Football tradition fades into a play-action fake

January 16, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The waitress was serving lunch at the Suburban House Restaurant, Reisterstown Road in Pikesville, when a guy looked at his watch and noticed the time, which was 12:30 on Sunday.

"Kick-off time," he announced drearily.

"The white fish salad," I said to the waitress, "is mine."

"And I got the Egg Beaters," said another voice.

"The salmon."

"The scrambled egg."

And like that.

In Pittsburgh, where they have a football team and a sense of belonging instead of a void where a heart used to beat, they were playing a team with horseshoes on their helmets, who used to be ours, for one of the various pro football championships.

For a considerable time around here, once the bleeding over that team stopped, it was possible to replace longing and hating with simple not caring. Football, who needed it? You got on with your life, which meant discovering that the week consisted of seven days and not merely six plus football. The Colts were in Indianapolis, which deserved the kind of crummy football they got for 11 years.

Only now, Sunday afternoon, there was no getting away from the bad news: The Colts and the Steelers, for a ticket to the Super Bowl. And it was kickoff time, and I remembered a conversation a while back with a fellow named Ruppersberger, who now runs Baltimore County, and with all of the important business of the world to discuss, we naturally reminisced about a team called the Baltimore Colts.

"Remember," said Ruppersberger, "what it was like on Sundays? From the moment you woke up, you had this feeling in the pit of your stomach. 'Oh, my God, it's Sunday. The Colts are playing today.' If they lost, you were totally depressed for the rest of the week. The Colts were, like, your whole life."

So now, a lifetime later, precisely at kickoff on a Sunday, we were commencing lunch in a restaurant packed with the formerly devout, the ones whose emotions used to be wrapped, like Ruppersberger's, around a football team. And not a soul said, golly, let's hurry and watch the game somewhere.

By the time we got home, it was the second quarter. A Dr Pepper commercial appeared on the TV, followed by ads for Nike, McDonald's and Hertz. In my world, which was my living room, it was gas-heated and I could take off my shoes. In Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, unheated, people wore 16 pairs of socks, topped by Eskimo boots, to ward off terminal frostbite.

In the dozen years since the Colts left, we've forgotten such things. The time-outs are called for TV commercials, and people in the ballpark have nothing to do but dodge the various lurking pneumococci and think how miserable they feel until the action resumes.

Also, we have forgotten names. When last seen, we knew the names of everyone. When seen on Sunday, I knew the name of Neil O'Donnell, who once quarterbacked at Maryland, and Jim Harbaugh, for reasons unknown. I knew no other name on either team. When Harbaugh threw a touchdown pass to No. 88 on the Colts, I first assumed it was John Mackey, and not someone who turned out to be named Lloyd Turner. These were all strangers to me, playing in uniforms once cherished as family colors.

I watched without feeling a heart that beat. I wanted neither victory nor defeat, but the impossible: an explanation from the TV announcers, after each play, which reminded America that this team from Indianapolis actually should belong to Baltimore and that the current economic and legal decay of the league, currently being blamed on people such as this Art Modell, in fact should be traced to this Robert Irsay.

Instead, in the aftermath of the heartbreaking -- for Indianapolis -- Colts loss, we had the genius analyst Mike Ditka declaring to the nation, "You gotta love this organization." He meant the Colts. "They made the NFL proud today."

This, from the man who has blasted the Cleveland move to Baltimore, who bemoaned the loss of tradition, who bemoaned the bad deal being given the fans of Cleveland, who forgot what it was like in a place called Memorial Stadium.

Football depends on forgetfulness today. It depends on us forgetting ticket prices that support inflated salaries, and sitting in the cold during endless commercial time-outs, and rent-free -- ballparks constructed in cities that desperately need the money for schools, and teams that consider municipal blackmail an act of subtlety. Forget it, we're told, and maybe your team will deign to remain your team.

And some things, inevitably, we do forget. We forget to feel. We forget that our lives once revolved around football, and we find ourselves on a Sunday at kickoff time ordering lunch in a restaurant instead of gathering at a ballpark or a TV set.

And if, by chance, we catch the emotional finish of a championship game in Pittsburgh, and find our hearts beating for a moment, we do something else: We curse the fates that make us feel good when a team we once adored suffers such heartache as Sunday's.

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