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Duke Football Great Mike Curtis Remembered

Truly one of Duke’s best ever

Mike Curtis Portrait
Former Duke and NFL star Mike Curtis

The Baltimore Colts defeated the Miami Dolphins 14-3 on December 11, 1971.

The Colts beat lots of teams that season. They made it to the AFC title game, losing a rematch to the Dolphins.

So, that 14-3 win was a big one. But it’s remembered today for something that took place on the field but wasn’t actually a play. Late in the game an inebriated fan ran on the field, grabbed the game ball and tried to run off the field with it.

It was a spectacularly bad idea. The Colts were on defense at the time, a defense led by middle linebacker Mike Curtis. Curtis went after the fan with the speed and accuracy of a heat-seeking missile and the force of a dump truck dropping a ton of bricks.

“So I decked him. That’s all I did.”

No one was surprised that Curtis was the guy to take down the fan. After all this is a man who went by the nickname “Mad Dog” in the pros, a man who entitled his 1972 autobiography Keep Off My Turf.

Mike Curtis died April 20 at the age of 77. The cause of death was CTE. He paid a high price for all those hits.

Most obituaries led with that single moment in time in 1971.

But to characterize Curtis as just a football goon is a caricature of the Duke alum.

Full disclosure. I never met Curtis. But I had the occasion to talk to him over the phone several times. He was just what you want a Duke alum to be, smart, thoughtful, articulate, generous with his time. By all accounts Curtis had that ability to hit the switch and go from solid citizen to mad dog when he hit the field and flip it back to solid citizen once it ended.

James Michael Curtis came to Duke from Rockville, Maryland.

Why Duke?

“The first time I saw it [Duke campus] I thought it was beautiful,” he wrote. “The assistant athletic director, Carl James, escorted me around and made me feel at home, a feeling I had not experienced on my visits to other campuses.”

He arrived in the fall of 1961. Curtis called his first semester “sheer tragedy.” He was homesick, broke a hand playing freshman ball and responded by not going to class and not doing his assignments. He had three F’s his first semester.

His reaction?

“I realized then that the most important thing in my life was to graduate from college. Nothing else, including football, was important.”

Curtis got his act together and was named academic All-ACC in 1963, as a history major.

He also made immediate contributions to the varsity football team when he became eligible in 1962. He was a fullback and a linebacker at a time when you could be both. Substitutions were still limited in 1962 and Curtis was a two-way standout on Bill Murray’s last great Duke team; they finished 8-2 and won the ACC title. Curtis rushed for 368 yards and led the team with 50 points, eight touchdowns and a two-point conversion.

The most important touchdown came against Florida, a game in which Duke fell behind 21-0 on the road only to come back for a 28-21 win. Curtis had the game-winner in the fourth quarter on a one-yard run.

It remains the largest comeback victory in Duke history.

No one kept tackling statistics in 1962 but Curtis certainly was among the leaders on a team that included All-ACC linemen Jean Berry and Art Gregory. Curtis was named first-team All-ACC as a fullback and an AP Honorable Mention All-American, also as a fullback.

He also won the 1963—same academic year-championship in the javelin.

His junior year, 1963 was an individual and team disappointment. Curtis missed much of the season with a recurring knee injury and rushed for only 169 yards, as Duke fell to 5-4-1.

Curtis also established his take-no-prisoners physical approach to the game. By his own admission he “made up a list of teammates I had scores to settle with . . . .[and] I made sure I got even with every name on that list.”

This all took place during spring ball going into his senior year. Everything took place on the field and things seemed to settle down in 1964.

And yes Curtis had friends on the team, lots of them.

Curtis led Duke with 497 rushing yards in 1964, again made first-team All-ACC and was named third-team All-America by something called Newspaper Enterprise America.

But Duke went 4-5-1.

Curtis ended his Duke career with 1,034 rushing yards and his 15 touchdowns still ranks in Duke’s top-25 career list.

The Colts made Curtis the 14th and final pick in the first round of a loaded 1965 draft that also included Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers, Ken Willard and Joe Namath.

The Colts quickly turned him into a full-time middle linebacker.

It was a perfect fit.

In 1960 CBS-TV aired a show entitled “The Violent World of Sam Huff.” Huff was the New York Giants middle linebacker. The show helped cement the idea that middle linebackers were the biggest, toughest, meanest hombres on the field, an image burnished later in the decade by Ray Nitschke, Butkus, Tommy Nobis, and yes, Curtis.

And Curtis was good, really good. He was named first-team All-Pro in 1968 and 1969 and was selected to four Pro Bowls. He was the first Duke alum to play in the Super Bowl and he played in two.

The first came after the 1968 season. The Colts were still in the NFL. They lost to Namath and the New York Jets 16-7 in arguably the most famous Super Bowl game ever.

The NFL and AFL merged in 1970 and the Colts advanced to the Super Bowl as the AFC champs, matched against the Dallas Cowboys.

Curtis made the biggest play of the game, the biggest play of his career. It was tied at 13-13 with 1:09 left, the ball at the Dallas 27. Curtis picked off Craig Morton at the Dallas 41 and returned it to the 28.

Baltimore ran two plays up the middle to set up Jim O’Brien’s 32-yard game-winning field goal.

Curtis wrote “we were lucky” and it was a sloppy game, with 11 turnovers. But it sure looks pretty good in retrospect.

Curtis was named the 1970 AFC defensive player of the year

Curtis made his last Pro Bowl appearance following the 1974 season and ended his 14-year-NFL career in Washington. Curtis played 166 regular-season NFL games, intercepted 25 passes and scored three touchdowns.

Curtis sold real estate after the end of his playing career. He was inducted into the Duke Athletics Hall of Fame in 1981 and is a member of the Maryland Athletic State Hall of Fame. But he has not been selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Curtis didn’t shy away from controversy, devoting a good portion of his 1971 book to cultural issues, describing himself as a conservative open to many viewpoints.

In other words, Mike Curtis was a real, nuanced human being with a life more complicated than Mad Dog Mike Curtis.

May he rest in peace.