Difference maker

Posted: 10:30 p.m.

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The draft is always about difference-makers. The MVP vote is always about impact players. The Hall of Fame always seeks game changers.

Then what in the world of Paul Brown do they call Isaac Fischer Curtis?

Forget the record book. This guy left his legacy in the rule book and it could very well end up in the inaugural class of the Bengals.com Virtual Hall of Fame. A total of 41 votes separate Curtis, fellow receiver Cris Collinsworth, and cornerback Ken Riley for the final berth in a field headed by Brown, left tackle Anthony Muñoz and quarterbacks Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason as the race heads into the final week.

Brown, the Bengals founder and head coach, also doubled as an influential member of the league's competition committee. The spring following Curtis' stunning rookie year of 18.7 yards per catch in 1973, he helped the NFL begin to open up the passing game. That year the owners eliminated the cutting and roll-blocking of receivers downfield and restricting the defense's contact with players eligible to receive a pass.

"They are already calling these the Isaac Curtis rules," Brown said shortly after the 1974 vote. "When we played the Dolphins in Miami last year, they cut Curtis down consistently. I don't think he ever got five yards downfield. But this rule wasn't put in just for him. It was put in to make the game exciting."

Translation: Curtis had just one catch for nine yards in the Bengals 34-16 playoff loss in Miami and Brown's competitive fuse was hot enough to get something done after Dolphins coach Don Shula's no-namers went after the rookie. But also bright enough to realize the game needed big plays to make household names to woo the public in the holy TV war with baseball.

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BENGALS.COM HALL OF FAME VOTING RESULTS (through June 25)
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**Player****Votes****Percent of Ballots**
Ken Anderson360474.0%
Boomer Esiason257152.8%
Cris Collinsworth170735.0%
Isaac Curtis168334.5%
Ken Riley166634.2%
Tim Krumrie139728.7%
Sam Wyche73615.1%
James Brooks59312.2%
David Fulcher3847.9%
Lemar Parrish2785.7%

Curtis, now a grandfather twice over, is still cooler and breezier than the Santa Ana winds bearing the name of his southern California birthplace. As usual, he downplays it all. He's just as understated as the guy who celebrated a touchdown with California cool by flipping the ball over his shoulder.

"I don't think it was just for me; they were trying to make the game more exciting," Curtis says of the rule nearly four decades later. "They did beat me up in Miami. But anybody could before they put the rule in. If you wanted to take a receiver out, you could by having a corner cut your knees out right from under you as you're running a route. Get rolled by an outside linebacker as you're engaged with a corner. You had to shove back or else they were going to shove you back."

Curtis finds himself in plenty of traffic these days when fans click on to Bengals.com for the Hall of Fame voting that culminates Fourth of July Weekend. Curtis (1,683 votes) barely trails Collinsworth (1,707), and slightly leads cornerback Ken Riley (1,666) for the third spot on the final ballot of 10.

Brown and Muñoz are automatic inductees because of their selection for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Anderson and Esiason, the leading vote getters in the February preliminary, continue to dominate with Anderson's 3,604 votes and Esiason's 2,571 giving them a wide margin over the clutch of three players that were teammates on the first Bengals Super Bowl team in 1981.

After passing Curtis by one catch on the Bengals all-time receptions list, Collinsworth has enjoyed a two-decade career as one of the NFL's most recognizable network announcers. Riley's 65 interceptions and 207 games have stood as club records since his retirement in 1983.

Nose tackle Tim Krumrie is the only other candidate in four figures with 1,397 votes, followed by Super Bowl head coach and original Bengal Sam Wyche (736), running back James Brooks (593), safety David Fulcher (384) and cornerback Lemar Parrish (278).

At 58 and semi-retired, Curtis is the mural of the successful post-career player that plied his trade long before free agency. A few offseasons before he retired in 1984, Curtis joined the Blue Ash, Ohio hotel management firm of Winegardner & Hammons and became one of its staples as well as national sales director.

He put together their sports travel plan and is still valued by the suburban Cincinnati company to serve as a consultant in new situations and at a couple of trade shows a year. While Collinsworth went long for 10 Emmys, Curtis preferred the anonymous underneath routes of business.

But all the while with the freeze-dried, easygoing grace of the man his teammates still call "Ice."

"All these guys were great players. Cris was a great receiver and he's maintained his popularity over the years with what he does on TV," Curtis says. "I'm still camera shy. I really had no desire to go into media. I hope everyone gets what they can get. I did the best I could. I had fun. I loved playing and the city's been great to me."

Curtis has built his life here as quietly as his career. He and wife Mildred have been married a quarter of a century and live in North Avondale, where they recently celebrated son Chase's graduation from Walnut Hills High School and enrollment at Ohio State to follow in dad's footsteps with a business concentration.

And he's made a difference in more than the rule book by invoking the Golden Rule. Curtis joined teammate Louis Breeden nearly 20 years ago to form a charity golf tournament and foundation and it has turned out to be one of Cincinnati's longest running shows.

Not much is heard about it, but Curtis and Breeden help children-friendly agencies like Youth Inc., aid troubled youth in an effort to get back in the mainstream while also awarding five to six college scholarships a year.

"That's the way we like to do it," Breeden says. "I know that's Isaac's style and I think that's the way Biggs likes to do it and that's who we partner with."

But Cincinnati is also the one place where the fans know Curtis had a Hall of Fame career. More catches (416-336) and touchdowns (53-51) than Lynn Swann. More yards per catch than John Stallworth (17.1 to 16.2).

If that's not enough for two Steelers receivers already in the Hall of Fame, try this: After he came into the league only four receivers have caught more than Curtis' 416 balls while averaging better than 17.1 yards per catch: James Lofton, Wesley Walker, Stanley Morgan and Mark Duper.

Just ask teammates.

OK. OK. Breeden is one of Curtis' best friends. Curtis accompanied Breeden on his first golfing excursion all those years ago and paid for it by nearly getting hit on the range. And Breeden suspects one of Curtis' vintage terse observations helped get him into the Bengals lineup for the first of his 89 starts.

"Strangers would say I'm the outgoing one and he's the quiet one, but not after he gets to know you," Breeden says. "He's a prankster. He likes to tease you. He takes jabs. He's the Muhammad Ali of jokes."

All that aside, Breeden, a cornerback whose 33 interceptions haven't been touched by a Bengal in the two decades since his last season, insists that the man who first wore the striped No. 85 is the best wide receiver he ever faced in practice or a game.

"As a DB I had more respect for him than anyone I ever played," Breeden says. "Lynn Swann. Steve Largent. James Lofton. In terms of being able to get open, plus the ability just to run past you. Athletically, there was nobody like him."

Or ask Dave Lapham, the Bengals former offensive lineman and radio analyst who has played and called more than 500 NFL games and arrived the year of the rule change in 1974. He says Curtis is incomparable and if he played today he would be unstoppable.

"He's Larry Fitzgerald with speed. He'd blow away any of the top guys today in the 40," Lapham says. "Are you kidding me? World class speed and flypaper hands? He might have the best hands of anyone I've ever seen. He was always catching the bottom third of the ball at the last minute. Anybody they change a rule for, that says it all."

Breeden says Largent (819 catches) was great, but he didn't have the terrifying speed of Curtis. "I don't want to deflate Lynn Swann," he says, "but I always thought John Stallworth should have gone in (to the Hall) first. The closest guy to Isaac I felt was James Lofton."

Breeden counts Curtis' explosive sprinter speed that nearly won him a spot on the 1972 Olympic team as his most dangerous quality. But he also admired his no-frills leadership.

After Breeden missed his rookie year with an injury, he came back for 1978 and found himself playing behind Riley. During one practice Breeden covered Curtis on a route and as he went back to the huddle he heard Curtis say simply to secondary coach Charley Winner as he ran by, "You've got your two best corners on the same side."

"I think I owe him," Breeden says. "About a week or two later they moved me to compete on the other side."

Lapham: "He was like E.F. Hutton. When he talked, people listened. And he didn't throw a lot out there ... there's no question he was as good as anyone in his era."

Kenny Houston, a Hall of Fame safety who doled out those hits to Curtis in that era, thinks the shyness prevented him from becoming a household name back in the 1970s. Houston has run into Curtis over the years, most recently last year at Muñoz's celebrity golf tournament, and isn't surprised by what he sees.

"Still quiet, still first class," Houston says. "You don't know he's there unless you know who he is. That's how he played. I think it hurt him and me playing in Houston and Cincinnati and not always being on winning teams."

Houston eventually left the Oilers and went to the big stage of George Allen's Redskins. If he hadn't left Houston, he still thinks he would have made the Hall of Fame, but not as soon as 1986.

"I think I would have got in eventually," he says, "but it would have been like Elvin Bethea and it would have been late."

Mark Houston down as a Pro Football Hall of Famer that believes Curtis should be considered for enshrinement. Curtis is in the last year of eligibility before his fate rests in the old-timers committee, but Bengals fans clearly believe he's worthy.

"Oh yeah," says Curtis, when asked if he's in the class of Swann and Stallworth. "But I understand why they're in. They won four Super Bowls. They're going to get the attention. That's the way the game is played."

If Curtis wears the throwback No. 85 then Chad Ochocinco, the Bengals' reigning all-time receiver, wears the bright orange No. 85 as a symbol of how the receiver position has been shaded with "The Diva" problem in this decade.

But Curtis doesn't buy all that.

"Guys come from all different kinds of backgrounds and they just have different personalities," Curtis says. "You can count them on one hand. There are more guys out there that you don't hear about. I don't think it's all that different than when we played. We had guys that weren't happy, that wanted to get out or weren't happy with their contract.

"Look at Lemar Parrish. But every team has that. You just didn't hear about it as much because the media is so much bigger, there's just more of it. These guys are so much more exposed. They can't walk down the street without turning around with a camera in their face."

Curtis, a diehard season ticket holder on the visitors side of Paul Brown Stadium between the 45- and 50-yard lines, is typically practical on the subject of The Ocho. He says the distraction questions can only be answered by players and coaches, but he thinks Ochocinco can rebound from last year as long as quarterback Carson Palmer is healthy.

And, as always, he believes.

"I think they're going to have a good year," Curtis says. "They've got to protect Carson. The big question, no question, is the offensive line. I think the defense has really improved and maybe they can hold up early in the season as the offense gets settled."

Curtis says he'll miss T.J. Houshmandzadeh, one of the four guys that have gone by him on the club's all-time list.

"I like T.J. and how hard he played and how he went 100 percent even without the ball," he says. "I think they'll miss him, but they always find a way to replace you, don't they?"

Before Chris Henry's career was derailed with off-field problems, "I thought he was going to replace Housh. He certainly has the talent," Curtis said.

Two of Curtis's children are now older than when he retired at 34. Kesha, 37, teaches communications at Santa Ana College and Isaac, 35, is a social worker in California. And he's waiting for next month when he gets to host his grandkids, 9 and 6.

But "Ice" is as current as the next soda. When Lapham remembers Curtis, it is always Nov. 14, 1976 at Riverfront. It is the last minute and the Bengals need a field goal to tie and they are desperate at the Houston 47 on a fourth-and-four.

"Kenny (Anderson) threw something like a slant and Isaac was gone," Lapham says. "I mean, he made a move on the safety and he just outran everybody. Gone. Touchdown. I was so happy. I'm thinking, 'Wow, we won. No overtime.'  Every time I see him I say, 'NFL Play of the Year.' I don't know whose Play of the Year it was, but it was somebody's."

"Oh yeah," Curtis says. "It was Howard Cosell's Play of the Year on Monday Night Football. I made a guy miss."

You can almost see Curtis with what Lapham calls "his half smile that he always has. That wry smile. Isaac has always been comfortable with who he is."

Whether he's in Canton or not.

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