Packed house embraces NFL with roaring message

August 28, 1992|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

It wasn't a Sunday afternoon, and at kickoff the only blue and white uniforms were on the band, but it was still unmistakably Baltimore football: dome-less, in-the-dirt action before a chanting, sellout crowd.

Some 60,021 football-hungry fans turned out last night at Memorial Stadium to watch the New Orleans Saints beat the Miami Dolphins, 17-3, in a preseason game.

It was the first NFL game in Baltimore since 1983 and the crowd delivered a pompon-waving, foot-stomping stadium-gram to the NFL: "Give Baltimore the Ball."

"The city and fans, they want a team here," said Pius Cooper, a 57-year-old Baltimore machinist who used to sneak into the Colts' training camp at Westminster and watch Art Donovan, Alan Ameche and other legends.

The Colts memories of Rusty Hood, 22, were more recent but no less sincere. "I just want a team," said Hood, of Baltimore.

Vendors sold "Late Night with Baltimore Football" T-shirts (Reason No. 4 to bring a team here: Real Baltimoreans can't root for the Redskins).

Inside, fans waved white pompons and chanted "We want a team" and "Give Baltimore the Ball."

Between plays, the public address system played the audio from famous Colts games. At halftime, dozens of Colts stars -- from Averno to Unitas -- assembled on the field, representing four decades of Baltimore football.

Throughout, "The Wheel," Leonard Burrier, stood on a dugout and led the crowd in his trademark C-O-L-T-S all-body cheer.

"The NFL people are here, they see it in the flesh," said Malcolm Glazer, one of the investors seeking to own a team in Baltimore.

"They see the enthusiasm of the fans," Glazer said.

Roger Goodell, vice president of operations for the NFL, said, "Their enthusiasm for football is great and their turnout tonight really shows that."

The game capped a week of events designed to impress the NFL as it prepares to award two new teams this fall for the 1994 season. Five finalist cities are in the running: Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., Memphis, Tenn., and St. Louis.

During the last 72 hours, NFL officials were whisked off to an Inner Harbor pep rally, a crab feast, and a sold-out Orioles game. In between, they met with all three prospective owner groups as well as community officials.

"Baltimore is putting its best foot forward . . . I think they [NFL officials] are very impressed. They have made many complimentary statements," said Herbert Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and chief of the city's football bid.

NFL president Neil Austrian cautioned against cities putting their hopes on events such as preseason games or pep rallies. But he said Baltimore's application is "very strong."

"Clearly the community would support a Baltimore team. I think the situation is vastly different from 1984," Austrian said.

The Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis in 1984 amid declining attendance and community support. Many local backers blame the decline on the team's unpopular owner Robert Irsay, and an accompanying slump in the standings.

In separate meetings with the three ownership groups at Greater Baltimore Committee headquarters, league officials, including Austrian, sketched out financial information and quizzed the owners. .

"I was the only person in the room without a tie," joked Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, chairman of Joppa-based retailer Merry-Go-Round and head of an investment group seeking a team.

rTC "I think they really, truly enjoyed our group. They were speaking as though Baltimore was the city, not one of the five," Weinglass said.

L Movie-maker and Baltimore native Barry Levinson joined other

members of Weinglass' group in the meeting, as did the newest investor, Joe Washington.

Washington, a former Baltimore Colts running back, said, "We've got a bunch of guys who really want a team and who grew up

here."

James Robinson, a Hollywood movie producer and partner with author Tom Clancy in his NFL bid, said he was satisfied after his group's meeting that a team would prove a good investment.

Among the questions the league asked was how the group would market luxury seats. Clancy, who has made a fortune writing high-tech military thrillers, assured them demand would outstrip supply and suggested the U.S. Marines might be needed to protect him from disappointed ticket seekers.

He said the officials commented several times on the success of Camden Yards.

"I really think Baltimore is a strong, strong contender," Robinson said.

Joe Ellis, NFL director of club administration, agreed, but cautioned that "Baltimore faces very tough competition. It will not be an easy decision," he said.

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