Colts Band hits all right notes for city in Hall of Fame visit

John Steadman

July 29, 1991|By John Steadman

Having a non-paid, all-volunteer band represent a non-existent professional football team has a way of getting attention. Commercialism? No. Emotionalism? Yes. The Baltimore Colts Band marches for pleasure but also to signify the void that was created when the city was mugged on a dark night in 1984 and robbed of its National Football League franchise.

Now the intent is to show the NFL that Baltimore deserves to return to full and accredited membership when it awards expansion teams. The Colts Band has been a remarkable symbol of faith, or a portable billboard for hope, that continually delivers a poignant musical message.

Over the weekend, the Colts Band performed in auspicious style at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Festival and installation ceremonies in Canton, Ohio. The Hall of Fame should have put the entire band in bronze and enshrined its members in a special wing because the sport has rarely seen such a testimonial of what qualifies as pure love of the game.

The band without a team (but it's hoping) created a positive stand for Baltimore while taking part in the three-mile Hall of Fame parade, witnessed by more than 200,000 spectators and then providing a spectacular performance at the Denver Broncos-Detroit Lions exhibition game.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, assistant Joseph Browne, other NFL officers and club owners had to be impressed. Here was an assemblage of young musicians sounding a loud note in support of Baltimore's bid to return to pro football by taking a seven-hour bus trip to Canton and giving their all for a cause that's dear to them and the region they represent.

"They made a lot of friends for Baltimore and your state," said Dennis Mertes, the game chair

man who is a relative of Bus Mertes, one of the Colts' first fullbacks. "Their presence caused nothing but favorable comments. They were well-received, even drawing standing ovations and acting the part of perfect ambassadors.

"Everyone coming in personal contact with them had only the best to say. They were housed at Walsh College in North Canton overnight and the people there remarked how well they conducted themselves. There were 128 units in the parade and they were the 'honorary' band."

John Ziemann, president of the band, was ecstatic over the Canton reception. The selections were extensive but the Colts' Fight Song was No. 1 on the play list. Three hecklers from a town known as Indianapolis ridiculed the Colts Band, shouting a reminder that the club had taken a hike (as if they didn't know) but the booming applause from the crowd overwhelmed the insults. Tagliabue was asked what he thought of the Colts Band and offered a smile.

"I believe he put himself under a gag order," said Ziemann. "After all, the expansion process hasn't even started. It wouldn't have been appropriate for him to comment. But I don't see how we could have been there without NFL permission.

The Colts' first bass drum, which was used from 1947 to 1964, has been on exhibit in the Hall of Fame for about 20 years."

To make the trip to Canton meant that fees earned from appearances they previously made in Towson, Dundalk, Catonsville, Bel Air, Havre de Grace and Queenstown were used to pay expenses. Donations came from "friends of the band" and courtesy transportation was provided by the Gunther and Huber bus companies, plus a Mayflower van to carry the instruments.

"Gov. William Donald Schaefer opened a lot of doors for us," added Ziemann. "So have Bob Douglas and Chip Mason. The experience was like nothing I ever felt. We played the 'Swing Spectacular,' 'A Grand Ole Flag,' 'Tennessee Waltz,' 'Birdland' and, of course, the 'Colt Fight Song.' At halftime we delivered a patriotic medley, dedicated to all the military services, and wound up with 'I'm Proud To Be An American,' along with some fanfare."

The Colts Band has previously been invited to perform at NFL games of the Steelers, Browns, Eagles, Patriots and Giants. But going to Canton was a special occasion, the result of five years of conversation by Ziemann and business manager Linda Jondo. It was all worthwhile, especially the ovation heard for James Armstrong's trumpet solo on "America The Beautiful" and the way the drum major, Jack Vaeth, steered the crowd into a ritual of rhythmic clapping.

"We came home tired but happy," reminded Ziemann. "We all had a smile on our faces. I was so proud over the way we played and how Canton cheered us I almost cried." No greater love than to march on in behalf of a team that -- up to now -- must remain a dream.

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