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BOB RYAN

It was a priceless experience

FOXBOROUGH -- The Colts stiffed The Coach over a lousy four grand 30 years ago and, boy, are they gonna pay on Sunday.

Well, no. I made that up.

Not the four grand part, the other part. The last thing that motivates Coach Bill is emotion.

It's not always easy to find a button to push that renders Bill Belichick, you know, human, but mentioning the Baltimore Colts is one of them. As Bill Cosby famously observed on the subject of himself, Bill Belichick indeed started out as a child. And as a child he worshiped the Baltimore Colts.

It was the natural thing to do. As has been well-documented, he grew up as a football brat, the son of a highly respected coach. His formative years were spent in Annapolis, Md., where dad Steve spent 33 years as a Naval Academy assistant. So it was rather obvious that the Baltimore Colts would be his team.

He was 6 when the Colts whipped the Giants in the famous 1958 NFL Championship game that many people say was the turning point in NFL history. Did he watch it? You crazy? Is third and 1 better than third and 18? Of course, he watched it.

It was fun listening to him rattling off all those names yesterday. "Unitas, Berry, Jimmy Orr, Lenny Moore -- a great player. On defense, Marchetti, Braase, Big Daddy Lipscomb, Bob Boyd. Would you like me to name the whole team?" For a moment, Belichick was lost in memory, a good football fan, just like any other honest American.

But since Billy Belichick wasn't just another young Colts fan but the son of a football coach who knew some important people, there was another layer of fandom for him.

"We'd go to one or two games a year," he recalled. "My dad had connections with Coach [Don] Shula from Ohio. He'd come to training camp. Unitas, [Alex] Sandusky, they both worked at my dad's football camp. Often we would go when the Bears came into town. He had connections with them, too."

Little Billy had all the requisite football cards. And once a week he was glued to the TV to see Coach Shula's weekly show, "Corralling the Colts." The kid was into it, all right.

That's why he was beyond thrilled when he left Wesleyan in 1975 and landed an entry-level position -- it would be a stretch to call it a job -- with his beloved Colts. The lad was in daily nirvana.

He lived for free with (head coach) Ted Marchibroda and assistants Whitey Dovell and George Boutselis in a motel near Friendship Airport (now BWI). Good thing, the "free" part. He was getting paid $25 a week. Marchibroda chipped in by buying the kid breakfast each day. Bill Belichick was ecstatic. He was living football 18 hours a day.

"Obviously, I was the youngest, so I drove," said Belichick. "So from when I got up in the morning, whatever time that was, 6:30, 7, until we finished, midnight or whatever it was, and we drove back, it was football for 18 hours straight. It was great just being in that car and sit and listen to Ted and Whitey and George talk about the different aspects of the game, of the team, of all the things they were dealing with and to be able to absorb that from, I would say, dawn to dusk. It was a tremendous experience. I'm deeply indebted to Ted for giving me that opportunity. There was no financial reward to it, but it was a personal and professional reward that I could never repay him for."

They are no longer the Baltimore Colts. They've still got the horseshoes on the helmets, but they represent the good people of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana now. How does the Maryland native feel about that?

Predictably, Coach Bill wouldn't touch that one. By the time the Colts relocated, it was 1984, and he was deep into his NFL career. He had gone from the Colts to the Lions to the Broncos and then to the Giants, where he was a linebackers coach on his way to being the defensive coordinator. He couldn't have imagined that he would become involved in a domino move a little more than a decade later in which an eager Baltimore would snatch Cleveland's beloved Browns away, just as Indianapolis had whisked away the Colts. "I can't get into the dynamics of politicians and stadiums," he said. "But I do understand that's how things work."

So what happened in Baltimore? Why didn't Belichick's dream affiliation with the Colts last more than one year?

At the end of that year, he talked it over with Marchibroda. He wanted to come back, but 25 bucks a week was somewhat difficult to live on, even in those days. "I told him that all I would need is a car and a little bit of money," Belichick recalled. "I needed the car because I could live at home in Annapolis and it was about an hour-and-a-quarter drive from the house to the training site in Hunt Valley. I needed just a little bit of money, so how about four grand a year? I could make it on four grand."

The man making the final decision was general manager Joe Thomas. After listening to Marchibroda's pitch, he said, "Look, when I was with the Rams we had two assistant coaches. You've got six. If Billy wants to come back here, he can come back to training camp, just like last year."

In other words, no.

Belichick caught on with the Lions, and the rest is history. Seething with anger and indignation, Bill Belichick now vows to make those tightwad Colts pay for their crime on Sunday.

OK, not exactly. But how many times can you read about Adam Vinatieri?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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