He watched it all roll away Cheers: Leonard Burrier exercised his own mode of voice and body language at the old Colts games. Will he do it again when the Ravens play?

July 14, 1996|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

A profile of former Colts cheerleader Leonard Burrier in Sunday's Today section gave an incorrect location for the Baltimore Ravens training camp. The camp is located in Westminster.

The Sun regrets the error.

At a rear booth at Della Rose's in Overlea, Leonard "Big Wheel" Burrier has a fist the size of a large ham wrapped around a Diet Coke, which immediately makes you think of the kids' game "What's Wrong With This Picture?"

The Wheel, 51 now, used to be a big deal in this town. Twenty years ago, he spent his Sundays in the fall lumbering around the upper deck at Memorial Stadium like a deranged giant, screaming himself hoarse and contorting his 6-foot-5, 250-pound body to spell out the letters C-O-L-T-S as Bert Jones went deep to Roger Carr and 45,000 true believers roared into the afternoon sunshine.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

On most of these occasions, the Wheel was heavily into the Budweiser, not to mention some schnapps, brandy and whatever else other fans would press on him.

So seeing him nursing a Diet Coke now is like running into Rush Limbaugh on a buffet line with nothing on his plate but a small mound of cottage cheese.

Anyway, the Wheel is not here to drink but to talk football. Across town, in the bayou-like heat and humidity of Owings Mills, the Ravens training camp is about to open, signaling the long-awaited return of NFL football to Baltimore.

So it seems logical to get together with the Wheel and see if he'll be going to the Ravens games, and if so, if he might be persuaded to lead a few cheers -- with or without cocktails -- as in the old days.

There is a long pause as the Wheel considers this while swirling the ice in his Diet Coke.

At last he says: "I said in the newspapers that I didn't want nothing to do with [the Ravens]. But I've been to a couple of, um, drinking establishments and people say: 'Wheel, you gotta go, you gotta go.' So yeah, I'm gonna go."

There is another pause, then: "This is my fourth team, though. I'm just afraid people are gonna say: 'Who's this big, fat jerk?' "

To understand the Wheel's conflicted feelings about the Ravens, you have to understand where he's been emotionally. And you have to know the tumultuous history of pro football in this town.

The year is 1975. The Wheel, a big Colts fan since the days of Big Daddy Lipscomb and Artie Donovan (his two favorite players), is at the Browns game at Memorial Stadium. It's hot. The crowd is listless. The game stinks.

Meanwhile, the Wheel and his buddies are pretty beered-up, only they're not having much fun, which is the whole purpose of being beered-up.

"I said, 'Man, this is boring!' " the Wheel recalls. "And I just stood up and started cheering. Until I started losing my voice."

Doing the twist

Your average beered-up fan, if he starts losing his voice, he thinks, "OK, I'm done," and passes out somewhere. But the Wheel is not your average fan. Plus the beer is starting to talk to him. And what it's saying, apparently, is: "Only you, Len Burrier, can liven up this joint."

So with messianic zeal, the Wheel somehow twists his body into a shape resembling the third letter of the alphabet while &L mouthing the words "Gimme a C!" to the rest of Section 32.

This, of course, is hard enough to do sober. With half a load on, it takes a skill level approaching world-class balance-beam gymnastics. The crowd loves it.

From that point on, the Wheel is leading cheers at every game, moving from section to section like an itinerant peddler of good will. Artie Donovan starts talking him up on his radio show. John Steadman, then sports editor for the News American, profiles this gregarious owner of Leonard Tire and Wheel Co. and promptly nicknames him "The Big Wheel."

The Wheel is now a gen-u-ine celebrity.

The Colts, 1-3 before he started windmilling his arms, are undefeated the rest of the season. And the Wheel, hell, he's hobnobbing with team owner Bob Irsay and being backslapped at post-game parties by the Colts players and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.

There is even this big cabdriver with a beard like shredded wheat, a heavy-duty Orioles fan by the name of "Wild Bill" Hagy, who wants the Wheel to show him a few cheers.

Breaking new ground

In terms of his role as in-house entertainment, "I was sort of treading where no man had tread before," the Wheel says now.

As you might imagine, though, not everyone is thrilled with the Wheel's act. The Wheel, just 30, has a wife, Betty, and two young boys, Michael and Matthew, at home. They quickly discover that seeing your old man carousing in the stands is not something that fills you with pride.

"My wife didn't want to associate with that," the Wheel admits. "She hated when they called her Mrs. Wheel."

Then in 1984, the Wheel's heart is broken for the first time. Bob Irsay has the Mayflower vans back up to the Colts complex in the dead of night. And when the Wheel wakes up the next morning, the Baltimore Colts are suddenly the Indianapolis Colts.

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