For 35 years, the Baltimore Colts were a civic keepsake.
It was a team that became a way of life, a momentous vehicle of profit for the owners, a lineup populated with an impressive talent and a cause for grown men and women going temporarily out of their minds, which is why Memorial Stadium was referred to as the "world's largest outdoor insane asylum."
Children were named by their hero-worshiping parents after Gino and Lenny and Raymond and Alan and John. There was even a baby baptized "Colt." Social functions in churches and synagogues were regularly scheduled around Colts games to avoid conflict but, more significantly, to assure themselves a crowd.
Memorial Stadium was the place where the Colts lifted pro football to heights of unprecedented enthusiasm. A real live colt, with a pony-tailed girl rider in the saddle, circled the perimeter of the field every time the home team scored.
The band paraded, stirring the crowd with the "Colts' Fight Song," appraised by some professors of music as among the best in the land -- right up there with "On Wisconsin" and the "Notre Dame Victory March." On two occasions, in 1951 and again, starting in 1984 until the present, the band played on even if there wasn't a team it could attempt to inspire by its musical presence.
All of the foregoing offer strong testimony to Baltimore's affection for a team it named in 1947 because colts were indigenous to the rolling countryside of Maryland. And thus the loss was that much greater when Robert Irsay slipped out of town with the franchise on a woeful March night in 1984.
The Colts first came to Baltimore as a member of the All-America Conference, 1947 through 1949. They spent one season, 1950, in the National Football League before owner Abe Watner returned the team to the league for $50,000. The Dallas Texans franchise moved to town and became the Colts in 1953, and they remained here until 1984.
What made the Colts different than any team Baltimore ever had was the way the organization personalized itself. Fanaticism was the prevalent condition. Colt Corral fan clubs were formed and individuals with such names as "Willie The Rooter" Andrews, Hurst "Loudy" Loudenslager and Leonard "The Big Wheel" Burrier entered the spotlight. They gained a popularity that, in some instances, approached that of the players.
When Andrews and Loudenslager died, they had Colts players for both active and honorary pallbearers and, in the cemetery, after the graveside prayers, representatives of the Colts band played a fond farewell. The Colts were the first professional team (1954) to have cheerleaders and the third -- following the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles -- to place a logo on their helmets.
Memorial Stadium was where Art Donovan, later to be enshrined as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, reduced a capacity crowd and himself, too, to tears. He made his retirement day comments at the 50-yard line, gazing to the sky and saying, "There's a woman up in heaven, my mother, who is looking down and thanking all of you for being so kind to her son -- a kid from the Bronx."
It was the field where Johnny Unitas set passing marks and created a mystique that was his alone. He knew how to extract more out of the final two minutes, fighting against the clock as well as the opposition, than any quarterback in history. Other teammates -- Donovan, Gino Marchetti, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Jim Parker, Joe Perry and Ted Hendricks -- and his coach, Weeb Ewbank, would join him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, along with a Colts predecessor and later a respected rival, Y.A. Tittle.
On an intra-squad night, in 1955, Claude "Buddy" Young, who gave so much of himself to bring about social understanding in the community and was a tremendous crowd-pleaser, agreed to race the colt mascot in a 100-yard --. He won without ever looking back. And then the next year, with Unitas making his debut in the same charity game, the noted miler Wes Santee faced a relay team of Colts interior lineman, all well over 230 pounds, and lost.
Then, much later, came the impact of a private plane accident, when Donald Kroner pancaked into the top deck after the 1976 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers and, miraculously, escaped serious injury but was arrested for violating public safety. John Brodie, a San Francisco 49ers quarterback who had suffered long and hard in Baltimore, was to say, "After all the bad days I had there, I couldn't think of a more apt stadium for a plane to crash."
The Colts attained some special football achievements at Memorial Stadium, highlighted by their opening game in 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers halfback, Elmore Harris, took the opening kickoff, was tackled, and fumbled. The ball was retrieved by a teammate, Harry Buffington, who ran in the wrong direction, then threw it away as he neared the opposite goal line, where the Colts quickly converted the errant misplay into a bizarre touchdown on the first play of their franchise life.