A day for passing the torch in football's circle of life

September 02, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

John Unitas crowded into an elevator and turned to his grandson.

"Did you get to see everything, boy?" he asked after the pre-game ceremonies.

J. C. Unitas, 8, beamed.

"Good," his grandfather said.

Young and old, black and white, drunk and sober, loud and louder, the biggest pro football crowd in Baltimore history achieved something magical yesterday.

It came, it saw, it conquered.

It made 13 years disappear.

"I told some of the players, 'Where would you rather be today than Baltimore?' " Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda said.

Where indeed?

The crowd at Memorial Stadium roared when the old Colts took the field in pre-game introductions, and didn't stop until the Ravens rallied for a 19-14 victory over Oakland.

It was a day when past met future.

It was a community celebration.

It was an NFL Sunday.

Quarterback Vinny Testaverde ran off the field pumping his right fist to a thunderous ovation. Running back Earnest Byner descended into the old first-base dugout waving the game ball.

The public-address announcer revealed the Indianapolis Colts had won.

"Booooo!"

Then he announced the Washington Redskins had lost.

"Yayyyy!"

The world's largest outdoor insane asylum was back.

"It's deja vu," former Colts quarterback Bert Jones marveled. "Believe it or not, I'm seeing some of the same fans I've seen in the past."

Incredible, wasn't it?

After a 13-year wait, time still stood still.

Was that Testaverde or Unitas? Ray Lewis or Mike Curtis? Ted Marchibroda or . . . Ted Marchibroda?

It wasn't a game, it was a rebirth -- noisy and sweaty and borderline unruly, the way NFL Sundays ought to be.

The way they were, not just in Baltimore, but also in Cleveland, the city where the Ravens once played.

Yes, even on a day of such unmitigated joy, there were reminders of the unseemly act that led to this historic moment.

A fan carried a sign that said, "Betrayed by Art" -- a reference to Ravens owner Art Modell.

And as the Colts' Band played before kickoff, a plane circled Memorial Stadium with a trailer that said, "Jump Art! Land on David."

That would be Art's son, a Ravens vice president.

The fans might have seen the plane, paid for by a Cleveland radio station, but they didn't care.

It was party time, at last.

"Please, do not play music while the team is in the huddle," the referee urged Ravens officials. "Stop the music."

Sorry, ref.

March 28, 1984, was the day the music died.

Sept. 1, 1996, was the day it blared again.

The NFL was back.

Back with its crazy cast of characters -- was that an Elvis impersonator or Raiders owner Al Davis?

Back in all its commercial glory.

An entrepreneur outside the stadium sold Ravens caws. Fans signed up for charge cards in exchange for "free" Ravens towels.

All right, some things have changed.

Whatever, the crowd of 64,124 sang and danced, rocking to "Purple Haze," bellowing "Woolly Bully," cheering even after the Ravens fell behind 14-7.

"They helped me through it," Ravens offensive tackle Tony Jones said. "We had some down times. They got me back up."

Well, they had plenty of time to prepare.

And plenty of frustration to unleash.

Before the game, a sign said, "Tagliabue, like our museum?"

Afterward, another proclaimed, "Now Baltimore is Complete."

The old Colts were so excited to hear the familiar roar of the crowd before the game, at least one of them wanted to get back in uniform.

"I was ready to go deep, especially when I saw Unitas run out," Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey said.

"I didn't know if he wanted me to go to the end zone. I thought maybe we should, to show 'em how it's done."

Unitas told Marchibroda, "I'm ready to warm up."

Jones wasn't so sure.

"I'm an old man," he said, smiling. "I'm at least 40."

And, like the rest of us, a kid again.

Unitas was the star of the pre-game ceremonies, the mystery guest who came out in his old No. 19 and handed the referee the game ball.

"Johnny U," Raiders quarterback Billy Joe Hobert said. "I didn't see him at first. I walked to midfield to take a look at him.

"I thought, 'That's sweet. That's what football is all about.' "

Testaverde was equally moved.

"You didn't want to disappoint him," Testaverde said, "or anyone else."

Testaverde was so excited, he raced toward the bleachers after scoring the first touchdown in Ravens history -- and handed the ball to an Oakland fan.

Todd Sherman of Hanover, Pa., wore a Raiders T-shirt and Raiders cap, and had his face painted silver.

It was his 30th birthday.

"He held it up," Sherman said. "I snatched it."

Please, no jokes about Vinny's being colorblind.

It was the only mistake he made all day.

The new bleachers are Baltimore's answer to Cleveland's Dawg Pound. Men took off their shirts in the 84-degree heat, waved "Dump Trumpy" signs, taunted the Raiders.

"It's crazy," said Craig Fisher of Parkton, a season-ticket holder who sat with his 6-year-old son, Jason. "But it's something a father and son should do, you know?"

Of course, we know.

For 13 years, we've known.

"It's just nice football is back in town," Unitas said. "It should have always been here. It never should have left."

Not to worry, Johnny.

They took our Sundays, but not our souls.

The NFL was gone. Football never left.

Pub Date: 9/02/96

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