Opening of new football chapter stirs memories of pain and joy

September 01, 1996|By John Steadman

All the anguish is over. The 12-season wait, replete with pain and frustration, has ended. Baltimore is in its rightful position, a member of the National Football League, and today will historically return a luster it never should have lost. It was a major robbery, a crime against common decency that went unpunished . . . a night of terror when the public was stripped of what it believed was a treasured keepsake.

The Colts, just like that, were gone. Date of infamy: March 28, 1984. On every anniversary of the deed, a handful of fans would congregate in front of Memorial Stadium to light a blue candle and sing the team's fight song. One year, only two men and a cur dog showed up, but they still lamented the fact the Colts were no longer in Baltimore.

It translated into broken hearts and an empty stadium on Sunday afternoons in the fall. This Colts team that Baltimore had twice breathed life into by taking over bankrupt franchises -- first the Miami Seahawks and then the Dallas Texans -- became one of the most beloved in all of professional sports.

Now it's time for Baltimore to put aside its anger and dwell on the present, not the past. That Baltimore rejoices while Cleveland suffers is an inescapable legacy, a painful aspect that all men and women with a sense of objectivity and fair play are enforced to endure. They aren't compelled to like the way Baltimore went about attracting a replacement in the Browns by covertly enticing a complying owner, Art Modell, to turn his back on home and friends of long standing.

Nor can Baltimore pretend it never happened. The Cleveland Browns, with a 49-year residency, are now the Baltimore Ravens. The Colts, yanked out of Baltimore and carried to Indianapolis by a jerk, remain a precious memory. An extensive collection of illustrious names were identified with the team, headed by two coaches, Weeb Ewbank and Don Shula, both of whom, coincidentally, made their path through Cleveland while on the way to Baltimore.

It wouldn't be surprising to see one of them, or even both, at Memorial Stadium today for the kickoff celebration. Heroes from the past, minus shoulder pads and jersey numbers, are to gather and hear their names called. The roar will break the applause meter. It'll be like old times, a grand reunion of sorts among the Colts alumni.

This, rather extraordinarily, is Baltimore's third football life, which is a development that defies normal comprehension. Yes, another comeback. First, it was inheriting the homeless Seahawks of the All-America Football Conference in 1947, and then the Colts were put out of business in 1951 and 1952 while the city sued the NFL for illegally forfeiting the team.

Then came a similar evolvement. A flat-broke team, the Texans, that couldn't draw more than 15,000 at the Cotton Bowl, was taken over as a ward of the league and adopted by Baltimore in 1953. Five years later, the Colts, nee Texans, were world champions. Not all the same players, but some of them.

The inaugural games of those previous two start-up teams, the Seahawks and Texans, renamed the Colts, were classics. It makes one feel fortunate to have been there and to wonder what surprises await as the Ravens answer a 1 o'clock kickoff, the first time the laws on the books in Baltimore ever have permitted a game to start so early on a Sunday.

Remember all those years when Baltimore was the only city in the NFL where you could find a saloon to drink in, golf courses to play on, stores open for shopping and strip shows to watch, but the legislators wouldn't allow the start of a game before 2 p.m.? The departure of the Colts, with Bob Irsay riding a drunken donkey, allowed such an archaic rule to be altered by a belated vote of the legislature. It was an act of desperation, a failing try to retain the Colts when they were already out of the stable and headed for Indianapolis.

But this NFL return is about happy times, too, an occasion to reflect on what has gone on when Baltimore previously opened two important stages of its momentous playbook. Will something similar occur when the transplanted Browns, never lacking crowd support in Cleveland, hit the field as the newly named Ravens?

Baltimore's first game in pro football saw a rival lineman, Harry Buffington of the Brooklyn Dodgers, recover a teammate's fumble and run halfway down the field in the wrong direction. He finally realized what he was doing and decided to divest himself of the ball, but threw it into the arms of Jim Castiglia for a Colts score. No franchise ever had such a bizarre beginning.

If that wasn't enough to get your immediate attention, then listen to what happened at the second-half kickoff. That's when Billy Hillenbrand returned the ball for a 96-yard touchdown. So two kickoffs, commencing each half, and two touchdowns, the only ones scored by the Colts in a 16-7 victory. Yes, the magic of opening the bank of memories.

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