Football rules this weekend
My buddy George called from Chicago to tell me all the ways the Bears would beat the Colts to win the Super Bowl. He said he liked the fact the odds makers were picking the Colts to win by a touchdown. This, said George, will give the Bears an edge.
George is my oldest friend in the world. We’ve known each other since before our kindergarten days. Now George lives in a condo on Lake Michigan; if he feels like it, he can go down to the street and walk along a boulevard that’s named for his great uncle, the late, great George S. Halas, Papa Bear himself.
But we grew up on the same block in a northwest suburb called Mt. Prospect. We played a lot of sandlot football together when we were kids. For us, football season started with the high hay fever of late August and lasted until there was snow on the ground in December. George was the quarterback and I was the wide receiver — the split end we called it in those days. I remember one New Year’s we celebrated with me going out for a pass at midnight and George hitting me with a perfect spiral atop a snowbank.
George’s dad scouted the Green Bay Packers for the Bears, which was a big deal since the Packers and the Bears had such an intense rivalry. Every few years he’d supply George with a genuine NFL football, the kind the pros used. It was real leather and smooth, not pebbled like the ones you got at the sporting goods store.
It was fun being just a degree of separation away from the Bears. I have to confess, though, that it made me a little jealous. It was also frustrating because the Bears were known for their running game; they didn’t have a standout pass receiver I could look up to. That’s how I came to be a Baltimore Colts fan.
The Colts had the legendary Johnny Unitas at quarterback; Raymond Berry was his favorite receiver. They were the Manning and Harrison of their day. People talked about how Unitas threw to Berry along the sidelines when the Colts beat the Giants in the 1958 title game, a game some said was the greatest ever played. I had a picture that I cut out of Sports Illustrated with Berry sailing flat-out through space, catching a pass on his fingertips.
Before the start of every football season, I would write to the Colts in Baltimore and request their latest yearbook. They would send me a copy for free and I would pore over the contents, reading about Berry and Johnny U., Gino Marchetti and Billy Ray Smith, John Mackey and Bobby Boyd. One year, I wrote a fan letter to Raymond Berry. A couple of weeks later I got a postcard from him that I still have today.
Time passed, of course. George’s family moved out of the neighborhood and George and I went to different high schools. We lost touch with one another — and, for a while, I lost interest in football. Not long after that, the Johnny Unitas era ended for the Baltimore Colts. The team was sold to Bob Irsay, the man who would bring the Colts to Indianapolis.
The fact that the Colts were in Indy meant nothing to me when I moved here in 1988. Like a lot of people, I thought the Indianapolis Colts were pretenders, a team without a real tradition. Unlike the Bears, their games were rarely sold-out. And they played in a dome, an unnatural act, as my friend George, who has braved the elements to watch not just the likes of the sublime Walter Payton, but the ridiculous Cade McNown, can tell you.
Needless to say, my attitude about the Colts began to change when Peyton Manning came to town. Like the great Johnny U., Manning calls his own plays. He turned the Colts into a kind of jazz band — a well-rehearsed unit able to improvise at the drop of a hat. The Colts are happening again, and if their Midwestern edition is still a little wet behind the ears tradition-wise, that’s OK. A win this weekend will do wonders.
Speaking of which: After adventures too numerous to mention, George and I picked up the thread of our boyhood friendship a few years back. Hence that phone call I mentioned. George, I have to admit, has always known more about football than I do. But when it comes to the Bears, he’s also a cock-eyed optimist, the kind of guy who sees a tidal wave coming his way and thinks its time to open a surf shop. He thinks the Bears have the Colts’ number.
We’ll see, George, we’ll see.