It's game time: Memories, hopes soar before kickoff Pro football returns after 8-year absence

August 27, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

If the NFL officials attending tonight's game want a glimpse of Baltimore's taste for football, they'll need to step out of the freshly redecorated owners' boxes and talk to people such as Ray Wainwright Sr. and Ray Wainwright Jr.

The father and son electricians from Edgewood could care less who wins the Miami Dolphins-New Orleans Saints preseason game. But they will be there, in the stands, with the binoculars and Baltimore Colts seat cushions they dutifully carried to Colts games until the team trudged out of town.

"I want us to get out there and get pumped up and show them want football," said the senior Wainwright.

A Colts season-ticket holder from 1968 to the bitter end in 1984, Mr. Wainwright took his son to his first Colts game when he was 8 years old, and he hopes the two can resume the tradition.

They will be among 59,000-plus fans at Memorial Stadium, most of whom never give Miami or New Orleans much thought.

And some, such as Joan Armalis, don't even consider themselves especially dedicated football fans.

"I watch some playoff games now on television, but I don't watch a lot of football usually," says Ms. Armalis, 44. "Not since they [the Colts] left."

But she and her husband, Al, both Baltimore natives, will take a bus to the game tonight.

She was 13 when she attended her first Colts game, and she remembers the day the plane crashed into the upper deck, the long walk to the bathrooms between plays and following Joe Namath with binoculars when the New York Jets played here.

"I was crazy about Namath," she said.

Mark Sapperstein didn't miss a home game for the last decade the Colts played here, and he'll be at tonight's game with eight of his friends.

"I'm more from the Bert Jones era. I followed Johnny Unitas and all, but he came before my time. I'm from the [Ted] Marchibroda era . . . I could name 1,000 games," said Mr. Sapperstein, 33, a real-estate developer in Baltimore.

Mr. Jones was a Colts quarterback from 1973 to 1979; Mr. Marchibroda was coach from 1975 to 1979.

There will be familiar faces at the game tonight, such as the Colts Marching Band, which has been playing continuously for 45 years -- the last eight when the city had no team. There will be Leonard "The Wheel" Burrier, the car dealer who became a celebrity by spelling "COLTS" with his body during games.

Many former Colts will be there, too, including such legends as Johnny Unitas and Art Donovan.

And backers of Baltimore's football bid hope the NFL is impressed by the outpouring. It comes at a time when the city's chances of landing a team appear to be on the rise, thanks to its promise of a state-built stadium and the nationally acclaimed -- -- and solidly sold out -- Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Tonight's game was a rapid sellout, as about 26,000 tickets were sold by mail to fans who contacted the Maryland Stadium Authority when word of the game leaked.

The rest of the seats sold within 150 minutes of going on sale last January, many to fans who had camped out at Memorial Stadium on the coldest night of the year to be at ticket windows when they opened.

NFL officials say they appreciate the sellout but don't want to overstate the importance of such events.

"It's one game. Granted, it's tougher to market. You have to recognize it as one game and take it within its context," says one NFL official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Rankin Smith, owner of the Atlanta Falcons, said the owners will be selecting cities based on the quality of the ownership group, the size of the television market, the economics and availability of a stadium, and similar factors.

"I think it's important to show the city is behind the effort," Mr. Smith says.

The stadium authority, city and Greater Baltimore Committee have spent months promoting the game and readying Memorial Stadium, which was the home of the Colts. It would temporarily house a new team until the downtown stadium is constructed.

The Authority predicts a small profit from the game, about $400,000, which will be used to defray the expenses incurred over the past few years trying to lure a team. Playing host to the game will cost about $1.3 million, including $800,000 promised to the two teams, and is expected to generate about $1.7 million in revenues.

It will be the first professional football game at the stadium since the Colts played there Dec. 18, 1983. Another fan in the stands tonight will be Gerald Kraft of Dundalk, who bought four of the 15,000 season tickets the NFL asked to be sold in 1953 before it would transfer a team here from Dallas. He renewed the tickets each year until 1983.

ZTC Despite sending in a request early for the preseason game, he ended up with seats in the temporary end zone -- something that angered him enough to complain to the NFL. But he's putting his anger aside and packing up his family for the trip to the stadium.

"The important thing," Mr. Kraft says, "is to help get a team back."

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