Colts earned special place in city's heart

September 01, 1996|By John Steadman | John Steadman,SUN COLUMNIST

Passion persisted until the end, 35 years of emotional ties to a team and its memories that elevated the Baltimore Colts to a position of being a civic heirloom. It may never happen again because the business of football has changed -- unions, agents, multimillion-dollar contracts for players, and long-established franchises that have forsaken traditional values for a better deal elsewhere.

The Colts were revered and personalized. They gained an identity and popularity that set them apart. Parents offered the supreme compliment by naming new-born infants after the players. One child was called Colt Taylor -- which meant he represented the whole team.

Individual fans sometimes took on special status, such as Willie "The Rooter" Andrews, Hurst "Loudy" Loudenslager and Leonard "Big Wheel" Burrier. They were among the notable spectators, a notch above all the rest because they became synonymous with the Colts and gained a measure of celebrity from other faces in the crowd.

The Colts didn't always win championships but were exciting and provided Baltimore an investment in pride it desperately needed because the city previously had been regarded as a quiet little whistle stop between Washington and Philadelphia. The band played, the cheerleaders endeavored to get one side of the stadium to holler louder than the other and a live colt mascot sprinted around the field after every score. Having Colts spirit was known as being "Coltafide."

Once the Colts pounded the Los Angeles Rams, 56-21, and a weary linebacker named Les Richter said, "That horse was off and running so often I thought I was at Santa Anita." The Baltimore football experience was like no other, except in Green Bay, where the priests on Sunday were known to ask the congregation to join them in prayer -- for the Packers.

"I knew this was one great football city," said Art Donovan, "when after the team lost 18 games in a row [including preseason] that we finally won one in 1950 and a fullback named Jim Spavital was carried off the field. You woulda thought we had won the war or something."

The Colts were a sorry lot in their early years. In their late ones, too. They started in 1947, bankrolled by a group of Washington businessmen headed by a boyish Bob Rodenberg, the majority owner, who always believed in having a good time, and concluded their life span in 1984 amid the antics of Bob Irsay.

But in between they had a lineup of talented personnel and two that especially belonged to the Colts, the aptly named "Racehorse" Davis and the "Horse" Ameche. The Colts were the first team to have organized cheerleaders, long before the Dallas Cowboys were ever heard of, and the third club to wear its logo on the helmet.

Of more importance, they became the pioneer in breaking down the walls of racial bias and allowing blacks to play in Baltimore, at that time considered a city with stern Southern traditions. The first to eradicate the color line was an end, Art Fletcher, in 1950, and then in 1953, Buddy Young was the first black in the NFL to have a white roommate, Zollie Toth. He thought so much of Toth he named a son after him -- the epitome of respect.

The Colts were a unifying force for Baltimore in many ways. Something to cling to on Sunday afternoons. Churches and synagogues didn't dare schedule a social activity, such as a club meeting or an oyster roast, without consulting the Colts' home schedule. A conflict with a game was tantamount to having an empty hall.

"I don't know if Baltimore will ever again capture the wild enthusiasm our teams enjoyed," said John Unitas. "The important thing is for the fans now to enjoy themselves. The NFL damaged Baltimore when it let the Colts go to Indianapolis. I remember when I was a rookie and came to Baltimore to play in the 1956 intrasquad game. There were 48,000 in the stands. I couldn't believe it."

Unitas lent much to the Colts' persona, a kid rejected by his hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was signed to a $7,000 contract (no bonus) in Baltimore, and when he got the opportunity proved he had enormous ability. America quickly became interested in Unitas and what he represented -- a little-known player who wouldn't take no for an answer because all he wanted was a chance to show what he could do.

And then there was this unusual end named Raymond Berry, the son of a high school football coach in Paris, Texas, who had one leg shorter than the other, wore a corset for an ailing back, had sunglasses attached to his helmet and squeezed Silly Putty to strengthen his hands for pass catching. Of more significance was the type man he was -- humble, sincere and a leader by the goodness of his example.

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