Football, yes NFL, no and life goes on

December 02, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Sunday, there will be football games in all the old important places.

In Patterson Park in East Baltimore, some 14-year-old will break through the line and run toward a makeshift end zone while pursued by three tacklers and a beagle who mistakenly thinks he's a defensive halfback. We've all seen it happen. It's more fun than pro football.

In a huddle on Fort Avenue in South Baltimore, a 12-year-old will tell his three teammates, "You cut behind the blue Chevy, you go out to the manhole cover and button-hook, and you go long." And then everybody will wait for an MTA bus and two pickup trucks to pass. It will seem a terrible intrusion, lasting forever. It will take about eight seconds. This is less than a TV timeout, which seems to take about eight weeks when it's mid-December and you're shivering through the third quarter of a pro game in which you're trailing 42-7.

On the playing fields at Pimlico Middle School in Northwest Baltimore, a father will toss a spongy little football to his 4-year-old son, who will catch it and thus thrill the father, while dozens of teen-agers -- count 'em, folks, because they're out there by the dozens every autumn Sunday -- will be playing tackle at that same schoolyard and not pondering for a moment this business of professional football spitting in the eye of its own history.

Life goes on. If football's a game, and not merely a business, then the children will still have their fun. That professional football is an unsentimental business above all, as if we needed a reminder, there is now incontrovertible proof. And who needs membership in that kind of business?

At its best, pro football for spectators must be more than forearms to Adam's apples and third-and-four dives into the line, else it is a transcendent blur. Passion is what saves the game, the sense that the players on the field are an extension of the collective psyche of the community.

Without that emotion, the action on the field is repetitive and stereotyped and, as we've learned around here over the past 10 years, easy to live without. So we didn't get an expansion team. Does it deprive us of community spirit each autumn? Yes, of course. It's nice to look around a ballpark at 50,000 people cheering for the same thing. It's nice to have a common topic of conversation during the week. So it goes. We shall do our community sports bonding in summer.

To a generation too young to remember Unitas throwing long, it's a disappointment but not a death blow. It was Groucho who said he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have him as a member, but it's Baltimore that should look at today's NFL and say, "Who'd want to belong to this heartless collection?"

To those who remember when football was a religion around here, it was never going to be the same, anyway. Part of the kick of bringing back football was the subtext of bringing back our own youth, which was never going to happen.

And, even in the best-case scenario, there would be no blue-and-white-clad band striking up the Colts marching song to make our hearts jump. No players with working-class mentalities embracing this city's working class the way they once did -- because there are no more working-class professional football players. And no sense of hometown effort, because they'd thrown out the hometown owner and brought in a guy from Cleveland.

"I was sitting in the kitchen picking stems out of mushrooms when I heard the news," Artie Donovan, the old Colt tackle, was saying Tuesday. "It's like, enough already. So I heard we didn't get the team, and I went back to picking mushrooms."

Life goes on. The new Jacksonville owner, Wayne Weaver, talked yesterday about his city gaining self-esteem. Around here, we understand what he meant. We've had our own sense of inferiority over the years, but we got over it, and we did it without pro football.

You want relief from your misery? Just turn on some pro football game this Sunday. Attempt to sit through the mediocre talent, the mind-numbing play-calling, the endless commercials, and wonder if we've really lost something wonderful.

For something to treasure, watch the kids at play. Walk around a park and fill your lungs with fresh air. Toss a ball to a child.

As for those 26 owners who voted against us, who'd want to belong to any league that would have them as members?

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