Colts may move on, but memories stay

John Steadman

September 16, 1991|By John Steadman

It literally became a trip back in time. A chartered bus from Club 4100, a restaurant and friendly bar in suburban Brooklyn (that's Maryland, not New York), was headed for Memorial Stadium to see the remnants of the Baltimore Colts once more on their home turf -- not to play but to be introduced in what was intended as a grand farewell appearance.

Out on the field, Leonard "The Big Wheel" Burrier was spelling out the cheer with symbolic body language that offered an alphabetic caricature of the team being honored. So it went: C-O-L-T-S. And again the sound boomed in unison. Then a third roar for old times' sake.

The Colts have been gone from Baltimore since that cold, sleet-filled night in 1984 when owner Robert Irsay disgraced himself and the National Football League by plundering a franchise that had been a part of the city for 35 exciting, colorful years and carting it off to Indianapolis.

It was with more than a touch of sadness that 22 former Colts, still calling Baltimore home, had their names called over the public address system for what will probably be the last time in Memorial Stadium, their old fun-filled field, that was once called the "world's largest outdoor insane asylum" when they played there.

The franchise that meant so much to Baltimore had its equipment and office furniture carried away in a fleet of Mayflower vans. It was with a touch of irony, then, that early on this Sunday morning in the downtown area, there was a Mayflower vehicle, out of Carmel, Ind., stopped at a parking light preparing to make a turn.

An automobile driver in the next lane had to restrain himself from leveling a broadside of profanity at an innocent driver who was in the midst of making an honest living. Instead, he refrained from cursing but sounded his horn, leaned out the window and shouted, "Are you bringing the Colts back to Baltimore?"

Later, the bus from Club 4100, arranged by the brothers Dino and Manny Spanomanolis, was on its way to the stadium -- not to see the Baltimore Orioles play the Cleveland Indians but specifically to be a part of the pre-game ceremonies befitting the old football team that was once so deeply ingrained in the fabric of the city.

"I used to go to church on Sunday and ask with a little prayer to St. Joseph, my favorite saint, to keep Alex Karras or Ray Nitschke off John Unitas," said John Riser, a master pipe-fitter employed by Lever Brothers Co. "I don't need any memorabilia to remind me of the Colts. I have it all stored right here -- in my heart."

The Club 4100 had such a love affair with the Colts it would frequently contact one of its regular customers, Don Legge, who worked in the control tower at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and he, in turn, would message the pilot on the homecoming Colts' charter plane to tell the team the place was still open and the steaks were on the grill.

For home games, three buses from Club 4100 were packed with ticket holders. "About 150 fans left here for the games," said Fred Stein, retired from the Millar Elevator Co. "We all knew each other, had a few drinks but never got out of hand. It was a happening. If we won, we were happy. If the Colts lost, then we felt sick the rest of the week."

The ironic part was that the Orioles' organization, to its everlasting credit, saw to it that the Colts weren't forgotten as the stadium counts down to only a precious six dates remaining.

"It was something the Orioles didn't have to do," said Lenny Moore, a Hall of Famer. "I give them a lot of thanks. It was wonderful to be on the field one more time."

The Colts Band, sounding better than ever, entertained in a pre-game concert, and, of course, played the team's fight song, adjudged one of the best of all pro and college football rouser tunes. Sisto Averno and Artie Donovan, inseparable friends since meeting as rookies in 1950, talked as they waited for their names to be called.

Members of the Colt Corrals, the fan clubs, carried their banners. Eugene "Reds" Hubbe and Bill Gattus held an enormous sign that implored the crowd to "Gimme a 'C'." Announcers Jim West and Chuck Thompson served as co-masters of ceremonies and the Orioles had even remembered to put yard-markers on the field to present a touch of realism.

Don Shula, a Colt alumnus, first as a player and then a coach, now head of the Miami Dolphins, offered a salute to Baltimore and some of his ex-teammates in a pre-recorded video message. Herb Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, proclaimed, "If anyone deserves an NFL team you do." More applause. And then another vestige of the past, the real live colt mascot, called "Dixie," with a girl rider, circled the stadium.

As John Unitas became the last Colt to appear, the response was appropriate for one so gifted, whose exploits are inscribed in NFL history. Manny, the host from the Club 4100, turned to a friend in the stadium's upper deck and said, "You know, all the quarterbacks are compared to Unitas but he compares to no one because he stands alone."

And there in retrospect, the time capsule of the mind, was a look back at a jammed Memorial Stadium on earlier Sunday afternoons with Unitas passing to Moore, Jim Mutscheller and Raymond Berry and Jim Parker protecting them both and Donovan, Gino Marchetti and Ordell Braase burying the rival quarterback.

It all had happened here, in this city where the Colts were christened in 1947 and made such a proud contribution to the later success of the National Football League. Those traditions deserve to be proclaimed and perpetuated . . . somehow, someway with, yes, another team known as the Baltimore Colts.

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