Colts bond strong, but game brings closure

November 29, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

You had to be there. You had to live and die with the Colts. You had to be a fan.

On this day of conflicting emotions, consider the words of Mike Renbaum, 54, a business executive in Owings Mills.

He attended nearly every Colts home game from 1955 to '84.

He speaks for a generation.

He speaks for us all.

"I remember as a kid, Don Kellett, the original general manager, coming to my Cub Scout meeting, explaining what professional football was," Renbaum said. "The first quarterback I remember was Gary Kerkorian. His first reaction under pressure was to head in the reverse direction. We had a season of second-and-30s. Then came that great draft in 1955. I remember Alan Ameche taking the first kickoff of the season and returning it 79 yards for a touchdown. We felt it was a turning point in our history. That '55 draft became the core of the '58 championship team.

"There was an absence of egos at that time. The owners knew they had to sell the product. The players were in the community, in synagogues, in churches, bars and taverns, Cub Scout groups. I remember sitting on the sideline at training camp at Western Maryland. [Gino] Marchetti sat down next to me to take a break. He took a guy's soda, finished it and said, 'Thank you.'

"The crowd would wait outside the classrooms where the players reviewed the plays. The whole team would come out and run to the field. My father had an old 16-millimeter movie camera. He said to Ameche, 'Horse, would you put my little boy on your

shoulders and take a picture?' It was my younger brother Barry. He was 7 or 8 years old. Ameche put him on his shoulders and ran with the rest of the guys to the field. It was a memory for a lifetime. But there was no film in the camera. Nonetheless, the memory remains.

"This team became family to this city. This was little tiny Baltimore in the 1950s. As a kid, I didn't have an image of what Baltimore was or wasn't, what it could be or wasn't going to be. It was home. It could have been the smallest burg in the country or Manhattan. It was my town. Even then, it was called a blue-collar town. And here we were with something of substance that could compete against big-league cities. It gave Baltimore a self-image. By these guys mixing in the community, it felt as if this was a local effort.

"In the early '70s the team was still drawing. Under [Carroll] Rosenbloom, we had won three championships. Then Irsay came in, and he brought in Joe Thomas. Thomas started to tear apart the team and mold it in his image. That was done by getting rid of most of the Colts we had known. He committed the worst sin known to man, trading the best quarterback who ever played.

"A distance grew between the community and the team. It became their team, Irsay's and Thomas'. It played in Baltimore with absentee management. Not for a single moment did Irsay give the impression that, A) he was happy to be in Baltimore, or B) he was going to remain in Baltimore. He had no emotional or physical ties to this city. He wanted a toy to play with, and use as an instrument to negotiate with other cities. We in Baltimore felt as if someone had come in and kidnapped our team. And that was a dozen years before he left town.

"Then came March 28, 1984. I was 40 years old. I cried like a baby. I saw the films. I was in disbelief. I drove there [to the Owings Mills complex] the next day. There must have been hundreds of cars just staring at the gate. I remember driving to Memorial Stadium on opening day of the next season, in disbelief that there wasn't a game for us. I parked at the parking lot at Eastern High School across from the stadium. There must have been a couple of hundred cars doing the same thing. We felt that was where we were supposed to be on the second Sunday of September.

"You thought that like any other thief, they would have to return the stolen goods. But that didn't happen. And if all that wasn't bad enough -- and it was so painful -- we get to expansion, and hTC we lose out to Charlotte and Jacksonville. I was sitting there with my wife saying, 'They can't leave us out. We were the NFL. We made its most important moment happen.' If the Giants had defeated the Colts as expected in 1958, it would have been another 10 years for football to gain the foothold that it gained in that moment. But that was the trigger that made the NFL go from little bumpkin cities across the country to a major-league sport.

"I went to Canton last March. I go through, I see the original bass drum from the Colts' band. I see Matte's wristband. I say, 'OK, they gave us some acknowledgment, that's nice.' But just as Cooperstown has a display for each team, so does Canton. I get to the Indianapolis exhibit. I see the blue jerseys, the white UCLA stripes, the helmet with the horseshoe on it. That was my team. Then I see the retired numbers of the Indianapolis Colts -- Parker, Moore, Unitas, Berry, Gino, Artie. And I break out in tears. That's total displacement. That's the worst thievery of all.

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