By Jack Gilden
Long before Ray Lewis came on the scene Baltimore had claimed one of its own as the greatest defensive player in history. That man was the defensive end, Gino Marchetti. When I was writing my book, “Collision of Wills (2018, University of Nebraska Press)” about the Baltimore Colts of the 1960s, I never met Marchetti; I called him over and over to request an interview but he never called me back. Nevertheless, he plays one of the most important roles in my story and, indeed, he is one of the most important men in modern football history.
Marchetti’s career as a player is unassailable. A defensive end, they called him the “Giant” though he was the same size as a typical outside linebacker is in today’s game. He was extraordinarily fast and agile for his build and could “sack" the quarterback at will years before that term existed in football and even before the league compiled sacks as an official statistic. Even so, one year the Colts coaches added up the number of times Gino tackled the quarterback and the number was 43. Today 12 sacks in a season will make any kid rich.
Marchetti was captain of the teams that won back to back championships for Baltimore in 1958 and ’59. He broke his leg in the famous overtime game. He stopped Frank Gifford and Vince Lombardi’s offense half a yard short from a key first down that would have allowed the Giants to run out the clock in regulation. That turned the ball over to Johnny Unitas's capable hands and the rest is well-known history.
Marchetti was important for more than just his playing ability. He altered the game itself and played a key part in shaping its future.
In 1963 Gino, close to Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom, showed he could be ruthless in the board room.
He recommended that head coach Weeb Ewbank be fired from his post and that Don Shula be hired to replace him. Rosenbloom barely remembered Shula even though the granite-jawed young man played for the Colts himself for four seasons calling all of the team’s defensive signals.
“You mean that guy who played here that wasn’t very good?” Rosenbloom asked Marchetti.
“That’s the one,” Gino said. Rosenbloom complied and the dominoes fell into place for the modern game to be invented.
Shula came to Baltimore and quickly turned the franchise around. Baltimore went from a .500 club, which it had been ever since the ’59 championship game, to become the winningest franchise in football. Shula’s Colts had a higher winning percentage than Lombardi’s Packers.
Johnny Unitas, whose career had been foundering during those same three seasons as he threw more interceptions than touchdown passes, turned around under Shula’s tutelage and returned to form. In 1963 he halved his interceptions from the year before. In 1964 Johnny U was league MVP and took the Colts all the way to the Championship Game.
Shula would eventually become the winningest coach in league history and one of its longest-ever tenured.
As for Weeb, because Marchetti backstabbed him in Baltimore, he was free to go to New York and turn the AFL’s Jets into the same kind of well-balanced crusher he had made the Colts. Among Weeb’s many accomplishments in New York were rebranding the franchise and drafting and developing Joe Namath. The Jets were easily the worst team in professional football when he got there, but within six years they were the best. He eclipsed hall of fame coaches and owners in the AFL, including Syd Gilman, Al Davis, and Hank Stram to become the first and only coach to ever win titles in the AFL and NFL.
When Weeb’s Jets beat Shula’s Colts in the third Super Bowl pro football was reborn as a bigger attraction with more fans and a more rabid interest by Americans than any other game.
Marchetti also embodied some of the worst aspects of the game. The Colts were being beaten badly in the waning moments of the 1964 Championship Game, 27-0, when Browns quarterback Frank Ryan threw into the end zone one last time.
Marchetti was enraged.
After that play some recounted that Gino had walked into the Browns huddle and told Ryan, “I’m going to get you for this.”
Ryan disputed to me that Marchetti had actually said that. But the very next week, in the Pro Bowl in Los Angeles, Gino “the Giant” burst through the offensive line, grabbed Ryan and tossed him to the ground so hard he knocked the quarterback out cold and severely dislocated his shoulder.
Did Gino do it on purpose?
“Marchetti chicken-winged him,” Gary Collins, Ryan’s teammate, said later.
When Ryan came to in the locker room the doctors were gluing his arm to his chest to stabilize his injury. The next day they couldn’t even operate on him because the glue was holding so fast that the skin had to be lacerated to separate the appendage from the trunk. Ryan spent the next several months in a full body cast and his arm never completely healed. Back then nobody even cared about the concussion.
Gino, it seems, was a man who could wreck or build depending on his whim.