No name, but plenty of heart

November 21, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

All the ominous elements were against them, a myriad of problems that may have deterred the strongest of men embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime mission. There was the unfamiliar field, hostile crowd, wind, freezing temperatures and artificial noise created by a bush-league sound system that was turned up full-bore to confuse their play-calling.

Despite all the natural handicaps, and those contrived to distract them, the no-name Baltimore team in the Canadian Football League reached a level of unprecedented achievement that will be documented for perpetuity.

Never before has an expansion team, in any sport, gone so far in such a short time. Now the Baltimore CFLs are only reaching-distance away (one game) from winning the coveted Grey Cup in a strange new sport next Sunday in Vancouver. Hail their courage and resolve, ability and determination, mental and physical application.

They beat back the charge of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, coming from out of it to win on the foot of a Nigerian field-goal kicker, one Donald Amechi Igwebuike, whose middle name translates into "you can't predict tomorrow."

How prophetic, with Igwebuike hoisting a 54-yard thrust with only 3:20 left on the clock. It was a booming boot that settled the result, 14-12, and truly fulfilled the old Irish wish that implores any recipient of good luck to "always have the wind at your back."

That's the way it was, a 35-mph gust that gave impetus to the ball that was sent on its ascent by the tiny placement specialist who has performed heroic deeds for Baltimore. Igwebuike even had to overcome the adversity of being released for a two-week period when coach Don Matthews hoped to get more range and efficiency from other tryout kickers.

But Matthews wasn't so set in his ways, as most coaches are, not to give Igwebuike a second chance and admit it was all a mistake.

But, more importantly, the kicking artist rectified the error and led Baltimore's march to the Grey Cup. Most emphatically, it wouldn't have been possible without his continuing contributions.

The stadium in Winnipeg resembled an ice box, with the frigid air currents sweeping in from the northern plains. But Baltimore was there to defy the odds and overcome. It did.

The team is now in position to record history of another imposing dimension. If it wins the Grey Cup, the Baltimores will be the first representative in all of professional football to earn championships in three distinctly different leagues . . . the National Football League, where it won three titles and a Super Bowl; then the U.S. Football League and CFL.

It would qualify as a trifecta victory, a trilogy of triumph for a city and a team that has the heart and character of a thoroughbred, regardless of the league, even though the franchise can't be called the Colts, courtesy of a biased judge in Indianapolis who wasn't interested in recognizing the facts.

Despite the legal rejections, a late start (the organization wasn't founded until 10 months ago) and bringing players together that, for the most part, didn't know each other, Baltimore is on the verge of scaling the peak of the Canadian Rockies, football version. It was a swarming, emotionally inspired unit that carried itself to climactic success.

In the process, as it set out on an incredulous venture, this team playing under the Baltimore banner, comprised the same intensity as an order of missionaries bent on delivering a message. Baltimore citizens were quick to learn, serving as a loyal and vociferous audience that took rapidly to the Canadian game.

It also realized what it was watching had entertainment aspects that far surpassed the staid aspects of the NFL -- which can't compare to the CFL from the singular perspective of providing the viewer a good time. And isn't that what football for the spectator is all about?

Matthews, the Baltimore coach, with a fog-horn for a voice, out-thought and maneuvered around his opponent on the opposite sidelines, the venerable Cal Murphy, from literally the toss of the coin. He deferred to making sure his players kicked off at the start of the second half, which meant he'd have

the wind as an ally in the decisive fourth quarter. It was no accident that all the Baltimore points came when they had the gusts blowing in their favor.

That's precisely the way it evolved. Matthews, far and away, won the gamesmanship trophy. He detected two Winnipeg players wearing baseball spikes, which should have brought an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and they were forced by the officials to change to conventional cleats before another play could be run.

There's no way, as the late and revered Lou Little once observed, "that a football coach can think the ball down the field." That's a truism which exists for the ages. But Matthews still provided his team with the key strategical judgments to win, telling quarterback Tracy Ham to keep his pass patterns, for the most part, short and uncomplicated, and to utilize the ground offense to take time off the scoreboard.

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