Past, present are teed up in 1 joyous boot

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

The ball sailed into the air at 7: 36 p.m., spinning end over end toward the closed end of the stadium.

Gary Anderson kicked it. Earnest Hunter caught it. The largest crowd to watch a pro football game at Memorial Stadium loosed a hungry roar into the windy, humid evening of Aug. 3.

We had said all along that this was the moment when we would know.

The moment when we could relax in the joy of NFL football's return.

The opening kickoff of the first game was in the air.

L Paul Tagliabue couldn't deny us with another expansion sham.

Jack Kent Cooke couldn't kill us with another stab in the back.

Bill Bidwill couldn't use us as leverage again, as if we were some cheap job offer.

It was too late now.

The opening kickoff was in the air, shining like a jewel.

Eagles and Ravens collided on the field.

Pro football was back.

This town would never be the same, and yet, at last, it would again be the same as it ever was.

Traffic streamed up and down 33rd Street. The Baltimore Colts' Band marched. The stadium filled to the rim with fans wearing purple and black.

Everything seemed new, and yet, so familiar.

"This is Baltimore," said Harry Wink, a traffic director from Eldersburg, as he stood on the upper deck concourse before the game. "Camden Yards is nice. The Orioles are nice. But this is Baltimore."

The crowd streaming around him was a football crowd, not intended for Camden Yards.

"No quiche eaters here," Wink said. "This is a Colts crowd. This is like it used to be."

It was as if one sports town had suddenly disappeared, replaced by another.

You could count the Orioles shirts and hats on two hands, maybe three.

The baseball monster was gasping.

Baltimore had turned purple, with a Ravens logo stitched across the chest.

Had everyone gotten together and burned their Orioles clothes?

"Might as well have," said Mark Sapperstein, a real estate developer from Pikesville sitting in Section 34.

There were so many styles and colors of Ravens clothes on parade that it was impossible to count them.

There were gray shirts with black lettering. Black shirts with gold lettering. White hats with gray lettering.

Purple shirts with a picture of the Inner Harbor outlined against a giant football.

Help!

The T-shirt trade has made some people some money this summer.

"The greatest thing about it all is to have an alternative when the Orioles go bad," Sapperstein said. "Now you don't have to just sit there and finish out the season with them. Now you can get into this."

He will, as will many, many others.

"I love everything about it," Sapperstein said. "I'm the happiest person here, other than Art Modell. You go to Camden Yards, people start thinking about when they're going to leave as soon as they get there. Football crowds stay. Football crowds gear up."

The hour leading up to the opening kickoff was thick with electricity. A thunderhead drifted near, but stayed away. A steady drum of rock music boomed from the sound system. Players moved through warm-ups.

"I'm still not believing this and I'm here watching it," Wink said. "It's just been too long without football for me to believe this is happening."

The Eagles piled out of the third base dugout to start the game and sprinted across the field in new, darker green uniforms, met with boos.

The Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" kicked up on the sound system, and the crowd was standing and roaring, watching for Ravens to emerge from the other dugout.

Leroy Hoard was the first one to show, his right arm raised to the crowd. Then 10, 20, all of the Ravens were piling out of the dugout.

The noise from the stands rained down like darts aimed at Tagliabue and Cooke and Bidwill, 12 years of frustration coming unbuttoned.

No one had wanted to get the team the way we got it, but what was there to do about that now?

The opening kickoff was about to go up.

The offensive starters were introduced as the Ravens raced onto the field, crossing from one sideline to the other, as the Colts always did.

Vinny Testaverde, caught up in the moment, whirled and raised his hands at the fans in the upper deck as he was introduced.

"I just wanted to let them know that I was excited to be here," Testaverde would say later. "We were excited, but they were more excited."

The coin was flipped, the teams huddled one last time and kick teams trotted onto the field.

The fans rose, backing the moment with a cheer that made it seem as if, well, as if they had waited a dozen years for this.

Anderson, the Eagles' kicker, raised his arm to set the team.

The referee, Red Cashion, blew his whistle.

Anderson approached the ball, drew his right leg back and kicked.

The ball sailed high into the air.

A beautiful moment, a piece of history.

They couldn't get us now.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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