'Big Wheel' keeps turnin', CFL passion not burnin'

October 29, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Big game in Baltimore. When was the last time the sport was football, and those words meant something?

Leonard "Big Wheel" Burrier remembers.

"Heck, yeah," Burrier says, uncurling his 6-foot-5 3/4 , 290-pound frame. "Let's see, I think that was the Oakland game."

"Baltimore-Oakland -- [Ken] Stabler and [Dave] Casper against [Bert] Jones and Roger Carr. Seven minutes to go, we had a three-point lead. Ted Marchibroda decided to sit on the lead.

"You knew that Stabler was going to tie it up. And he did. And we lost."

The date was Dec. 24, 1977.

Double overtime.

Raiders 37, Colts 31.

A crowd of 60,753 attended that NFL conference playoff game at Memorial Stadium. Little did anyone realize that it would be the last meaningful game in Baltimore for 17 years.

Today's Baltimore-Winnipeg showdown isn't the NFL. It isn't even the CFL playoffs. And it definitely isn't the latest chapter in a storied rivalry -- Winnipeg leads the all-time series, 1-0.

Still, you take what you can get, here in the city the NFL forgot.

This is the game for first place in the Eastern Division, the game that could decide home-field advantage in the Grey Cup playoffs.

"Big Wheel," for one, can't wait.

"This is the team right here," he says. "The CFLs -- Colts For Life. That's what the fans named it. That's what it stands for."

Pringle, Ham and Iggy. Baylis, Payton and Brigance. The fans know the players now. They know Winnipeg quarterback Matt Dunigan is a handful. They know the CFLs need to win today by at least eight points.

Yet this game is hardly the talk of the city. The team's following is loyal and rabid, but it's a cult following. The CFLs appear to draw the same 35,000 every week. There's no evidence anyone else cares.

Take last week -- meaningful game against B.C., beautiful fall day, a crowd of 35,416. Granted, Towson State and Morgan State had their homecomings. But shouldn't the crowds be growing now?

Today is Maryland's homecoming, and the CFLs could face the same problem. Fans like "Big Wheel" are unfazed. Heck, they barely notice the league appears about as stable as the stock market, circa 1929.

"People in Baltimore, I guess they've been without football of their own for so long, they're still in shock," Burrier says. "They should stop grasping at the brass ring of getting an NFL team, and support the team Baltimore has."

Burrier, 49, has his own agenda -- he's doing volunteer promotional work for the CFLs, and wants to land a full-time job with the club. Still, a substantial number of people agree with him, judging from a recent Sun poll.

The poll asked readers if they wanted Baltimore's NFL future to include the Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers or no team at all. Of the 4,403 who responded, 44 percent chose the latter -- a sentiment that no doubt reflects the popularity of the CFLs.

As for Burrier, it's not like he started out angling for a job. He bought his 10 season tickets first, and became the team's No. 1 cheerleader later. "Little did I know I was going to press myself back into action," he says, chuckling.

Perhaps you've seen the "Wheel" in motion, contorting his massive body to spell out "C-O-L-T-S," wearing a white Baltimore jersey with No. 94, carrying a sign, "Pump It Up, We're Heading to the Grey Cup."

This all started back at a Colts game in 1975. "Big Wheel" led the stadium in a spelling bee, and his act became so popular, he taught it to a guy named Wild Bill Hagy. Vanna White had nothing on these two. And the rest is Baltimore sports

history.

Now the "Wheel" is back, leading cheers for a team that didn't exist nine months ago, a team that is playoff-bound. He's back because of an owner named Speros, a coach named Matthews and the undying belief that this is still a football town.

And if the NFL returns?

Burrier considers the question.

Could he lead cheers for the Baltimore Rams? The Baltimore Buccaneers? Some other Baltimore franchise?

Finally, "Big Wheel" waves a huge hand in disgust.

L "No," he says. "I'm tired of all the politics with the NFL."

Ah, he'd probably be running across town like the rest of us, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Today, it's Winnipeg vs. the CFLs. Pump it up, we're heading to the Grey Cup. Big game in Baltimore.

*

In Tuesday's column about Al Bumbry, it was reported incorrectly that former Orioles general manager Hank Peters was responsible for making a lowball offer to Bumbry when he wanted to rejoin the club as a minor-league instructor and public-relations assistant in 1985.

Peters said yesterday that he wanted to hire Bumbry, but late owner Edward Bennett Williams did not.

"At the time, Williams was on one of his budget kicks," Peters said. "We had finished the budget, and didn't have extra money left.

"When Bumbry became available, we said we wanted to hire this guy. He [Williams] said, 'What do we need him for?' I said, he can do a lot of things. I enumerated them. And he said, no more money.

"That was all we had. Needless to say, I was embarrassed to say, that's all we had. I spoke to Ed again, and he said, 'We don't need him.' So, we didn't get Bumbry."

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