Rozelle has fondness for Baltimore, but won't push it on NFL

John Steadman

November 22, 1993|By John Steadman

So far, much to his credit, Pete Rozelle, former commissioner and the most progressive leader in the 74-year history of the National Football League, has stayed away from even remotely intruding on the territory of his successor, one Paul Tagliabue. The Rozelle retirement finds him available if needed but with a firm resolve not to interfere.

It's a measure of professional respect, a style associated with Rozelle and how he carries himself.

He offers only positive things about Tagliabue, who was friend, confidant and legal adviser during a period of time the NFL was scrimmaging more in the courtroom than on the playing field. Rozelle refuses to talk on any subject, however vague, that might be construed as criticism or a "second guess."

That's not the Rozelle way and this comes from a reporter who has known him for 40 years. In keeping with that premise, Pete wouldn't thrust his views on Tagliabue or the owners he knew and worked with once he left office.

There's no way to draw him into the expansion skirmish and whether the NFL will pick Baltimore or St. Louis. To Rozelle, it would be improper, inconsiderate and presumptuous.

Will the NFL owners repair the damage to a city plundered of its team and the birthright name that went with it? We once heard Tagliabue offer a thought if the city returned to the NFL it would be a natural evolvement for it to regain the Colts' nickname that fit so well.

In asking Rozelle to talk about the Baltimore he knew as commissioner, he willingly expounds. It can only be hoped enough NFL owners have the same feeling for the past and what the future might be.

Reiterating, Rozelle's comments can't be interpreted as an endorsement of Baltimore's bid. He removed himself from the commissionership and Tagliabue is the new leader.

But one of the lowest points and most regrettable moments of Rozelle's 29 years heading the NFL was when the Colts pulled out of Baltimore under the cover of darkness and, without league approval, took moving vans to Indianapolis.

That was March 28, 1984. Baltimore has been a pro football wasteland ever since. At the time of the defection, Rozelle and the NFL were fighting Al Davis' decision to pull the Raiders from Oakland. The club owners' vote denied Davis' any right to move, yet he defied the action and went anyhow, later winning a lawsuit that gave him legal support.

Rozelle says during his near three-decade term in office and even when he served as publicity director and then general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, the Colts and Baltimore had a special link to the NFL. "There was a passion for pro football in Baltimore like nothing I ever witnessed," he says.

Oddly enough, when representatives of the league office "scouted" Baltimore during an exhibition between the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins here 15 months ago, they wanted to know how long such enthusiasm had been a part of football in this city. They were told it had always been that way, even including some of the worst teams in the 35 years of the franchise.

"I have fond memories of Baltimore," Pete added. "I go back to when I was with the Rams. There was intense interest. The Colts' Band would be playing, the pony mascot running, fans screaming and a voice in the press box of a sports writer [Walter Taylor of The Evening Sun] chanting, 'Take us in, John.' Unfortunately for the Rams, Unitas usually did."

When asked if owner Al Lerner would be vital to Baltimore's chances, he said, "I know it's important to have one key guy." He was giving the impression he didn't want to offer comment that might jeopardize his position of not wanting to interfere in any way.

Rozelle watches games on television and usually visits the NFL office every six weeks. The other evening, he, along with wife Carrie, went to dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Richardson, the new owner of the expansion Carolina Panthers. "I was impressed," said Rozelle. "What a gentleman. Among other things, he asked my views on how he could be a good owner. That never happened before."

From other NFL sources, it's learned Richardson has been making the rounds thanking each team owner for their support, which is an insight into the quality of the man. Maybe Al Lerner, Baltimore's hope for a franchise, will have occasion to make the same kind of trip.

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