With nostalgia booming, city looks back, and ahead

ON THE NFL

December 14, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

If you're a member of the baby boom generation, you can probably relate to that ESPN commercial for the Classic Sports Network.

The one that shows glimpses of such legends as Vince Lombardi, Gayle Sayers, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Bjorn Borg with the message, "All those stories you hear about how good it was, how much fun we had, how young we all used to be, how much it all mattered, how much we all cared, how no one has ever done it higher or faster or better. All those stories you hear they're all true."

It's a blatant appeal to the nostalgic feelings the baby boom generation has for the way they once were. With cable TV having an endless supply of hours to relive those days, nostalgia is in.

And the old Colts are getting in on the action, too. Raymond Berry says he often runs into fans who say, "I never saw you play, but I've seen you on TV."

Don Shula said when he got home from the ceremony celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Miami Dolphins' perfect season, he turned on ESPN and they were running NFL Films videos of the old Colts.

There's a lot more football nostalgia coming up this month. Tomorrow night, the San Francisco 49ers will retire Joe Montana's number. On Dec. 23, it will be the 25th anniversary of perhaps the most famous play in NFL history -- the Immaculate Reception. On New Year's Eve, it will be the 30th anniversary of the Ice Bowl.

It was a sign of the times last week that the NFL arranged conference calls with Bart Starr to discuss the Ice Bowl and Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and John "Frenchy" Fuqua to reminisce about the Immaculate Reception.

Baltimore gets into the act today when the final game will be played at Memorial Stadium, which will always be hallowed ground in the memories of the baby boomers. Few stadiums had as many big games in two sports as this one.

Of course, Baltimore fans have become spoiled by the creature comforts of Camden Yards, and the memories of the old stadium are better than actually going there now. Which probably explains why several companies had to buy up the remaining seats so the TV blackout could be lifted for today's finale.

Once the new football stadium opens, Baltimore will have the best stadium complex in the country -- side-by-side modern stadiums. It'll be an updated version of the Kansas City complex.

Yet the history will take a bit longer. And there's no guarantee the teams will enjoy the success they did at Memorial Stadium. Camden Yards has yet to hold a World Series game, while Memorial Stadium once had it for three straight years. And the Atlanta Falcons and the St. Louis Rams have showed that a new stadium doesn't always translate into success on the field.

The old stadium is obsolete, but the memories are vivid -- even off the field. Like pilot Donald Kroner dive-bombing the place with his small plane after a Steelers-Colts playoff game in 1976 and Mike Ditka breaking his hand against an equipment case in 1983 after a Chicago Bears overtime loss.

Jeff Fisher, the Oilers' coach, was a member of that Bears team and saw the ill-fated Ditka punch.

"He paced the locker room and he said, 'I only have one thing to say,' and he turned and he punched the equipment case. After that, he said, 'Vinny, lead us in prayer. Doc, come with me,' and he walked out," Fisher said.

It's uncertain if Ditka will coach a game in the new stadium because there's much speculation he may pack it in as New Orleans Saints coach.

Let's hope he stays around long enough to coach one more game at the new stadium. If we're lucky, he'll punch out something in the locker room. We'll need a new batch of memories.

More memories

Harris was one of the best running backs in NFL history and made the Hall of Fame while playing on four Steelers Super Bowl teams. He's now a successful businessman who recently purchased Parks Sausage.

But he's mostly remembered for one play -- the Immaculate Reception that gave the Steelers a 13-7 victory over Oakland in a 1972 playoff game.

"It's hard to believe it's been 25 years. It doesn't matter where I go around the country, people make reference to that play. It's interesting that it's in the minds of so many people," Harris said last week.

The Steelers had a fourth-and-10 on their 40 with 22 seconds left when Bradshaw scrambled to his right and fired a pass toward Fuqua. Oakland's Jack Tatum came over the top and leveled Fuqua.

The ball shot back and disappeared off the screen of the fans watching on TV at home. The next thing they knew, Harris, who had grabbed it at his shoe tops, came running into the picture past the startled Oakland defenders and went 60 yards for a touchdown. Only NFL Films actually had a shot of Harris catching the ball.

At the time, it wasn't legal for two offensive players to touch the ball without a defensive player touching it in between. So if the ball was touched by Fuqua before Tatum hit it, the play was illegal.

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