Once, the Stallions rode high

Football: Five years ago, a motley group playing a strange version of the sport won the CFL's big prize, the Grey Cup, and the hearts of many in Baltimore.

November 26, 2000|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

They came out of nowhere - a nameless, patchwork expansion team peopled by rookies, free agents and vagabonds roaming the netherworld between college and pro football.

The mix proved magical.

In their short, two-year fling in the Canadian Football League, the Baltimore Stallions won a championship - five years ago today. In the process, they captured the hearts of a cadre of fans eager to embrace any form of surrogate Colts.

The Stallions also aggravated an entire nation of flannel-wearing, ice-fishing, Mountie-loving denizens vexed by the success of these blue-and-silver upstarts from south of their border.

The Stallions won the Grey Cup, hoisted the Grey Cup, drank from the Grey Cup ... and were gone. Poof. By 1996, Baltimore had married into the National Football League again. Once the Ravens arrived, the Stallions were, well, nevermore.

Gone, but not forgotten, certainly not in the Land of Long Johns. In its brief, drive-by showing, Baltimore set a CFL mark that may never be eclipsed - most victories in a season (18).

Moreover, the Stallions remain the only U.S. team ever to bag the cherished Canadian trophy. A moose head, it isn't.

"Winning the Cup was the high point of my 13-year career," said Tracy Ham, the Stallions' quarterback and Most Valuable Player of the 1995 championship game, played in Regina, Saskatchewan. "It defined me as an established QB."

In that windswept contest, a 37-20 defeat of Calgary, Ham passed for 213 yards, ran for a touchdown and outplayed Doug Flutie, the former Heisman Trophy winner who was then Calgary's general.

Rookie Chris Wright scooted 82 yards with a punt for the Stallions' first score. Carlos Huerta booted five field goals. And linebacker O. J. Brigance blocked a punt that was recovered for a TD.

The mostly Canadian crowd of 52,000 left, dazed.

"We ... got stuffed," Flutie said afterward.

The victory, Baltimore's 13th in a row, climaxed an 18-3 season in which heroes changed weekly. Any game might feature four touchdowns by running back Mike Pringle, five sacks by Elfrid Payton or a game-winning goal-line stand.

Once, left-footed Josh Miller saved the Stallions' hide by drilling six punts an average of 57 yards; twice, Huerta kicked last-second field goals for victory.

"Every game, it was like, `Who's going to step up and meet the challenge?' " Ham said. "Our motto in '95 was `Unfinished Business'; we'd lost the Grey Cup the year before on a late field goal. Our desire to go back [to the title game] was so great that everyone put aside their personal issues. There was no animosity. That's the mentality of a good team."

Retired in February, Ham, 35, went home to Statesboro, Ga., opened a 10-chair barbershop (The Master's Den) and tucked away his championship ring, a diamond keepsake for his two sons.

"We felt like we left a legacy to our fans in Baltimore, too, except they got robbed of enjoying it with us," Ham said. "Normally, that celebration starts the following year, in training camp, when people come out and relive that great season. Only the fans didn't get to experience that.

"They got cheated, more than anyone."

When the Ravens arrived, the Stallions bolted to Montreal, where they adopted a new name (Alouettes, the name of the former franchise in that city), coach and owner. Financial woes dislodged Jim Speros, who had owned the club in Baltimore. Speros could not be reached for comment last week.

Today, five years out of Maryland, the Alouettes will play in the Grey Cup for the first time since their transformation. Montreal (14-6) will face British Columbia (10-10) for the title in Calgary.

There are a few vestiges of the franchise's past, notably Pringle, who rushed for a league-record 19 touchdowns this year, and general manager Jim Popp, a holdover from Baltimore.

The Alouettes have won at least 12 games in each of their five years in Canada. Yet among the knickknacks on the desk of his Montreal office, Popp keeps both a miniature replica of Memorial Stadium and a tiny Stallions helmet.

"Sure, I reflect back on it," Popp said. "There's nothing like drinking champagne from the Grey Cup. It crystallized all we'd done in those two years, from the day we hauled card tables and folding chairs into our `offices' in the stadium, stepping over the rats that were running through the place.

"For that team to accomplish what it did, in that amount of time, was absolutely remarkable."

Assembling the roster from scratch was a hectic experience, said Don Matthews, the Stallions' head coach, who has continued to coach in the CFL. His staff practically signed bodies off the street.

"The coaches had a contest - whoever recruited the most players would win a million-dollar prize. We decided he would get a dollar a year for a million years," Matthews said. He has long forgotten the winner.

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