Remembering Mike Curtis

It must have been in the Fall of 1960 that I went with some neighbors to watch our local high school football team, Wheaton, play powerhouse Richard Montgomery in the final game of the Montgomery County football season. Wheaton was hoping to gain a share of the County championship with Richard Montgomery.

Optimism did not abound. Richard Montgomery had a star running back named Mike Curtis. Rumor had it that he was unstoppable. Curtis must have played on defensive side as well, but it was his ability as a ball carrier that had made him a local legend.

If my memory is accurate, the game was effectively over well before half time. Curtis ran through our defense at will. On offense, we were unable to move the ball.

Curtis, who died on Monday of the degenerative brain disease CTE, went on to become a star linebacker for Duke, then a strong football program. As a senior, he was named first team All American. Curtis also was an academic All American.

The Baltimore Colts drafted him with the 14th pick of the first round in 1965. Soon, he became the leader of one of the best defenses in football.

Curtis stood out for his intensity, his sideline to sideline speed, and his coverage skill. His intensity earned him the nickname “Mad Dog” and drew comparisons to other great linebackers like Joe Schmidt, Ray Nitschke, and Dick Butkus.

The 1968 Colts went 13-1. They allowed only 144 points, the fewest in pro football. Curtis was named first team all-pro that season.

Those Colts famously lost the Super Bowl to the New York Jets led by Joe Namath. Curtis didn’t take it well. He always insisted that the Colts were “twice as good as the Jets,” who “got lucky” on the day.

That’s harsh, but it wasn’t Curtis’ fault that the Colts lost that Super Bowl. According to accounts I’ve read of the game, the Jets ran their offense away from “Mad Dog Mike’s” side of the field. Curtis still managed some fine open field tackles.

Curtis made first team all-pro the following season, too. The season after that, 1970, he was named AFC defensive player of the year.

The 1970 season presented Curtis and the Colts with another shot at Super Bowl glory. Curtis excelled in that game against the Dallas Cowboys. His interception and return of a Craig Morton pass set up Baltimore’s game-winning field goal in the final minute of this defensive struggle. The final score was 16-13.

During the next season, Curtis made an even more iconic “play.” He decked an intoxicated fan who, as Curtis put it, invaded “my place of business” by running onto the field and grabbing the football.

That blow enhanced Curtis’s image as one of the meanest players in football. The image seems to have been accurate on the field. Off the field, Curtis was, by all accounts, a gentleman and good guy. On receiving news of Curtis’s death, his former teammate Bill Curry tweeted:

Mike Curtis was my roommate for 5 years, one of the great players ever. In my 1st camp my wife went into labor at 5am. I panicked, but Mike talked me through plane res, seeing (coach Don) Shula, and gave me the keys to his brand new T Bird. I never forgot.

Curtis made the last of his four pro-bowl appearances after the 1974 season. His next season was cut short by knee surgery. He does not seem to have been the same player after the surgery.

The Colts let him go to Seattle in the expansion draft. After one year with the Seahawks, George Allen brought him to the Washington Redskins as part of the “over-the-hill” gang. As I recall, Curtis played well as a starter in 1977, but became a back up in 1978, his last season in the NFL.

Curtis thus ended his career in the city where he was born and the area where he had starred in high school. I haven’t followed Montgomery County football closely over the years, but I doubt that the County has ever produced a better player than Mike Curtis.

RIP.

Below is a legendary Montgomery County football coach sharing his recollections of seeing Curtis play for Richard Montgomery. Below that, Curtis levels the fan:

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