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Catching Up With ... former Colt Gary Cuozzo

 Each Tuesday in The Toy Department, veteran Baltimore Sun sportswriter Mike Klingaman tracks down a former local sports figure and lets you know what's happening in his/her life in a segment called, "Catching Up With ... " Let Klingaman know who you'd like him to find and click here to check out previous editions of "Catching Up With ... "

Forty-four years later, Gary Cuozzo recalls every nuance of his first NFL start. Who wouldn’t, having replaced John Unitas in the lineup and passed for five touchdowns?

It was the game of his life for Cuozzo, then the Baltimore Colts’ understudy, who made pro football history on a brisk November day in 1965. No quarterback, before or since, has done what Cuozzo did in his first full game.

Subbing for an injured Unitas, he led the Colts to a 41-21 victory in Minnesota, the seventh straight win for the playoff-bound club. Under a withering pass rush led by the Vikings’ Carl Eller, a Hall of Famer, Cuozzo completed 16 of 26 passes for 201 yards and five touchdowns.

His performance outshone even Unitas who, 12 times in his career, had passed for four TDs – but never five.

Cuozzo’s effort earned him the game ball, though now he doesn’t know its whereabouts.

1965 Sun file photo

"It’s in the attic, I think," said Cuozzo, of Middletown, N.J. A retired orthodontist, he kept the ball in his office for years, where it kept patients occupied as he straightened their teeth.

There, if asked, Cuozzo would share highlights of his baptismal start. A back injury had sidelined Unitas, giving the free agent from Virginia his chance after 2-1/2 years of mop-up chores.

He started slowly, hitting Jimmy Orr for a 43-yard touchdown just before the half. Then, early in the third quarter, he found Orr for a 23-yard score and followed that with a 29-yard pitch to Lenny Moore. Less than a minute later, after an onside kick, Cuozzo fired again, this time to Raymond Berry for six yards. Cuozzo finished with a 14-yard pass to Willie Richardson.

Even now, at 68, he struggles to put that game into words.

"Things just broke right that day," Cuozzo said. "I can’t explain it, except that you feel like you’re in a zone. Everyone else moves in slow motion and you’re in control. I’d love to understand that feeling."

His time in the limelight was brief. A month later, Cuozzo suffered a separated shoulder and was done for the season.

In 1966, still stuck in Unitas’ shadow, he asked for a trade and was sent to New Orleans, an expansion team, in a deal that would help Baltimore to a couple of Super Bowls. The Colts got center Bill Curry and the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, defensive end Bubba Smith. Both made All-Pro.

"Curry still thanks me for that trade," Cuozzo said.

Cuozzo retired in 1972. His best year was 1970 when he led Minnesota, of all teams, to the playoffs.

A Phi Beta Kappa in college, he studied dentistry in the offseason and had his own practice for 28 years.

"I’m glad I played when I did," Cuozzo said. "If the money had been good then, I probably wouldn’t have gone on to (dental) school. I’d have had lots of money but no direction in life."

Married 44 years, he lives with his wife, Peggy, with whom he had four children. The eldest, Gary Jr., was murdered during a drug deal in 1990. His death led Cuozzo to speak tirelessly to teens about avoiding drugs.

"After Gary’s death, I found a bunch of letters in his room that he’d written to me," Cuozzo said. "Here was someone who’d been high school quarterback and homecoming king, and who’d earned a scholarship to Holy Cross, describing himself in the letters as the most insecure person in the world. He masked it well.

"I shared a lot of that with the kids I spoke to," Cuozzo said. "A lot of what I said came from my experiences of having roomed with Raymond Berry, with the Colts. Raymond just cares about people – and has faith."

Bottom photo: Gary Cuozzo speaks at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes awards dinner in 1996. Photo courtesy of George W. Holsey

Comments

Thanks Mike. I remember watching that 5 TD game with my Dad, who just loved Johnny Unitas. He told me the Colts would lose for sure without Unitas. A great memory!

This is another compelling read about a Baltimore Colts player from the halcyon days of that franchise. I can barely remember Marty Domres, never mind Gary Cuozzo! This article has refreshed my memory and then some about Cuozzo’s “one game” exploits as Johnny U.’s replacement. Off the field, however, it’s good to also know that “Dr.” Cuozzo has risen to life’s challenges. How he has been able to handle the tragic death of his oldest son as a grieving father is, indeed, an inspirational story. Thanks to Dr. Cuozzo for sharing it and for Mike Klingaman’s letting the folks in Baltimore know about it. Bless you, Dr. Gary Cuozzo!

Thanks, Mike, for remembering Gary Cuozzo. His story about his late son was very touching. He illustrates how influential Raymond Berry was at an interpersonal level with his teammates as a man of faith.
I remember when Cuozzo, in his final NFL season (1972) led the St. Louis Cardinals to a win against the Colts in the Colts' home opener. He faced off against Unitas, who was starting his final home opener as a Colt. That loss set the tone for the dismal 5-9 season for the Hosses, the team's first losing season since 1956and the controversial dismantlement of that team by the callous and egotistical Joe Thomas. Cuozzo is a far more pleasant Colt memory than Thomas.

I remember Gary Cuozzo in many different ways..
As an overweight 11 year old Patient he was a hero to me not only as an Athlete but as a man. He was always a friend in addition to being a good orthodontist. He was a friend to my Family and Even donated blood when my Dad was ill.. He was a friend to my widowed mother and always responded to her letters as she proudly told him of my development into a Wall Street executive.
Gary Cuozzo is truly a man who deserves the honor of being a hero..

Mr. Cuozzo,
I am trying to locate your cousin Peter Cuozzo, a graduate of the Annenberg School of Communication, Phila.
It would be great if you could help me find him.
Thank you,
Yolande Valiquette,
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

My little kid, Charlie, used to hang out with Gary's little girl, Kimmy, when they were in Montessori school. One of the huge thrills of Charlie's life was when he got to catch a pass from Gary Cuozzo. He still talks about forty years later!

I was born inGlen Ridge,NJ and moved to Glenview IL when Gary arrived in Glen Ridge. We were friends and Gary seemed to have it all. athletic QB in HS,
very intelligent and handsom. We moved from Glenview to Summit NJ and I remember our Sop[hmore year and Gary led Glen Ridge to a victorY over Summit. I was on the JV team. Gary went to the UVA where he was the QB. I didn't know he as Phi Beta Kappa, but that doesn't

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