NFL will remember city's cheers, tears

John Steadman

August 31, 1992|By John Steadman

From the National Football League office, after its on-site inspection team examined the possibility of Baltimore's being awarded an expansion franchise, came this sterling review:

FOUR STARS.

That was the way an NFL official explained reaction to the way the city handled itself in presenting an exhibition game that was wrapped with cheers, tears and carried a strong emotional impact. Baltimore's timing was right, coming only weeks before the league wants to decide on two new teams that it hopes to have on the field by 1994.

Jacksonville, Memphis, St. Louis and the Carolinas have staged exhibitions in the past. But the freshest thing in the mind of the NFL is what happened last week in Baltimore -- a sellout crowd of 60,021, overwhelming sentimentality being expressed for its former players, the Colt Band parading, the Colt Corrals in place and the Ed Block Courage Award committee making another check presentation to an NFL-connected charity.

Plus there was the rampant enthusiasm that impressed them the most, causing the NFL to wonder how this kind of excitement was ever allowed to vanish from the scene. Leonard "Big Wheel" Burrier, the volunteer cheerleader, sent out a message, along with the crowd, that couldn't be misunderstood. "We Want A Team" . . . "We Want A Team" . . . "We Want A Team." It was a cry that wouldn't die.

None of the other expansion candidates has the football heritage of Baltimore. That makes a difference. And Neil Austrian, president of the NFL, and the man positioned behind commissioner Paul Tagliabue, said the three potential Baltimore ownership groups vying for the team, if it's awarded, were impressive. "They all told us the same thing," he said. "Their No. 1 objective is they wanted Baltimore to have a team, regardless if they got it or not."

The Evening Sun, meanwhile, has learned that the NFL plan for expansion will not involve another reduction among the five finalists. When the announcement comes, the two winning cities will be named and, simultaneously, the owners will be picked. There's no date for such a determination because the league must first get a decision in its current court battle with the NFL Players Association.

Austrian made no commitments, or promises, about Baltimore, since that would be entirely premature, but went back to the NFL office on an early Friday morning train ecstatic over what he had witnessed. It was unfortunate that Baltimore's 1992 football season opened and closed in one night. But it evolved into a momentous show, highlighted by the introduction of 69 former players.

There could and should have been many more. The number present represented only about 11 percent of the Baltimore Colts' alumni. Hundreds weren't even contacted. Eddie King, the former governor of Massachusetts, and the only NFL graduate ever to attain the office of governor in any state, heard about it 48 hours before but couldn't get a plane out of Miami because of post-hurricane travel problems.

"I really wanted to be there," he said. "Playing for the Colts was the highlight of my young life. I was going to come with Art Spinney, who hadn't heard about the reunion either, until I called him."

But the planning committee was, in the main, volunteer. It gets a high grade overall. The Maryland Stadium Authority fumbled the ball in not putting on an after-game party for the players, similar to what the Orioles staged at the Omni last October. All the Colts players could do when the Thursday game was over was vanish into the night. The stadium authority could have taken the cost out of its share of game profits.

The players, though, were happy to be here, to see one another and to be in the stadium for what probably was the final time for most of them. The roll call of erstwhile Colts proved that the Orioles' farewell at the stadium could have been done the same way -- calling off the names of all the players present -- without it being a burden on the audience or the announcer. Chuck Thompson gave 69 players the dignity they deserved by calling all the names in less than 10 minutes.

Bill Bateman, who catered a huge party for guests of WMAR-TV and B104 radio station, starting at 5:30 the morning of the game, said, "What Baltimore wound up having was a football festival. Kind of an old school reunion."

How right he is. The NFL rating again: FOUR STARS.

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