Stadium rocks with CFL football debut

June 30, 1994|By John Steadman

Sound the trumpets, light up the sky with a torch parade and give the Canadian Football League a momentous reception.

Its preview appearance in Baltimore for a team that has been stripped of its birthright name was greeted with an emotional embrace that goes to an underdog that has been kicked around by the ugly czars of power, as personified by the National Football League.

This was the unveiling of a team that was calling itself the Baltimore CFL Colts, until the NFL creeps decided to get a court ruling to deprive them of their identity. But power to the people. Their voices won't be silenced.

As for the game? In a word, extraordinary. The Baltimores won the exhibition, 45-43, over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in a game that saw points scored every way known to modern man, in or out of Canada. There were touchdowns, extra points, field goals, safeties and rouges. The scoreboard was blinking so fast it was about to blow a fuse.

If there's a disquieting aspect to the debut night at Memorial Stadium, it is the sobering realization it can't get any better than this. The Baltimore CFLers and their foes from north of the border made it difficult on themselves to play back or to equal such a peak. Can they do it again? If first impressions are lasting, then the CFL and Baltimore are in for a run of fun, although, to be precise about it, the ball is continually up in the air.

Response from the gathering of 28,798 -- which marketing adviser Bob Leffler said was an honest count, compared with the fantasy figures Carroll Rosenbloom invented when he was the Colts' owner -- was almost beyond belief. The place was rocking. course, the game was superb. If events of the CFL home opener are typical of the kind of product that's going to be offered, then spectators will be fighting to get inside.

This was only a preview, but it couldn't have been more exciting had it been a scene lifted from the fiction of one of those old-time pulp magazines. Too bad it was only an exhibition because the historical aspects of the occasion are meaningless. There's no place, you see, in the record book for a game that doesn't count.

But maybe this was much more, considering the circumstances. Every time the public address announcer made reference to the Baltimore CFL the crowd tacked on a post-script roar . . . C-O-L-T-S. It was a message of defiance for the NFL, which went to court to prevent Baltimore from using the name it gave the team in 1947 but which Indianapolis is trying to say belongs there.

The public is bitter over the pettiness and arrogance of a league that forgot where it came from and plainly wants to bury Baltimore. A sign proclaimed "Call 'Em The Colts" and that's what the audience was doing . . . time and again. Mayor Kurt Schmoke was cheered by fans as he entered the stadium. And, conversely, Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who didn't put in an appearance, couldn't begin to imagine the insults being shouted about him for what the spectators perceive is a cold shoulder toward the CFL.

Two general managers from New York, George Young, of the Giants, who was Schmoke's coach at City College, and Dick Steinberg, of the Jets, were there to scout the game. As longtime observers of the Canadian sport, they enjoy what they see. "It's entertaining and I've always been impressed with the intensity the players display," said Young. Steinberg agreed.

Steinberg also said "the different rules are no problem and you get oriented to the game in a hurry." Steinberg is right. There's no adjustment needed. It just happens.

John Unitas, the Hall of Fame quarterback, present with 41 of his Colt alumni, never one to get carried away, simply said, "It's nice to see the stadium alive again. If the people are happy with the CFL then I'm happy." Bubba Green, another ex-Colt, remarked, "We need this badly."

And John Ziemann, president of the Colts' Band, quickly added, "This is a prideful night for all of us." The band, wearing its old uniforms, never missed a step or a beat. Renditions of the Colts' fight song brought booming applause and, late in the game, the heavens couldn't be restrained any longer and, thus, "cried" a rainstorm down upon the audience as part of the grand finale.

It was not the kind of a contest you'd want to walk out on since it was remindful of so many free-scoring games that Canadian football advocates proclaim happen with frequency. The Colts never stopped coming back but Winnipeg tied them, 40-40, with only seven seconds left in regulation. Then, after double-overtime sessions of five minutes apiece, the kicking wizard, Donald Igwebuike, out of Clemson, wearing "00" on his jersey, kicked the winning field goal with no time on the clock.

It translated into a 45-43 victory for Baltimore and the crowd was ecstatic. Few football games, high school, college or professional, in the long history of Memorial Stadium ever offered such an emotional bang or provided what amounted to a cacophony of near non-stop excitement. But it was all for practice.

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