Names aside, Baltimore embraces CFL

June 30, 1994|By Bill Tanton

The day began on a negative note for our new football team yesterday.

Above the Memorial Stadium ticket office a banner proudly proclaiming "Baltimore CFL Colts" was being modified by three workmen with paint brushes. They were blacking out the word Colts.

How sad to see.

First, they take away the Colts team that was the real pride of Baltimore.

Now a judge rules that we can't even use the name Colts any longer -- even though the name gained national renown here.

In between those two developments, the National Football League snubs Baltimore and expands to Charlotte and Jacksonville.

No wonder people here feel the way they do.

No wonder there were derogatory NFL signs.

And no wonder the people here embraced the Baltimore CFL's as they did, even though they didn't know the players on either team.

Knowing who Tracy Ham is does not mean you know your football team.

People came last night for a variety of reasons.

There's no mistaking why John Ziemann was there. He's the president of the Colts' Band. Keeping that band together since the Colts sneaked off to Indianapolis in 1984 has been John Ziemann's passion.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Ziemann has lived for the moment when the band would strut down that field once more and there would be a Baltimore Colts team back at Memorial Stadium.

In the early afternoon, Ziemann gazed about the stadium, refurbished to the tune of $500,000, its seats freshly painted blue and silver.

"The old girl looks good," Ziemann said.

A much less complicated reason brought David Shapiro to the stadium. Shapiro is an Amherst College sophomore football player who grew up here and played at Gilman School.

"I'm here to see a live football game for the first time since I was 8 years old," he said. "Since the Colts left, I've always been playing football on Saturdays."

Onetime superfan George Kelch was there for the first time since the NFL Colts left.

"I came to see all the old guys," Kelch said, referring to the turnout of ex-Baltimore Colts -- Unitas, Parker, Matte, etc. -- who came out on the field at halftime.

Typical fans were Ray Shanklin and Steve Goldstein, who were wearing Baltimore Colts blue. They sat in the end zone in seats down low.

"I'm here because I love football," said Shanklin, who played for Franklin High and for the semi-pro Baltimore Warriors (now Bears).

Shanklin and Goldstein were regulars at the games of the old Colts. They haven't bought season tickets -- yet -- for the CFL team. They first wanted to see what it was like. Before the night was over, they admitted they liked what they had seen.

"I wish Baltimore was back in the NFL," Shanklin said, "but I don't think we're getting back in as long as Paul Tagliabue is the commissioner. That man's got something against Baltimore."

"Baltimore has proved itself as a sports town," said Goldstein, a onetime Pikesville High player. "All you have to do is look at Camden Yards."

At 7:20 p.m., 15 minutes before kickoff, the Colts' Band appeared from under the right-field bleachers.

The musicians lined up, spread across the field like a CFL offense, and suddenly the moment John Ziemann has lived for had arrived. The band played the Colt Fight Song. The crowd cheered wildly.

Shanklin and Goldstein stood quietly as the band played.

"Brings back memories, huh?" someone said.

Shanklin held out his forearm.

"I got goose pimples," he said.

All this helps to explain why 28,798 paid to see a CFL exhibition game played by a bunch of unknown players here last night, with Baltimore's mostly unknowns beating Winnipeg's, 45-43, in overtime.

There was nostalgia.

There was a chance to vent the bitterness felt toward Tagliabue and the NFL.

There was the opportunity to scream the forbidden name Colts. The public address announcer continually said: "The Baltimore CFL . . ." And the crowd roared: "Colts!"

The whole thing was fun, and there was one more reason to be there: the game.

The CFL game is all it was said to be. With only two downs in which to do something before having to punt, the offenses get right down to business.

It's a shock to an American football fan the first time he sees all those offensive people go in motion.

In the CFL, offensive players don't have to be set for a full second before the snap. On almost every play, it looks like backfield in motion.

Baltimore's blue jerseys and silver-gray pants look like the uniforms of the Dallas Cowboys.

Some of the Baltimore players have a chance to become very popular once the fans get to know them -- Tracy Ham, running back Mike Pringle, defensive back Charles Anthony, and, of course, Donald Igwebuike, who kicked the game-winning, 47-yard field goal in OT.

I saw more good football players than I thought I would.

Opening Night was a success. For Jim Speros, the team's owner, it was more than that.

"It was a dream come true," he said.

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