombardi and Shula.
Well, two years of broken heart came out of his mouth. “Shula has the greatest mind in football today … Lombardi is an old man. You don’t see the Packers around here, do you?” And on and on it went. Big page-one headlines the next day: “Curry slams Lombardi” and “Colts All-Pro Center Predicts Lombardi ‘Over the Hill.’” LESSON: If you ain’t got some good to say, keep it to yourself! More on that in a minute …
On Thursday of that week Namath shows up at the Miami Touchdown Club …. A little snookered despite it started at noon. As he spoke, a heckler yelled the Jets didn’t stand a chance and Joe offered one of the greatest three-word lines in the history of the world. “I guarantee it.”
Late that afternoon Namath was in the Jets training room, getting treatment on his knees (no one has any idea how bad Joe’s knees really were) and a crowd of writers gathered around as Joe was drinking a tall glass of tea. “Tea … this is scotch on the rocks.”
The Colts were starting Earl Morrall instead of Unitas and Joe offered, “There are six quarterbacks in the AFC better than that guy … he wouldn’t be third team with us.” And the ladies … oh my goodness… if you got a picture of each one he was with it would have looked like a group shot of the Radio City Rockettes.
The game? Namath was the MVP while Morrall threw three interceptions. When Shula put Johnny U. in the third quarter Unitas threw a touchdown but the Jets shocked the world of sports, winning 16-7 in the Orange Bowl stadium.
Namath was the first and only quarterback to be named MVP without a single touchdown pass. He went 17-of-28 for 199 ‘surgical’ yards and completely controlled the game. He didn’t throw one pass in the fourth quarter and never forget this: Joe passed for 3,147 yards that season, completed less than half of his passes and ended up with more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (17)
But all that matters: “I’ll guarantee it.”
* * *
In the late ‘80s, the NCAA invited 30 or 40 of the best known sports editors in the country to come to Kansas City for a four-day get-together. Well, I don’t know how it happened … all I can figure is somebody got sick or sued for divorce but I didn’t care. I was thrilled to be there.
At the same time they got 15-to-18 of the top college coaches in the country to come and the whole deal was for the writers and coaches to fraternize. This meant great dinners, fun card games, unrestricted interviews … really getting to know one another. A rule was the Southern writers couldn’t hang with the friendly Southern coaches. They wanted guys who voted on the Top 25 and the Heisman to meet coaches they normally would not know on a personal basis.
Well, you’d eat dinner with guys from Michigan, Brigham Young and Texas but you would also talk to Danny Ford from Clemson, Pat Dye from Auburn and Bobby Bowden from Florida State because obviously you knew one another, It was a genius idea and we really got to know wonderful people in the college game. At lunch and at night several writers would go classy restaurants with different coaches, share thoughts and telephone numbers.
About the third night as we were going back to the hotel, Bill said he was sorry we hadn’t gotten to visit and, hey, why don’t you come by the room when we get back. We are joking and laughing, swapping stuff we may not know and, I asked “Whatever happened on that Lombardi thing? I heard those newspaper headlines really hurt you but that was years ago. How did that ever end?”
Bill sounded like the air had just been let out of a balloon. He paused for about a beat longer than he should and finally said, “After the Super Bowl, I was in Washington for the National Prayer Day breakfast that summer and as I was going up the stairs, (Packer teammate) Paul Hornung was coming down.
“It was great to see him and, as we caught up with each other, he said, ‘Bill, the Old Man wants to know why you haven’t come to see him.’ I told Paul that the way things turned out wasn’t for the best and Hornung shook his head, ‘Bill, the Old Man wants to know where you are…’”
When Lombardi left the Packers in 1967, he stayed out of the NFL one season before taking over the Washington Redskins in 1969. After an initial 7-5 season, digestive problems revealed the 57-year-old Lombardi had stage IV rectal cancer in June of 1970. On Sept. 3 of that year Lombardi died.
“I remember I walked for blocks and blocks. Coach was at the National Health Institute and, after I knocked on the Door, Marie took me into her arms and told me, ‘We knew you’d come, Bill … we knew you’d come.’
“I went in to see him and he waved to come near. He grabbed me in this huge bear hug and I couldn’t say a word, the tears dripping off my face onto him. He was telling me how good I looked, how he had watched films of games I had played and, finally, I had to wave him quiet.
“’Coach, at the Super Bowl I said some really dumb stuff, some things I didn’t mean and never should have said, and ….” but by now Coach Lombardi was shushing me, even putting his hand over my mouth as he lay in the bed.
“Bill, I’ve been in the game a lot longer than you,’” Lombardi said, “and don’t you know I’ve been misquoted too? Forget about all of that. That’s foolishness… ”
Curry paused, thinking of what to say. “Our Packers won the first Super Bowl … but that’s nothing compared to Vince Lombardi’s forgiveness.
“It was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
And therein lies the lesson. Selah.