In 1975, as an 11-year-old kid from Baltimore, I became a pro football fan.
Until then, I’d played football, but the pro game was something that my father and his friends watched on Sundays, not me. I was too busy running, climbing and doing all of those things that litter childhood memories with sweat, scrapes, and dirt.
The 1975 Baltimore Colts entered the regular season with low expectations, having finished a dismal 2-12 the year before. I remember hearing that they had won their first game against the Chicago Bears, 35-7.
It didn’t seem to matter at the time, because everyone knew that the Miami Dolphins were the best team in the division, and that after having taken a year off from winning Super Bowls (while those one-shot wonders in Pittsburgh got their turn at the trophy), they would certainly be back in command of the AFC. The Colts had won a game; so what?
The next four Sundays seemed to confirm our collective pessimism, as the young, inexperienced Colts dropped to 1-4. It looked to be another long, depressing autumn in Baltimore. The team rebounded a bit after that, posting wins against the Jets and Browns —suddenly they had exceeded last year’s measly two wins—but again, we thought, so what?
Three wins and a nickel will buy you a cup of Gatorade in the NFL. The next week, they had to travel to Buffalo to face O.J. Simpson, the Electric Company, and the Buffalo Bills, who, at 5-2, were the only team with a real chance to beat out Miami in the AFC East. The Colts had already lost at home to Buffalo, so the odds of them winning there weren’t good.
That Sunday, I was with my Dad at an American Legion turkey shoot, only the shooters didn’t shoot at real turkeys—they shot at paper targets with small pellet rifles. The winner was awarded a frozen grocery-store gobbler as his prize.
As you might have guessed, I was bored to death. Having nothing better to do, I sat at the American Legion Post bar, sipping cokes, and watching the Colts get pounded by the Bills. The Juice was killing us, and it was ugly.
In the first quarter, Simpson ran for a 44-yard touchdown. In the second, he caught two touchdowns from Joe Ferguson as Buffalo built a 21-0 lead. After Lydell Mitchell caught a Bert Jones pass to get the Colts on the board, Bob Chandler got it back for the Bills to make it 28-7.
I couldn’t watch any more, so I asked my Dad for the keys to the truck and I sat in the cab listening to Top 40 radio.
When I couldn’t take another minute of “Feelings” (or was it “Rhinestone Cowboy?”), I tuned the radio to the familiar voices of Chuck Thompson and Vince Bagli calling what I figured had to have been a route by that time. I wondered, “It must be halfway through the third quarter by now, so the Colts must be losing by, what, 35 points? 45?” I waited to hear a score update.
Instead of a blowout, the Colts had somehow closed to within a touchdown at 28-21. Of course, ever the cynic, I waited for the next shoe, or more precisely, the next pair of Simpson’s shoes, to drop. Surely, this wouldn’t last.
But it did last. The Colts pulled ahead in the fourth quarter and held on to win. By that time, I was back at the American Legion bar, cheering as the game ended, and wondering what I’d just seen. The Colts were suddenly 4-4, having beaten the Juice and his Bills. Did it mean anything?
The next week, the Colts blew out the Jets, but the Jets, behind a rapidly aging Joe Namath, were terrible, so that didn’t really count. What counted were the Miami Dolphins, and the Colts hadn’t played them yet. For a week, the city of Baltimore held its breath. Then, it happened again.
After going down early in Miami, the Colts raced back and won handily, 33-17, to close to within one game of first place. Now anything was possible, and my friends and I waited excitedly each week for the next game.
And every week, to our building delight, the Colts won. The Dolphins kept winning too, keeping the pressure squarely on Bert Jones and our now-beloved Sack Pack.
The two teams were still separated by that one game when Week 13 arrived, and we all knew that this game would either win the division (on a head-to-head tiebreaker), or finally crush our carefully tended dreams, once and for all. The city was nearly manic with anticipation.
Game day was chilly and increasingly foggy. I listened on the radio, because the Colts hadn’t sold out a home game since Robert Irsay had gutted the franchise years before, and so the game was blacked out locally. I resented the NFL for this, but the sound of Chuck Thompson’s voice made it seem more authentic anyway, so I didn’t mind that much.
The game was scoreless throughout the first half, as the fog hindered passing and both teams, knowing what was on the line, played it safe. In the third quarter, our hearts sank as Mercury Morris scored on a short run to give Miami a 7-0 lead. Surely, it couldn’t end this way, not at home, not after all those wins…
True to form, the Colts would go on to tie the game in the fourth quarter, and then win in overtime as Toni Linhart’s field goal passed unseen to almost everyone except the referees. The Colts had beaten the Dolphins. Twice. The crowd stormed the field at Memorial Stadium, tearing down the goal posts (yes, that happened at NFL stadiums in those days).
I remember Chuck Thompson saying on the air that by the next day, as people talked about the game at work, the attendance would have swelled to well over 100,000. I would quickly become one of those lying wannabes, telling my tall tale to a crowd of fascinated fifth-graders at Lakeland Elementary School. It was electric.
The rest of that season is more blurry. The Colts fell behind in the last game to New England before sealing the division with two late touchdowns, inciting another mob scene on 33rd Street. Six days later, the magic ended in Pittsburgh, 28-10, but by then, for me, it didn’t matter. The transformation was complete.
I was an NFL fan.