Spirited fans hope rapid exhibition sellout will be ticket to NFL expansion franchise

The Inside Stuff BfB

January 27, 1992|By Bill Tanton

In the sports world at large the Super Bowl was the big story of the weekend, but in Baltimore the game was No. 2.

No. 1 was -- and who would have believed this just a few months ago? -- the sale of tickets for an NFL exhibition game to be played at Memorial Stadium Aug. 28 between Miami and New Orleans.

In a mere 110 minutes Baltimore, a city with a history of resisting "preseason" games, sold out the last 33,000 of the 59,428 tickets available. The others had been sold by advance mail order. Some of the fans gathered at Memorial Stadium Saturday had been in line since 4 a.m. the day before.

"We did it!" said a smiling Herb Belgrad, who is the Maryland Stadium Authority's point man in the campaign to get Baltimore back in the NFL.

As Belgrad held two fingers aloft, forming a "v", a rousing cheer went up in the crowded Hit and Run Room from former Colts players, Colts Marching Band members, Colts Corral members and assorted celebrants.

A battle had been won, but not even Belgrad suggested this dramatic show of interest will win the war.

"This may not get us the vote of a single owner," Belgrad said, "but it does send a strong message to the league. No one has ever done this."

Most pleasing to Belgrad, Walt Gutowski -- the stadium authority's NFL coordinator -- and Matt DeVito, chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee, is that the tickets were bought by ordinary fans.

"These tickets were not bought by the corporate community," Belgrad said. "Now wait till October."

That's when the NFL is expected to add two expansion franchises. In March, a short list of four cities will be determined.

"It was like a party for the people who waited in line all night in that freezing weather," said a yellow-jacketed security guard who had been on duty throughout. "They were all bundled up, wearing blankets, singing songs, cheering the Colts."

Nearly eight years after the team left, the spirit lives, even though the quick sellout didn't get mentioned on the Super Bowl broadcast yesterday, as Baltimore organizers had hoped. The fans here are still crazy after all these years. I just wish the NFL owners had been here to see it for themselves.

Note to the skeptics who object to the way the public was blackmailed into buying tickets for a meaningless exhibition game:

I didn't like the idea one little bit initially. It was demeaning to a city with Baltimore's pro football tradition, which includes 64 straight Colts sellouts at a time when most other franchises weren't selling out at all.

But it comes down to this: Baltimore in the years to come is going to be a greater city with pro football than without it, and we're not going to get a franchise by playing hard to get. So we jumped through the hoops and did it better than anyone else. In that regard, Baltimore can be proud.

Two strangers waiting in line to buy tickets had an interesting conversation about something that comes up continually among the football fans here.

"What are we going to call the team if we get one?" asked Arthur J. Nattans, a colonel in the Maryland National Guard.

"I want 'em called the Colts, but I know Indianapolis has that," said Will Butler, a builder who put up a tennis court at the home of Sonny Jurgensen . . . and says he never got from Jurgy the Redskins-Giants tickets he had been promised.

"I want to call the team the Hoosiers," Nattans said. "You know what a great negotiator Gov. Schaefer is. If we take the name Hoosiers, the people in Indianapolis will be up in arms. They'll demand Hoosiers for themselves and they'll want to give the Colt name back to us. Schaefer would have an easy time negotiating that one."

Hmmm.

* Before Maryland's basketball team ended its losing streak at eight by beating Clemson, 84-71, at College Park Saturday, visiting coach Cliff Ellis was asked how he intended to stop the Terps' 6-foot-8 Walt Williams, the ACC's leading scorer with a 31-point average.

"One man does not win a basketball game," Ellis said.

That sounded profound. The facts supported it, too. Against Wake Forest last week Williams scored 39 points -- and Maryland lost anyway.

OK, so one man does not win a game. Would you believe two men? That's about what happened against Clemson.

Williams had his customary 31 points but this time he got a lot of help from Kevin McLinton. In addition to scoring a season-high 24 points, McLinton got the ball in to Williams against a box-and-one defense.

Said Maryland coach Gary Williams: "Kevin did a great job getting the ball to Walt. It's hard to get open against a defense like that. When Walt did get open, he wasn't open long."

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