Early this afternoon, separate but equal (in my mind) spectacles are anticipated inside Memorial Stadium. Rookie John Elway is supposed to play quarterback against the team he humiliated several months ago. That has NFL watchers atwitter. Will the Colts make his ego ache even more than that tender elbow? Will Baltimoreans shove crab cakes, or worse, down his insolent throat before Elway even takes the field?
Ah, the sweet mysteries of sport.
Intriguing as that is, the compelling question here is not whether the most heralded thrower since David can cope with the Colts and their crazies. What I want to know is: will Frank Kush really turn owner Robert Irsay loose in the Colt dressing room for a pregame pep talk?
Bronco fans must feverishly hope he does, for it was Irsay, tripping all over his good intentions, who made Elway theirs.
By now, Kush surely knows that Irsay's capacity for blundering is limitless. It was teeth-grindingly bad enough that the owner dealt Elway to Denver without consulting Coach Kush and General Manager Ernie Accorsi, who were running a pretty good bluff on the kid at the time. Buffaloed Bob trying to psych his team has as much potential for disaster as it does hilarity.
"Not a pep talk," Irsay corrected reporters earlier this week, "but an opinion about what I'd like to do to Denver." Already, he's lifted its down-the-road confidence mile-high.
Kush is the martinet whose NFL actions have not nearly matched his reputation. He was a whole lot more civil than the Orioles' Earl Weaver last season. But his threshold for meddlesome football fools usually is nil. Unless he has adopted the Golden Rule of Sports: those with the gold rule.
While he was talking about firing up a team that has only beaten the New England Patriots (three times) in the last 29 games, Irsay referred to his Colt quarterback and two-year starter as "Jim" Pagel.
He's Mike to everyone else.
If most fans and his boss still misidentify Pagel, the quarterback is hoping the outcome today is similar to what happened the last time he and the glittering Elway went at each other. That was two years ago, and Pagel's Arizona State zonked Elway and Stanford, 62-26. Pagel completed 26 of 34 passes for 460 yards that game; Elway was 10 for 17 for 270 yards before being knocked out in the second quarter.
Defenders who legally grab Elway's scalp today can expect to be rewarded handsomely. Still, it was an offensive player, tight end Pat Beach, who fanned the most public anti-Elway flames this week. They lived near each other for several years in Pullman, Wash., but not as friends.
"We were always competing on sandlots," Beach said, "and we never got along."
Beach joked that he asked a Colt defensive aide about temporarily becoming a tackler, so he could jolt John with a remember-this blow. Then Beach mellowed slightly, saying: "I don't want to judge him now on the way he was at 13 or 14. I was as cocky as he was; we were all snot-nosed little creeps."
Soon, Beach was in angry defense of his athletic home.
"He made it sound like Baltimore was just inside of a ditch," Beach said of Elway's insistence he would choose baseball over Baltimore, if it came to that. It later became evident Elway and his father, Jack, head coach at San Jose State, simply wanted to play for nearly anyone except Kush.
Sounds smart to me.
Except that the Colts are going to be good very soon. Kush may well be the sort you'd want to dump more than root beer on, but he knows how to win. And the Colts have had 12 first- and second-round draft choices the past four years.
Elway is the central attraction today, and it is a measure of how far the Colts have fallen that this full-blown feud might not yield a full house. Capacity is 60,586; Colt officials were predicting perhaps 50,000. Last season's top attendance was 39,055.
Once, even a mild fuss would have stirred greater passion. But nobody especially angry could have bought a ticket then, because none was available. A generation ago, it was major news when the Colts did not sell out. Their fans took offense at the slightest slight.
When the Packers once won in the final seconds on a long pass, a Green Bay fan had the nerve--and stupidity--to stand on his seat and cheer. He quickly was smothered. Also, Baltimore is where Howard Cosell needed a police escort to escape some shockingly rude baseball fans.
"Do me a favor," Elway said to a Baltimore reporter in Denver this week. "Tell the people there not to get on me too hard."
Elway's business has been a blessing for the NFL, it having diverted attention from drugs and interleague wars for a while. More rooms were reserved in Baltimore for media than Broncos. Few in sport have attracted such attention so early; few have endured such problems as Elway in his one-for-eight debut against the Steelers.
Or have they?
Bert Jones was six for 22 his first game as a Colt, against the Cleveland Browns; Joe Namath was 11 for 23 in relief of Mike Taliaferro in his regular-season debut with the Jets.
On Oct. 21, 1956, the best quarterback of 'em all, arguably, threw his first NFL pass. It was intercepted by the Bears' J.C. Caroline and run back 59 yards for a touchdown. The poor fellow was nine for 19 in all for 101 yards, and his team lost by 31 points.
That John, Unitas, improved in a hurry.