'Big Wheel' will keep the cheers rolling for new cause Thursday

John Steadman

August 24, 1992|By John Steadman

Now the "Big Wheel," with size and voice to match, will be booming his own form of vocal thunder from the precipice of Memorial Stadium in a salute to the future of Baltimore football. He'll be spelling out the letters in body language, C-O-L-T-S, almost as if the team had never gone away, and stimulating a crowd to join him in generating an energy that's intended to carry a message.

Leonard Burrier, 47, 6 feet 6, 240 pounds, is an automobile dealer, married, father of two children and friend to all. As the "Big Wheel," he will no doubt make an impression on the National Football League. His kind of enthusiasm can't be bought or contrived. It comes from a deep passion for a football team that went away to a place called Indianapolis and broke the heart of a city that had given it a home decades before.

The New Orleans Saints will be meeting the Miami Dolphins -- in an exhibition that doesn't count in the standings -- on Thursday night and the "Big Wheel" is eager to help rock the place with a noise level that he believes will be unprecedented. "It's a way we fans can get the NFL to listen," he said as he reviewed his game plan.

His idea is not to cheer too early, which means he's going to have to restrain himself for what he determines are the appropriate times. And screaming "Give Baltimore The Ball," the slogan that is outlined on billboards, is too hard to trumpet. So he has made a slight revision.

For chanting purposes, he's going to use "We want a team. . . .We want a team. . . .We want a team." It's a wise move, considering it's not as cumbersome to say and lends itself for easier stadium-wide vocalizing.The uninitiated may not know about the "Big Wheel." Who is he?

He once owned Leonard's Tire & Wheel Shop, which is why a sportswriter looked at his impressive size and nicknamed him the Big Wheel. Earlier, the Wheel graduated from City College, class of 1963, and is proud to say the best history teacher he ever had was George Young, who went on to become a scout, assistant coach and now general manager of the New York Giants.

"I remember those high school days of cheering for Bob Baldwin [who later played for the Colts] and Tom Dooly, No. 23," he said. "Then, when I was in the Air Force four years as a staff sergeant, I didn't lose my interest in Baltimore and the Colts. I never thought of leading cheers."

How it evolved takes some explaining. In 1975, he was in the stadium watching the Colts play the Cleveland Browns. "I was there with some guys and got tired of yelling," he recalls. "I started making letters, C-O-L-T-S, with my body, arms and legs. I had no idea fans would ask me to keep doing it at other games. It just caught on."

The Wheel was so effective that Wild Bill Hagy asked him how he could spell out Orioles, and the Wheel showed him. So Wild Bill, with a routine borrowed from the Wheel, forged a reputation that created a celebrity status he had never sought.

What did the family say about the sudden notoriety that came to the Big Wheel?

"I think my wife thought it was another excuse to drink beer, but, deep down, I think she enjoyed it," said the Wheel. "It was my interest and she never discouraged me. The police department and ushers knew it was a fun thing. My two sons kind of liked it, too. I got to know a lot of players, like Joe Ehrmann, Fred Cook, Ron Fernandes, really a great fellow, and George Kunz, who not only was a fine-looking guy but the best run blocker I ever watched."

The popularity of the Wheel reached such proportions a man wrote a song about him. He says candidly that Bob and Harriet Irsay, owners of the team, "were never a problem for me and I've been told the reason they left was because Bob believed the mayor, now our governor, stabbed him in the back. I can't explain that because I don't know. But something happened."

Sometimes the Wheel is accompanied on his stadium escapades by a partner-in-cheering, known as the Spoke, whose real name is Bud Craven, co-owner of the Bay Cafe. Last summer, they were together on the Sunday afternoon the Orioles paid a stirring tribute to the memory of the Colts and the Wheel had the crowd booming with intensity.

He's ready to try it again. "I never rehearse," he said. "I just got to be me. Tell everybody in section 32 to wait until they get the cue. You're gonna be able to hear us on the moon." The Big Wheel is revved and ready to roll.

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