Remembering Colts' Ted Marchibroda

One of NFL's most admired coaches died Saturday at the age of 84.

Each time he answered the phone, Ted Marchibroda sounded genuinely appreciative of another opportunity to relive Colts history.

He remembered everything in such vivid detail. He was so comfortable, I joked that it seemed as if he was in a favorite rocking chair on a porch in Weems, Va., although it was in January 2013, which would have made it a bit too cold for being outside.

It wasn’t by accident that Marchibroda received three phone calls in about one month for my book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He and Hall of Fame wide receiver Raymond Berry shared the “honor” of hearing from me the most times for these enlightening chats.

Upon learning the news that Marchibroda had died Saturday at the age of 84, the first thought was of his reaction each time he was called three years ago. He had a way of making you feel like you were so important, that it had been too long since an old friend got in touch for an enjoyable chat.

Whatever else I needed, feel free to call back. So I did.

The more we spoke, the reality sunk in that this old coach had such strong NFL roots, particularly with the horseshoe. He was the 1975 NFL Coach of the Year with the Baltimore Colts, then re-joined the franchise later and led the “Let ‘er Rip” Indianapolis Colts to an AFC Championship Game in 1996. 

He had also been associated with unleashing the Buffalo Bills’ K-Gun, no-huddle offense on the league during that franchise’s Super Bowl years, and later became the first coach of the Baltimore Ravens. But his strongest connection was with the Colts.

That began with Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas. In a memorable twist of fate in 1955, the Pittsburgh Steelers kept Marchibroda as a quarterback instead of giving Unitas a chance. Unitas became a legend in Baltimore. Marchibroda’s nondescript playing career ended in 1957.

He mentioned how they had faced each other once in college, Marchibroda with St. Bonaventure and Unitas with Louisville.

“We took ‘em there, so maybe I was better,” an amused Marchibroda joked.

Ironic, isn’t it, that Marchibroda helped the Colts long before coaching them? If it wasn’t for him, Unitas might have remained in Pittsburgh.

Then again, reality kind of worked in reverse regarding six-time Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Belichick, the Colts' greatest nemesis with the New England Patriots, a man who got his pro start at the age of 23 on Marchibroda’s 1975 Colts staff. Marchibroda remembered “Billy” well, how Belichick drove the coaching staff to Memorial Stadium from their hotel each day.

The job paid $25 per week, but Belichick is forever indebted to Marchibroda for the opportunity. When I asked Belichick about Marchibroda in January 2007, before his Patriots lost the AFC Championship Game to the Colts in Indianapolis, Mr. Glum’s face lit up and he gushed. Belichick spoke for several minutes about his start, then we chatted privately in a doorway. He asked how Ted was doing, of course. It was a side of this coach few ever see, as I was reminded for two days by Patriots beat writers.

Back in the day, fresh out of college, Belichick did defensive breakdowns and watched all of the Colts game film in a tiny room next to the office of Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver.

“I learned probably more football in that room — it was a cinderblock closet, really — but I probably learned more football in that room than any place else I’ve ever been,” Belichick said. “It was like a graduate course in football.

“There was no financial reward for it, but there was a personal and professional reward that I could never repay him for.”

After Belichick’s Patriots defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Saturday’s AFC Divisional playoff game, he honored Marchibroda yet again. It was a "sad day” as he stood there with “a heavy heart,” although his team had won a big game to move one step away from the Super Bowl.

“I wouldn’t be here,” Belichick said, “if not for Ted Marchibroda.”

That, alone, is a fine tribute and deserving validation of a coach’s life, not that Marchibroda sought or needed it. He became a beloved father figure in his Indianapolis Colts stint. He gave the city its first real taste of NFL popularity when “Captain Comeback” Jim Harbaugh and those “Let ‘er Rip” Colts came within a failed Hail Mary pass of beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh in that AFC title game. They came so close. If any one of several plays had gone another way, the Indianapolis Colts would have reached the Super Bowl for a first time.

“That loss hurt me more than any other loss,” Marchibroda said three years ago, “not so much that we lost but how we lost.”

Marchibroda was in his final season as a radio color commentator in 2006, when the Colts finally climbed that mountain and won Super Bowl XLI.

Through the years, people reminded him that his contributions weren’t forgotten.

“I know people have told me, ‘You started it all, Ted, with that season,’” Marchibroda said.

He was more than just a coach. He was a loving husband and father of four. And for so many of the rest of us, he was a man we admired and appreciated.

I wanted to call him again Saturday, upon hearing he was gone, just to hear his voice and share a few laughs and stories one final time. I wanted to envision him smiling and sitting in that proverbial rocking chair, talking about what a grand adventure his life has been.

Ted will be missed.

He was a great coach and a better person, forever remembered as the kindest of Colts.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+. 

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