Commentary

Curry: Water during practice? Not an option under Shula

In his new book, "Ten Men You Meet In The Huddle," former Colt Bill Curry relives coach Don Shula's grueling practices and reminisces about the shocking outcome of Super Bowl III.

Originally Published: October 12, 2008
By Bill Curry | Special to ESPN.com

Don ShulaRobert Riger/Getty ImagesDon Shula made sure his teams were well-conditioned and fundamentally sound.

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from former NFL player Bill Curry's new book, "Ten Men You Meet In The Huddle."

The call came out of the blue on March 4, 1967: "Bill, this is Don Shula."

I decided to listen a minute to see which of my buddies was messing with my head. It was a prank, I was sure of it, conceived and executed by one of my pals who knew how crazed I was by what Vince Lombardi had done to me when he left me on the unprotected list for the expansion draft that year, and I'd been taken by the New Orleans Saints.

"I'll get right to the point," the voice said. "Would you like to play for the Baltimore Colts?"

Play for the Baltimore Colts? Was this guy kidding? Ah, well, I'd go along with the joke.

To "Shula," whoever he was: "Why, yes, 'Coach,' I'd very much like to play for the Colts."

Ten Men You Meet In The Huddle
ESPN"Ten Men You Meet In The Huddle" is available now.

To myself: "I'd walk from my home in Atlanta to Baltimore to play for Don Shula and the Colts."

The voice on the phone then told me that he respected my special teams play. He was considering a trade that might include me. If it went through, he'd like to give me a shot at playing linebacker.

Uh-huh. Yeah. Sure.

Wait a minute … linebacker?

All along it had been my dream to play defense in the NFL, the way I had at Georgia Tech, so this guy's words kicked in like a shot of adrenaline. And then the voice and the message sank in, and I practically yelled into the receiver, "You really are Coach Shula!"

The deal went down, and I became a Baltimore Colt without ever slipping on a New Orleans Saints jersey. The way I saw it, I'd died (New Orleans) and gone to heaven (Baltimore).


One of the shocks of my career, the memory of which still gives me the shivers, was the length and ferocity of Don Shula's training camp practices.

We were taped, dressed and in meetings by 9 a.m. After a review of the practice schedule, we were on the field by 9:45, just as the punishing heat of a humid Maryland mid-summer morning kicked in.

Welcome to another 95-degree day.

Morning practice was devoted to the running game, featuring the Nutcracker Drill, in which one defender attacked one blocker, with one ball carrier running behind the blocker, the three of them confined to a narrow space by two tackling dummies. A center was there to snap the ball and a quarterback to hand it off, but then their duties were done, and they stepped back to observe the mayhem that followed.

The Nutcracker was the basic macho confrontation of our sport, done before the entire team. There was adrenaline, drama, and injuries galore, as we learned who would -- and wouldn't -- attack another man again and again. Technique was a factor, but sheer brute force and will to win were the key elements.

Group work came next, the goal of which was to get in maximum reps of full-speed hitting with a minimum of risk because of the small number of players in each drill. Very efficient. Very exhausting.

Finally, 11-on-11 pitted two full teams, and included audibles, sophisticated defenses, our full offensive playbook -- and full-speed hitting every step of the way.

It's hard to over-emphasize the effects of full-speed hits on the psyche and body, both for the hitter and the hittee. In an NFL camp, where the competition for jobs is a survival thing, each hard hit takes a toll, traumatizing the entire organism. The legs wobble, the head spins, the eyes blur, and the hope is that by the time the next collision occurs, some degree of normalcy will have returned.

A huge difference between the three Shula preseason training camps I endured -- which were a lot tougher than the two I experienced as a Packer -- was that the Colts had two-a-days for six weeks, right through exhibition season, while Lombardi's lasted precisely 10 days.

Oh, and, one more thing: during the two, 2½-hour practice sessions for six summer weeks in Baltimore, there was no water on the practice field. That's right -- no water. Hard to imagine nowadays, when the importance of hydration is a given, but back then the conventional wisdom was that water was for weaklings and that real men -- real football players -- could do without and be the tougher for it.

It's just amazing nobody died.


Don Shula was far ahead of his peers in three ways.

First, in his emphasis on ball security, the single most important aspect of winning. The team with the fewest turnovers usually wins games.

Second, the Colts devoted concentrated practice time to special teams, whose success (or failure) usually determines field position. (Other NFL coaches, including Coach Lombardi, devoted very little time to the kicking game.)

And third, we were indoctrinated in every drill of every day on the foolishness of penalties.

Practice began with Pat and Go for the first couple of weeks. In this drill, the entire team formed two lines on each of the 20-yard lines facing the opposite goal line, on the hash. The quarterbacks took a position on the 20, and on the "pat" of their hands on the ball, the man at the head of the line would "go," exploding off the line of scrimmage, running straight down the field, and the quarterback would hit him with a pass. Coach Shula had veteran wide receiver Raymond Berry -- who resembled a college professor, glasses and all -- teach the art of catching, securing, and locking in the football, so that even offensive linemen learned how it felt to take care of the ball.

The second period of afternoon practice was punt coverage. Long snappers and punters lined up in the middle of the field, with two lines of coverage people -- linebackers, defensive backs, and receivers -- spread out on either side just beyond the hash marks. Punt returners stationed roughly 50 yards down the field were expected to field every punt cleanly and run 30 or 40 yards back toward us. The coverage men would sprint toward the returner and then tag him. The returner's job, of course, was to keep from being tagged.

Interspersed with the punt drills was kickoff coverage, done much the same way as punt with different positions covering on alternating kicks. Punt protection and kickoff return were added in so that every aspect of special teams was covered every week.

All I had seen of Don Shula up to this point was the driven taskmaster who demanded more on the practice field than anyone I had ever played for or ever heard of. He had us in pads, smashing every drill, all day every day. He promised that we would be the most aggressive, hardest-hitting team in the NFL. He told us he wanted a loud, raucous sideline during games, contesting every official's decision that went against us. No sitting on headgears. No butts on the bench. We were to be fully engaged … every second of every game.

Oh, and one more non-negotiable demand: We would be the least penalized team in the league. The idea was hammered into our consciousness that the Colts would be the most ferocious, physical, nasty football team in the league -- while also being the least penalized.

Obviously, a contradiction in terms: most aggressive and least penalized? Only that's the way it worked out. The three years I played under Shula, the Colts out-hit people and were at or near the bottom of the charts for penalties incurred. Finally, each workday ended with Gassers, a drill that was the heart and soul of the Donald Francis Shula Conditioning Philosophy.

In a Gasser, each position group had to run four widths of the field -- over and back, over and back -- in a specified time. (The times varied according to position, naturally, but none allowed for jogging.) Those four trips constituted one Gasser. On most days we ran four, with one minute of rest between them.

That would be 852 yards, a little shy of half a mile.

In the blazing sun.

And you know what? The Gassers delivered the goods.

I have never played on -- or coached -- a team more superbly conditioned than Don Shula's Baltimore Colts.


During the 1967 season, my single campaign as a linebacker, I demonstrated to my own satisfaction and to my coaches that I had the potential to be a … pretty good center. My second training camp as a Colt, consequently, gave me just days to master an offensive system that was radically different from the one I'd grown accustomed to in Green Bay. How different? Both involved a football -- that was about it.

The Green Bay offense was famous for being a model of simplicity, while the Baltimore system was anything but. For me it was, literally, a whole new ballgame.

Start with the nomenclature for the basic formations and assignments, which as offensive center I had to have down pat in order to make calls to the linemen on either side of me. For instance, RED RIGHT in Green Bay was OUT LEFT FLANK SPLIT RIGHT in Baltimore. Just a matter of learning a few new names? Easy to say, harder to do in a tight time frame, especially since the consequence of the center calling out the wrong line call was four teammates going "Huh?" and a blown play.

Assignments for the running plays were relatively straightforward, but pass protections were complex. The audible systems were of entirely different natures, and even the hole numbers were flopped: the Packers used odd numbers for the right, the Colts for the left.

But for the first time in my life, I began to love the football field the way I had loved the baseball diamond. I went to practice anticipating the whole thing rather than praying for its end. I picked up my playbook at odd hours rather than just studying it the minimum required time.

I was, in every way, a happy camper.


Super Bowl III will always seem to me like an entire season of Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" compressed into 60 minutes.

[+] EnlargeJoe Namath
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireSuper Bowl III was shocking to just about everyone -- except Jets QB Joe Namath.

My Colts teammates and I played in a football game that day that revealed and explored human hopes, fears, and despairs in a surreal, sci-fi world. Like Serling's characters, we were trapped in a horror of our own making, destined to re-live it forever.

Super Bowl III was the third AFL-NFL Championship Game, but the first to bear the name "Super Bowl." (The 1967 and 1968 Championship Games would retroactively be called Super Bowls, but those of us who were there know that III was really I.)

We were 24-point favorites over the New York Jets. Many of us privately figured it would only be that close if we got bored. The NFL and the AFL had merged three years before, but everybody knew we were still the dominant league -- by far.

Joe Willie Namath had other ideas. The Thursday night before the game, speaking to the press, he guaranteed a Jets victory. We read that prediction with our morning coffee on Friday, and we just laughed. We knew we were going to make Mr. Namath eat his words.

After all, despite losing John Unitas in the last exhibition game to an elbow injury that kept him out all season, we had gone 13-1 with Earl Morrall at QB, and we avenged that one to loss to Cleveland by trouncing them 34-0 in the NFL Championship Game. The highest-ranked passer in the league, Earl was voted the NFL's Most Valuable Player. Six Colts were All-Pros that season, the most from any team. We ranked second in the NFL in points scored and first in fewest points allowed.

We were the best team in pro football by a wide margin, maybe the best (according to some experts) in NFL history.

Final score: Jets 16, Colts 7.

Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is currently the head coach at Georgia State University, which is slated to begin play in 2010.

Bill Curry

College Football
Former coach Bill Curry joined ESPN in 1997 as a college football game analyst. His primary assignment is the ESPN2 College Football Saturday Night telecast, along with selected bowl games. His knowledge and easy-going manner have translated quite effectively into the broadcast booth, where he's been well-received by fans and media alike.

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