Baltimore's hopes were riding on service elevator Reliving the final, frantic moments in Chicago

October 31, 1993|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Staff Writer

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Only three men were in the cramped room when a hotel security guard knocked on the door and tersely requested that they follow him.

Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, Rouse Co. chairman Mathias J. DeVito, and Ernie Accorsi, a special adviser to Baltimore's NFL expansion group, grabbed their suit coats. It was shortly after 9 p.m., Baltimore time, on Tuesday, more than 12 hours after NFL owners had begun meeting to determine the 29th and 30th teams for the league.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and other members of Baltimore's delegation had stepped out to get dinner after pacing for several hours in a hospitality suite in the Hyatt Regency in this Chicago suburb near O'Hare airport.

The decision on which of the five cities would get an expansion team had been made, but the guard would not say where he was taking Belgrad, DeVito and Accorsi, or what the decision was. The city delegations were told in advance to expect word by phone, but that's not how it happened.

As they boarded a service elevator, the three Baltimore representatives found prospective Baltimore team owner Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass inside. Weinglass whispered to them that he thought he saw the Charlotte delegation being led to another elevator -- a bad omen.

The service elevator then opened at the next floor and officials from Memphis, Tenn., boarded, providing further evidence that Baltimore was among the losers.

The elevator then stopped on the bottom floor of the hotel, where the members of the Baltimore group found themselves in the kitchen with the delegation of Jacksonville, Fla.

To avoid the media crush, the entourage was guided down a series of back hallways stacked with chairs and mechanical equipment in the labyrinthian hotel.

They ended up in a big, cold auditorium, with chairs strewn about where about 50 people -- including some of the nation's wealthiest and most influential people -- were left to mill about for several humiliating minutes.

The guards wouldn't say what was up, and there were no NFL officials. But it didn't take long for the groups to realize who wasn't there: representatives of the presumed front-runners of the five cities, Charlotte and St. Louis.

Belgrad said he was convinced at that point that his seven-year fight to return an NFL team to Baltimore was lost. He stepped to the back of the room to get his thoughts together.

"I thought we were done," he said.

The realization also spread quickly among others, who were comparing notes and theories in hushed tones. Weinglass and his rival for a football team -- Florida-based corporate investor Malcolm Glazer -- were huddled together, trying to piece the evidence together.

Just then St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley showed up, and a joyful relief spread through the room.

"It just hit me that they've picked one city," Belgrad said. "At that point I sort of felt a new breath of life. I rose from the dead."

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue then appeared, with league president Neil Austrian and vice president of communications Joe Browne. Tagliabue explained the owners' decision to put off the choice of the second city until Nov. 30, quipping that he knows these NFL owners well and when there is disagreement among them they could stay another two weeks and still not decide.

He said there was no consensus on a second team. He and Austrian answered questions, and Browne, in remarks some found offensive, encouraged them to be positive.

The losing delegations then dispersed to their rooms or media rooms set up for them. The Baltimore delegation quickly packed and left the hotel for the airport and a private plane chartered by The Rouse Co.

Meanwhile, the Charlotte delegation had been taken through another back way and into the meeting of NFL owners. The owners applauded, and Charlotte lead investor Jerry Richardson thanked them for their decision.

Richardson and Tagliabue then stepped into the brightly lit press briefing room, where several television stations were broadcasting live.

"The owners have unanimously picked the Carolina Panthers. . .," Tagliabue said.

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