A sports legend, doing just fine in garbage

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, November 2, 2013

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There’s a guy who shows up once or twice a year at area city council meetings, usually when it’s time for a slight increase in the garbage rates.

He’s personable, has a great smile and carries himself like an athlete. Everyone knows Norm, and everyone likes him.

Oh, and he wears a Super Bowl ring.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

Norm Bulaich (rhymes with goulash) earned that ring during his first year in the National Football League. He was the Baltimore Colts’ leading rusher when they edged the Dallas Cowboys 16-13 in Super Bowl V.

Yes, kids. The Colts used to be in Baltimore, and the Cowboys used to go to Super Bowls.

Norm was Baltimore’s first-round draft pick out of TCU, the 18th player taken. He signed for $30,000 and, like most NFL players of that era, knew he would need a side business to go into – not only when his playing days were over, but during the off-season.

“Over the years, I had a little trucking company that did local hauling for a freight line,” he says. “I also worked at Fort Worth National Bank and Radio Shack, just trying to find my niche. I majored in business at TCU.”

At one time Bulaich had 15 trucks delivering freight around the Dallas-Fort Worth area. When the company he was hauling for – his only customer – went out of business, he sold the trucks and bought his wife a car.

Somewhere along the way, a buddy told him, “You need to think about getting in the garbage business.”

“I said, ‘What the heck? I run like a garbage man, why not be one?'”

That’s modest for a guy whose face was the entire cover of Sports Illustrated’s Nov. 8, 1971 issue.

During a decade in the NFL, Bulaich played at Baltimore, Philadelphia and Miami. He rushed for 3,362 yards and 30 touchdowns and caught 224 passes for 1,766 more yards and 11 touchdowns. His Colts single-game rushing record, 198 yards against the New York Jets in 1971, stood until the 2000 season when Edgerrin James ran for 219.

“I wasn’t a great player,” he says. “I was in the Pro Bowl one year, and then more or less somehow stuck around.”

Things have changed a lot since “Boo” was considered a big back at 6’1″ and 217 pounds. He was known as a guy who hit a hole quick and hard – and if he broke free, he could usually outrun whoever was chasing him.

In that playoff run his rookie year, Norm gained 127 yards against Cincinnati and 90 against Oakland. Against Dallas, he carried the ball 16 times and gained 26 yards.

“I think (Cowboys linebacker) Chuck Howley had my number implanted on his forehead,” Bulaich says. Howley was the game’s MVP as Dallas took away the run, but Baltimore hung in there, taking what the defense gave them.

“We had more Texans on our team than they did,” Norm recalls. The Colts won on a field goal with 5 seconds to play.

Bulaich doesn’t live in the past, but with a little prodding he will talk about today’s players and the money and fame that weren’t part of the package when he played.

“We were your neighbors,” he says. “We shopped with you, ate with you at Denny’s. We were touchable.”

But he understands, too. The fan base has grown so much that players are forced to create distance.

“We’d have 100 people waiting for us to come out of the locker room,” he says. “Now they have 5,000. It’s harder to live in today’s sports world.”

Norm’s focus these days is the waste disposal business – which has changed as much as the NFL. He’s heard all the garbage jokes – but he’s serious about his company, and he appreciates the communities they serve.

IESI started in 1996 with three trucks, three drivers and the city of Justin. Now Progressive Waste Solutions is the third-largest solid waste disposal company in North America, with 7,000 employees.

“It’s a good growth story,” he says. “A lot of it was done through acquisitions, but the basis of our business is having good customers – like Decatur – and giving them good service.”

Norm, whose office is in Haltom City, has been coming to Decatur for about eight years and has built solid relationships with the cities he serves. As always, he’s the ultimate team player.

“It takes a combination of everybody working together – the drivers, the guys who get the dumpsters,” he says. “It’s all about giving good service.”

Bulaich got knocked unconscious at least 10 times during his NFL career, and “dinged” more often than that. No one talked much about concussions then, or worried about them. It came with the territory. You took a whiff of smelling salts and went back to the huddle – if you could find the right one.

Today, he said, players are bigger, faster and stronger. But the equipment is better, too.

“A hit is a hit, regardless of how big you are,” he said. “There was a lot of head-to-head contact when I played.”

He’s happy that most of his contact now involves a firm handshake and that trademark gap-toothed smile.

“I enjoy what I do. I’m fortunate to work for an excellent company.”

Bulaich will be 67 on Christmas Day. He represents a different era in the NFL – and he represents it well, just as he represents the company that gets rid of your trash.

Like Unitas, they will undoubtedly keep handing him the ball.

Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Messenger.

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