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Game over, but no time to quit
Three weeks after hip surgery, the old Baltimore Colts center is off the injured list. Buzz Nutter is back at work.
He no longer blocks charging linebackers such as pro football Hall of Famers Sam Huff and Ray Nitschke. But Nutter does operate heavy machinery at the beverage distributorship he owns in Waldorf. He runs forklifts. He makes deliveries, driving trucks up to 100 miles a day.
Not bad for a guy who is soon to turn 74.
Nutter is one of a cadre of aging former Colts who continue to work into their 70s. They played football here at a time when salaries were meager and athletes needed off-season jobs. Their lives were built on a lunch-pail work ethic, born of being raised during the Great Depression.
It's a far cry from the NFL today, where the Colts reside in Indianapolis and play host to the Ravens tonight.
Jim Mutscheller was part of Baltimore's most famous Colts teams. Now 74, Mutscheller clocks in at 7:30 a.m. An insurance agent for a Hunt Valley firm, he works despite having had a knee and a shoulder replaced. Mutscheller played tight end for eight years and helped the Colts win NFL championships in 1958 and 1959.
Selling insurance, he says, keeps him active and chasing goals. "I enjoy making a [tough] sale," Mutscheller says. "It's like catching a pass on third-and-10 and getting a first down."
That's the point, says Jim Taylor, a sports psychologist in San Francisco.
"Athletes are, by definition, doers," Taylor says. "Their gratification comes from accomplishments - and living on past laurels only goes so far from a self-worth perspective.
"Old players like setting goals, too. Some don't need to work. But for many, doing nothing is not an option.
"Ultimately, you have to live with who you are, not who you were."
Few players earned as many accolades as Lenny Moore, the Colts Hall of Fame running back. The basement of his Randallstown home is filled with hardware from a 12-year career that began in 1956.
Yet Moore continues to draw a paycheck. At 71, "Spats" works as a troubleshooter for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, mentoring high-risk children and counseling their families.
"All of us [old Colts] know the value of work," says Moore, whose football salary peaked at $30,000. "I can't sit at home. What good is it to take what I have to offer to the grave?
"Do nothing and you're just speeding up your getting-out-of-here time."
Moore says he knows old-timers from other NFL teams who are struggling financially. In the 1950s, few players earned more than $15,000 a year. Today's average NFL salary is $1.26 million.
Player pensions vary for those who suited up 50 years ago, but generally, benefits are $200 per month for each year played.
"Health insurance is the problem," Moore says. "We've reached the age where things are happening to us. Three years ago, when I had my prostate removed, I needed a number of [injections] that cost $2,500 a shot.
"Without my work insurance, I couldn't have met the expense."
It's noon at his restaurant, and All-Pro Andy Nelson greets the lunch blitz in full uniform: white apron, disposable gloves and a T-shirt that reads, Hogs Smell Better Barbecued.
Behind the take-out counter, Nelson serves up sandwiches of pulled pork and beef to a hurried clientele. At 71, he still moves easily in the busy kitchen of the barbecue joint that he opened in Cockeysville in 1981.
"Hey, Mr. Nelson!" a customer shouts. "How are the ribs today?"
"Tender as a mother's love," the owner drawls.
Nelson does not have to sling 'cue. His two sons run much of the business that bears his name. But 6 a.m. still finds the one-time defensive back in the kitchen, stripping meat off pork shoulders that have been cooking all night.
"Getting up early feels good," says Nelson, who played for the Colts from 1957 through 1963. "I'm like an old milkhorse. Hard to stop when you've been doing it so long."
Nelson, raised on the family's cotton farm in Alabama, signed with the Colts out of Memphis State for $6,200. That's him, third row, sixth from the right in the '58 team photo nailed to the restaurant wall. He played every down on defense that year.
"If I'd known that [sudden-death] championship game would be so famous, I'd have asked for a $5,000 raise," he says. Instead, the bump he got was $1,500.
Nelson, who worked every off-season "to make ends meet," shrugged it off. Even now, he rejects any talk of retiring.
"I'm old school," he says. "Keep moving and the joints stay loose."
He stops, wipes his greasy hands and signs a football for a fan.
"Plus, it's nice to be remembered."
For Nelson, pulling pork - like picking off passes - may be just a matter of being driven.
`Passion to be good'
"The same qualities that made them good athletes have kept them moving," says Karlene Sugarman, a sports psychology consultant in San Mateo, Calif. "It's a passion to be good at something and a never-give-up attitude.
"Those feelings sustained them as players and as businessmen - and they don't want to give that up."
Raymond Berry, 71, helps train salesmen for a California insurance firm.
"Pass receiver, salesman - it's all about preparation and attention to detail," says Berry, who parlayed those traits into a 13-year Hall of Fame career with the Colts. "I've enjoyed putting into words a lot of things that were instinctive for me."
At 80, Art Donovan still putters around Valley Country Club in Towson, which he opened in 1957. He mows the grass, cleans the pool and helps in the kitchen, frying crab balls between sips of Schlitz.
"Why do that? So the devil can't keep up with me," says Donovan, Baltimore's Hall of Fame defensive tackle.
Also in 1957, Doug Eggers, a Colts linebacker, begged for an off-season job with a construction equipment company in Savage. Today, Eggers, 74, owns Chesapeake Supply.
"I've kind of turned the business over to my son, but ... nothing is set in concrete," Eggers says. Most days, he arrives at the office at 7 a.m. and works until midafternoon.
Recently, he presented his old football contracts, which he had squirreled away in a shoebox, to the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore.
"My best year, I made $8,500," Eggers says. "Hard to believe, but I now make twice as much [in pension benefits] for not playing football."
Then there is Bert Rechichar, a defensive back and kicker who, in 1953, booted a then-NFL-record 56-yard field goal for the Colts. Half a century later, he drives a school bus in western Pennsylvania "just to have something to do."
The kids, some of whose grandparents may not have been born when Rechichar started playing, call their 74-year-old driver "Big Bert."
Retiring is "not part of our mentality," says Nutter, the Colts center from La Plata, who had hip replacement surgery last month. Buoyed by a cane, he bounced right back to his job as head of Center Distributors.
"I'm programmed to work," says Nutter, who played for the Colts from 1954 through 1960 and again in 1965. "I never missed a day of practice in my whole football career - and sometimes it took a lot to get there.
"If I could make it to practice, then I can make it to work."
Whether it's Nutter operating a forklift, Nelson slinging pork or Moore counseling troubled youths, the old Colts are probably happier than their modern counterparts who can walk away from the game set for life, says Taylor, the psychologist.
"My feeling is that old-time athletes are more satisfied than those who are retiring today," he says. "Those older guys already had lives outside of the game. It's not like that now."
For a decade, Taylor has advised high-profile athletes of their retirement options, a transition few seem prepared to make.
"They think money will bring them happiness, but my research shows that it doesn't," he says. "The most successful post-career athletes are those who can take the identity and life skills that they learned in sports and apply them to another area of life.
"You can have all of the money in the world, but you still have to fill your time. You can only play so many rounds of golf. You can only have so much stuff."