Pleasure of their company to remain Colts' memorial

December 15, 1997|By John Steadman

Visions again of genuine football heroics -- led by Unitas, Moore, Donovan and the rest -- came back to stimulate fading memories of how it used to be, almost as if the Baltimore Colts were by some gross misunderstanding here to stay and never going to go away. There was stirring music in the background and the noise level from the sellout assemblage ascended to the decibel maximum.

But, no, this was the ceremonial termination of their existence. A different kind of celebration. A fond farewell. Personal accounts of games won and the glory of individual plays are now reserved for the library of the mind. Memorial Stadium, which housed the Colts for their 35 years of existence, is going to be decommissioned, physically leveled, but hopefully the facade whose moving words are dedicated to the dead of all wars will be preserved in awell-landscaped plot of ground for perpetuity.

The Ravens of Baltimore, franchise replacements for the Colts that were stolen away, will be playing at a new Camden Yards facility next year. They invited the Colts from seasons past to return for one last visit to their old home.

John Unitas, who played more games there than any other player, and, along with six teammates, was to attain Hall of Fame recognition, said in his realistic way: "It was once a great place, but it outlived its usefulness. A stadium, that's all. I can't get emotional, but if other people want to, then I understand.

"The first time I walked on the field in 1956, I never saw so many people in one place [the crowd for the intrasquad exhibition was 38,447]. I played for both teams because George Shaw, our other quarterback, was in the hospital. And the game wound up in a tie."

All the other Colts, as with Unitas, are resigned to the fact that they belong to an alumni group that will not be taking in any new members. "It's all over," commented Lydell Mitchell. "It feels like we're nomads. Maybe that's good."

There was a joyous mood to the day. Not the last rites, but more a testimonial of having known the Colts and what they meant to Baltimore. Such reverence will endure as long as their followers survive and want to remember. You just don't bury the Colts because the place where they used to play is going to be taken down for reasons of decline while the team that will be in action, the Ravens, move downtown.

No doubt there were those who shed a tear or two, depending upon how you grieve over old playfields. Steve LaPlanche, a captain in the sheriff's office of Anne Arundel County, felt anguish. "I cried like a baby," he admitted.

"My emotions ran high. My father, who died in 1990, brought me to the stadium when I was 3 years old. That was in 1956. I was the only one who stayed all night at the Colts' Complex when the moving vans rolled out. That was the worst time of my life."

Fred Miller, alongside Ordell Braase, rationalized his feelings. "I guess everything comes to an end," he said. "People will still remember the team and the stadium. We will go on with our own identity."

Correct. The Colts were here for too long, created colorful history and won't be ground into the dust of indifference.

Lou Michaels, kicker and defensive end, offered his reaction: "I'm happy the stadium is closing. This is the Colts' stadium, where we made records and accomplished so much. Let the Ravens go to their new place and do what we did, if they can. We played for love of the game, not money."

Baltimorean Dick Bielski played in the stadium while at Patterson High and later was a Colts assistant under Don Shula, Don McCafferty, Ted Marchibroda and Mike McCormack. "Many a day and night I spent here looking at films and shaping game plans," Bielski said. "There were leaks in the ceiling, water dropping on our heads and rats ran under our feet. The stadium is to be replaced, but its memories will live on."

Yesterday's event came close to becoming as memorable as it was intended to be. Even a horse, symbolic of the past, was there. It was a 10-year-old mare, "Thumper," off the Misty Manor Farm in Marriottsville. Ridden by Judy Reinicke, it was serving as a stand-in for the original "Dixie," now in horse heaven.

A plane circled the stadium with a trailing banner that read: "Unitas We Stand -- Go Ravens." Donald Kroner was not at the controls, so there was no danger. Reportedly, Stan "The Fan" Charles orchestrated the skyborne message. Then, Leonard "Big Wheel" Burrier started to stir the natives. He raised his arms, contorted his body and spelled out "C-O-L-T-S", as he used to do.

In the highlight of the proceedings, 22 of the 37 Colts from earlier years, going back to 1950, lined up for one last play -- offense against defense. Unitas handed off to Mitchell, who gave the ball to Lenny Moore on a reverse. Moore provided the crowd the action it wanted as he swerved and loped in classic style through an imaginary team of tacklers. "I kept my eyes open," Moore said with a smile. "I was looking for Mike Curtis. You always got to be cautious."

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