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Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 5/9/2001

In a perfect after-sports life, Baltimore's remaining ex-Colts would be able to go to their monthly meeting at the deluxe pavilion out back of Buck Fowler's Tavern up on Belair Road, eat choice grilled meats, talk trash, and recall gridiron bloopers and golden moments.

God knows that's what Art Donovan is trying to do at this early May meeting of the National Football League Players Association's (NFLPA) Baltimore chapter, spinning yarns of crazy antics from the Colts' glory days. But this is far from a perfect world for Baltimore's former football heroes; sometimes it's not even a fair one.

"We would like to sit back with a cold one and tell old stories," says former defensive back Bruce Laird, who turned 50 earlier this year with an aching back, neck, and shoulders. "But it seems like every month someone's coming in talking about so-and-so needs a hip replacement."

These aging, arthritic gladiators can live with the reality that today's baby-faced stars are cashing in on the work they did decades ago to make the NFL the billion-dollar juggernaut it is today. What they can't live with is what they say is the league's unwillingness to rework their pensions to include a health plan. After sacrificing bones, joints, and mobility to make the plays that juiced future generations to play the game, they're left to face the orthopedic surgeon alone. If they're lucky, they can draw on insurance policies from jobs secured after their playing days; if not, they pay what they can from shallow pockets or live with the pain.

So on a perfect spring evening in this screened-in hut outfitted with carpeting, ceiling fans, and pictures of old Colts programs, these football players can't just talk about upcoming celebrity golf tournaments, or the fund drives that helped the chapter raise $13,000 for charity last year. They can't focus on a proposed statue of John Unitas to be erected between the two downtown stadiums. They can't just bask in the camaraderie that only comes from spending careers in the same town, with the same teammates. Instead, they spend most of their get-together plotting how to make their case for increased benefits to the NFL.

Average attendance for the monthly meetings is 20 or so vets, a mix of old Colts, like Donovan, Laird, Ordell Braase, Rick Volk, and Toni Linhart (Johnny U. puts in the occasional appearance), and players from other teams who now live in the Baltimore area, such as circa-'60s 49ers/Redskins linebacker/defensive end Carl Kammerer. Every now and then a Raven might show up, and coach Brian Billick has put in an appearance. A few nonplayers are sprinkled into the mix--old-time Colts mega-fan Len "Big Wheel" Burrier; Ted Patterson, author of the recently published Football in Baltimore: History and Memorabilia; former Sun sports scribe Cameron Snyder.

And, of course, tavern owner Chuck Fowler, who made the deal of a lifetime when his dentist, Dr. Sam Havrilak--the former Colts' halfback--told him the newly formed NFLPA chapter was looking for meeting space. Fowler offered his pavilion, which provides a perfect hideaway when the players want to meet in peace.

"I think these older players should be treated with more respect and given their due," Fowler says. "Everybody knows the National Football League--the owners with the TV contracts--can certainly afford it. Some of these players are embarrassed to tell you what they receive as a pension."

But for some of the players who started in the '50s, the role of league-battling maverick doesn't come easy. They come from the for-the-love-of-the-game school; when the season ended, they had to complement their football salaries with off-season jobs.

"I think everybody who played enjoyed the game," says Fred Miller, a Colts defensive lineman from 1963-'72. "We could get a job making more money on the outside."

With the whack of the gavel calling the meeting to order, the dusky atmosphere grows tense with the airing of strategies. The ex-Colts have drafted a letter to be sent to other retired-players chapters, calling for a revamped pension that includes health benefits. The letter would put the Baltimore group in the forefront of the NFLPA on the issue.

"What we're doing is surfacing this balloon for some discussion and seeing if the guys in the other chapters feel the same way we do," Kammerer says.

Laird, one of the younger old-timers (he retired after the 1983 season, the Colts' last in Baltimore), wants to take a more activist tack; he suggests calling Gene Upshaw, the former Raiders All-Pro who heads the NFLPA, twice a day. But Laird's phone-campaign idea goes no further. The veterans also write off the possibility of enlisting young players, whom almost all agree would not be moved to stand with the old-timers. "Give 'em a nickel," Kammerer grouses, mocking the what's-in-it-for-me attitude the veterans, to a man, attribute to their football descendants.

Talk moves to the fall-back plan--raising money for an existing national fund to help the neediest retired players. Then Donovan, who has been uncharacteristically quiet, mumbles a couple of expletives and raises his mammoth hand.

"Whatever it is, you got to take care of your own--right or wrong," asserts the ex-lineman, who more than anyone--even the sainted Unitas--has come to represent the public face of the old Colts. "You don't worry about the chapter in Washington or any place else. You worry about the guys who come to our meetings."

There is a round of applause, and the players are done preparing for the operating table and the activist campaign for the evening. They're back to recalling the old days and great plays, like the 1975 game in which Linhart kicked a game-winning field goal against the Dolphins as a fog rolled into Memorial Stadium, keeping Miami out of the playoffs. "The officials couldn't see it so they just gave us the points," the kicker jokes.

Then, cracking on each other, throwing fake blocks, and signing football helmets, they disappear up the sidewalk to their cars, like sports legends in a perfect world.

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