A sellout crowd of 59,000 will welcome pro football back to Baltimore tonight at 8 when the Miami Dolphins play the New Orleans Saints in a nationally televised preseason game at Memorial Stadium.
Fittingly, that's how Dolphins coach Don Shula remembers his time in Baltimore as coach of the Colts -- with sellout crowds and a frenzied following.
"I'd love to see Baltimore get a team again," Shula said. "The fans in that city generated a lot of excitement and there was tremendous fan support for the Colts. It was a shock to the city when it lost the team, and there are still a lot of football fans in
Baltimore who want professional football back."
Baltimore is on the NFL's short list of finalists for expansion in 1994. Tonight's game was designed to show the city's passion for pro football didn't die when the Colts left town on a convoy of Mayflower vans in March 1984.
This will be the first pro football game at Memorial Stadium since the Colts beat the Houston Oilers on Dec. 18, 1983, to close out a 7-9 season. It will be Shula's first time back since Oct. 23, 1983, when Dan Marino threw two touchdown passes in a rain-soaked 21-7 Miami victory.
Shula isn't the only member of the Dolphins who will celebrate a homecoming tonight. Assistant head coach John Sandusky, a longtime Colts assistant who took over briefly as head coach, returns, as do former Colts cornerback Carl Taseff, who coaches Miami's running backs, and former Colts assistant Mike Westhoff, who coaches the Dolphins' special teams.
"It will be a special moment," Sandusky said. "If Baltimore gets a team, they'll play one year there [at Memorial Stadium, before a new stadium is built]. I hope this is not the last game played there."
Sandusky has three sons who live in Baltimore -- Gerry, a sportscaster for Channel 11, Jack and James -- and a daughter, Ruth, who lives in Silver Spring. He also has six grandchildren and a fondness for the city. He was an assistant coach with the Colts from 1959 to 1972, going to two Super Bowls with the team. And he was head coach for nine games in 1972, going 4-5, after owner Bob Irsay fired Don McCafferty five games into the season.
Does he believe Baltimore should get an expansion team?
"I'm prejudiced, but I'd have to say yes," Sandusky said. "Those people deserve a team."
New Orleans coach Jim Mora never coached a game at Memorial Stadium, but he gained a perspective on the city's football following when he coached the U.S. Football League's Baltimore Stars in 1985. That year the Stars practiced in Philadelphia and played their games in College Park in anticipation of a permanent move to Baltimore in the fall of 1986.
"You could tell what great sports fans they were, how much they missed the Colts," Mora said. "You could tell how much they wanted a pro football team there. Some became fans of ours, and they were solid fans."
Saints defensive line coach John Pease was on Mora's staff in the USFL years and looked forward to a career here.
"We were really disappointed when there was no merger," Pease said. "We would have loved to take that Stars team into the NFL. We felt like we would have played well."
Jim Finks, the Saints president and general manager, goes back long way with Baltimore.
"I played in an exhibition game there with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1950 when Baltimore was expanding the stadium," Finks said. "Y.A. Tittle started at quarterback for the Colts.
"I think Baltimore is a very special place. I played there as a player, and I went back with the Vikings to play the dreaded Colts.
"I remember tremendous fanatical support. It was a happening . . . the crab cakes, the band, Alex Hawkins catching one into the dugout from John Unitas to beat you. It was a special place for me."
Asked to rate Baltimore's expansion odds, Finks said, "Baltimore has a great chance."