There were few to witness birth of a new CFL team

July 08, 1994|By John Steadman

TORONTO -- Birth of a franchise: A brand-new baby football team drew its first breath and captivated a lonesome collection of onlookers while celebrating its baptism under fire with a dominant personality and, yes, a victory.

This was Baltimore's introduction to a different game, as played in the Canadian Football League, and it prevailed with a hang-tough determination that enabled it to hold onto a hard-pressed 28-20 win over the Toronto Argonauts.

It was the official season opener for both clubs and it offered a dramatic contrast. Baltimore was making its CFL debut, but the Argonauts have been around for well over a century as perhaps the oldest professional sports franchise in North America.

The slim crowd of 13,10l seemed lost in the 52,595-seat facility known as SkyDome. In fact, it resembled a secret practice, or a reason to send out a massive missing-persons report.

Toronto's football fortunes have slipped to what might be an all-time low. Veteran observers couldn't recall such a sparse gathering for an Argonauts' appearance, especially kicking off a season that offers more hope than a year ago when the club won only three times in 18 outings.

Baltimore led throughout but had a battle in the closing minutes to preserve an eight-point lead that was vulnerable. The Argonauts were trying to square the count with a touchdown and a two-point conversion to force overtime, and penetrated to the 7-yard line before losing their punch.

For Baltimore, it meant the start of what could be an exciting experiment, competing in the CFL and its colorful ports of call. The league rules are not what we are accustomed to, but the sport has much to recommend if you're interested in a good time rather than being rocked to sleep with defense.

From a standpoint of history, let it be recorded that field-goal kicker Donald Igwebuike posted the first Baltimore points in the CFL with a 49-yard field goal and added three more.

Significant, too, was the passing of quarterback Tracy Ham. He didn't run with the ball as often as expected but when he finally made the break his timing was perfect. It was a 17-yard scamper that came when the Baltimores needed it the most.

The Argos had drawn to within five at 25-20 and were getting themselves together after consistently self-destructing. With 4:10 left on the clock, trickster Tracy found running room for 17 yards and a first down that gave Igewbuike a shot from 37 yards away to virtually assure Baltimore of at least a tie, which would have meant overtime.

"I waited until the defense dictated that I could run," said Ham. "I don't go into a game telling myself how many times I'll scramble. I didn't need to run because the blocking amounted to superb protection."

The winners were elated, giving the ceremonial game ball to owner Jim Speros after coach Don Matthews told his players, "Without Jim,we wouldn't have a football team in Baltimore and none of us would be here."

Speros was elated, of course, and later said, "I know it's early, but I believe this team is always going to find a way to win. We're the new kid on the block and other teams are going to be coming after us a little tougher because we represent a major city that has an expansion franchise."

Matthews, who has never had a losing season in 10 head coaching years, said he had to compliment Ham for "making that important run at the perfect time."

On Speros, he added: "The man has put his heart, soul and money on the line. I think as a team we have a chance to be very good."

Speros, with a debut win to reflect upon, believes hiring Matthews was his best move to date. It gave him a coach with CFL experience, who knew talent and the X's and O's of Canadian football. Before Matthews got the job, such NFL names as Pete Carroll, the new coach of the New York Jets, Raymond Berry and Jerry Rhome were reported as being interested in coming to Baltimore.

The Baltimore no-namers (thanks, NFL) won on a night when they didn't reach their maximum. It is important to be able to prevail when not reaching the level of peak performance. Next, on July 16, they'll step into Memorial Stadium to test the Calgary Stampeders for the first time.

Asked if he thought beating Toronto was significant, Matthews replied, "I hope so. My only wish is the town will give us a chance. What do you think?"

Absolutely. Baltimore is going to like its team that was stripped of its nickname, the Colts, and, apart from that, the city has always been quick to recognize something worthy of support.'

No apologies need ever be offered for how Baltimore reacts to a quality product and the CFL, from the standpoint of enjoyment, is all of that.

For an observation on the CFL, Greg Fulton, veteran secretary-treasurer of the league, was asked to describe what might constitute a "safe lead."

"I'd say 35 points with two minutes to go," he answered. And maybe he wasn't being facetious. "I've seen some incredible things happen in how a result can be changed around when you might think the outcome is assured," he said.

The most astonishing individual performer was on the losing side. Reference is to 5-foot-6 Mike "Pinball" Clemons, who has the speed and toughness to take a hit and more scooting moves than a water bug.

Baltimore can revel in the fact it is off to an encouraging start. The general play, skills and presentation have far exceeded expectations. The CFL has a distinct and pleasing personality.

The Baltimore baby franchise isn't just crawling; it's running.

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