Football's future requires a ticket, a smile and faith

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 09, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Art Donovan puts one meaty paw around the shoulders of old friend Sisto Averno, wraps him in an affectionate if muscle-bending hug, and issues a proclamation intended for the ages.

''This guy,'' says Donovan, the former Baltimore Colts defensive tackle and well-known author, television personality and bon vivant, ''was the toughest of us all.''

''Nah,'' says Averno, modestly lowering his eyes.

''Yeah,'' insists Donovan.

''Nah,'' says Averno.

Let history declare, in any event, that Sisto Averno, who performed on both the offensive and defensive lines of the early 1950s Baltimore Colts, and at a cost of $4,000 per season (Donovan, the future Hall of Famer who played only defense, was considered vastly overpaid at $4,500), was a pretty tough guy.

How tough?

''Well, yes,'' Averno allows, there was that time with the bum shoulder.

''I can't play,'' he told coach Clem Crowe.

''Why not?'' said Crowe.

''I busted my right shoulder,'' said Averno.

''So hit 'em with your left,'' said Crowe, and Averno went out and played the line both ways.

''We're on the road one time,'' Donovan says now, at a big meeting that we will describe in a few more paragraphs but only because it is required, ''and my suitcase falls apart. So Sisto here, he walks into this post office and tears the rope right off one of those post office bags. And then he wraps the rope around my suitcase.''

''Yeah,'' Averno laughs, ''but tell 'em what happened when we got to the hotel.''

''They wouldn't let us in,'' says Donovan. ''They took one look at the battered suitcase and said, 'You'll have to go in the back door.' ''

''I don't blame 'em,'' Averno says. ''That suitcase looked like hell.''

''My father carried it through World War I,'' says Donovan.

It's a nice moment, these two old warriors sitting in a room at Memorial Stadium and remembering their youth. We should all have such nice memories. As a matter of fact, we do, all of us who were around when the Baltimore Colts not only played football but became a part of the heartbeat of this community.

And this is why people met on 33rd Street the other day and talked about a football pre-season game for this summer. It's not the draw of Miami playing New Orleans, for who could care less about a bunch of strangers from two distant cities playing an exhibition game?

This was strictly a business proposition: You want a professional football team here, you're going to have to spend a few dollars to show it.

Nobody wants to call this blackmail because, as they used to say in all the cheap gangster movies, blackmail is such an ugly word. But a certain quid pro quo is at work here: You fill the stadium, and the National Football League expansion committee will not subtract points from Baltimore's score card.

You don't fill up the place? Abandon all hope, ye who do not enter here.

There was a time when Baltimore helped invent the national frenzy around professional football. Now we find ourselves begging for the right to re-enter the game. That hurts. It's not just having to grovel, it's the sense that nobody important remembers Baltimore contributions that helped make the league such an earth force.

And a small, thin voice asks: If this is the case, if the league has so nakedly lost its soul, then who wants to rejoin it? But what's the alternative? Rooting for Washington? It's like rooting for Congress.

You listen to Artie Donovan and Sisto Averno swap old stories, and you remember not only an ancient football team, but a state of relative innocence. It seemed more fun back then. The game hadn't gotten so self-consciously important.

Near Donovan and Averno stood John Ziemann. He is merely the eternal light of pro football here, the president of the Baltimore Colts Band.

They still perform, you know. And in August they'll be out there when Miami and New Orleans play here, and you can bet money that the house will erupt when these folks break into the Colts' old fight song.

And now here was Ziemann the other day, and in a very soft voice he said, ''We want the younger kids to see what they missed.''

That's it, isn't it? It's almost eight years since the moving vans stole away, and part of a generation now has nothing but ancient stories as a reference point.

They can't imagine what it was like back then, when the Colts were a religion and Memorial Stadium was a weekly shrine.

A few feet from Ziemann stood Fred Miller, the tough defensive tackle from the Don Shula-era Colts. Miller lived his whole life in Louisiana before he came here, but settled permanently in Baltimore County.

''I remember my first game,'' he said. It was 1963. ''I look around the locker room, and there's Gino Marchetti, there's Bill Pellington. And then the big guy, who's retired, he drops in to wish everybody good luck.''

''I figured, whoa, something special's going on here.''

He points to the big guy: It's Donovan. And Miller's right, it was something special back then, something that transcended blocking and tackling.

It was people in the stands getting together every Sunday, and then everybody in town talking about it all week long, and a sense of community coming out of it.

We want that back. And it hurts to have to beg to get it back, but that's the proposition. Buy a ticket to Miami-New Orleans, and smile for the cameras, and hope somebody at NFL headquarters has a heart like Donovan and Averno, and like Fred Miller and John Ziemann, too, instead of merely the soul of an accountant.

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