NFL needs a close look at itself after message from 33rd Street

September 02, 1996|By John Steadman

It was a game, yes, but a resounding statement that had as much to do about the past as the present. Baltimore belongs.

Only the ineptness of the National Football League and a woeful lack of even elementary understanding kept a deserving but abused city from enjoying a continuation of its own heritage.

And the message for the NFL is that when you forget where you came from, the roots of your franchise success, there's reason to ashamed and, yes, maybe even doomed at some future date to self-destruction. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue needs to take an introspective look at himself to see how he and his advisers could have been so wrong.

How could anyone within listening range of Memorial Stadium dismiss the thunder-charged sounds that emanated from within

as a throng numbering 64,124 helped rally the home team to a victorious 19-14 return to pro football over the Oakland Raiders? A continuous roar, with all the intensity of a million Niagaras, lifted a newly named entity called the Ravens, once removed from Cleveland, to a successful opening page in the football history book.

Thus this became a fulfilling day of retribution. Baltimore, even when it had no such motive, embarrassed the NFL for the blundering ways of its club owners and the staff of commissioner Tagliabue that refused it admittance. The league allowed the Colts to run away under the cover of darkness 12 years ago and then twice slammed the door in the face of the city when it came begging, with helmet in hand, for an expansion franchise.

Even Art Modell, who was to cash in on the deal, voted against awarding a franchise to Baltimore -- but now he has a team known as the Ravens in a city he rejected in the expansion process.

It may be a bit premature to arrange Super Bowl excursions, but coach Ted Marchibroda is more of a firebrand, a stronger leader, than he was when he served a previous term as coach of the Colts.

Christmas Eve of 1977 brought the same two cities together, Baltimore vs. Oakland, but Marchibroda played it too close for comfort and took his lumps. The conservative Colts were beaten in the second overtime period, 37-31, and that was the beginning of the downward spiral of Baltimore football. The Colts had been in three straight playoff games and were 0-for-3, the proverbial collar.

It's now almost 20 years later and Marchibroda is still the same fTC astute tactician, but he's more assertive -- a gambler -- and a strong-willed leader who has a way of getting players to give their maximum.

Before the game even started, John Unitas, as Baltimore's celebrated Hall of Fame quarterback, delivered the ceremonial opening football to the officials. As he headed to the sidelines, Marchibroda charged out to meet him.

What a story line! It was Marchibroda who made Unitas a Colt because in 1955 the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to keep Marchibroda, Jim Finks and Vic Eaton as their quarterbacks and put Unitas on waivers -- a judgment that had a pronounced influence on football history. A year later, the Colts recovered the Steelers' most embarrassing blunder and watched Unitas achieve the status of an icon.

But there they were in Baltimore, the year of 1996, clasping each other in friendly jubilation -- Unitas as a guest, Marchibroda the head coach. A tableau worthy of remembrance.

The sun-kissed gathering of 64,124, jubilant to the point of exhaustion in the 84-degree temperature, provided the largest attendance for professional football in the state of Maryland, surpassing the best of what the Colts were able to do during 35 years of earlier residency.

As a point of historical reference, the highest crowd count for a football game, per se, came in 1924, on the same site but in a sprawling wooden structure known as Municipal Stadium. On that occasion, Army and Navy played to a massive turnout of 80,150.

Yesterday's presentation was an excellent mix of days gone by, with 40 former Colts present and the marching band offering all the nostalgia needed, plus the presence of a new team.

A rebirth provides happiness and hope. Baltimore has become born again in its own distinctive football way.

Pub Date: 9/02/96

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