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