Nashville is ravin' about those Titans

Titans fans rabid, courteous Fun: The fans down South want to win, of course, but not the way Baltimoreans - who have learned to cry when it comes to pro sports - ache for victory.

January 07, 2001|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - They had a playoff party at the Kroger grocery store here Thursday.

You didn't hear a foul word. You didn't feel the tension of football fans frothing for a Sunday afternoon bird kill. You didn't sense that familiar desire to watch the home team kick someone's sorry rump, whip them six ways to Sunday and drop their quarterback's stinking carcass off the dock for crab feed.

No. They were just having fun with their Tennessee Titans.

Would they say an unkind word about Baltimore?

"No offense," said Lisa Bailey, as she waited by the salad bar hoping to win two tickets for today's playoff game with the Baltimore Ravens, "but I hope you lose."

No offense?

That's how it is here. Exceedingly courteous, well-meaning people have not learned the spit-spewing, gut-wrenching ache of long-suffering Baltimoreans to bury somebody when the last whistle blows. Gosh darnit, they only hope - if you don't mind, Baltimore - that maybe you would just leave the party a little early this year.

"It's all in good fun," said Trace Austin, manager of the Tennessee Sports Fan shop, which sells gobs of Titans stuff downtown near the new stadium. "We don't mean anything negative to Baltimore because they've had a fantastic year."

"These are the friendliest people in the country - rabid football fans, but also nice about it," said Dave Herrell, of the Nashville Sports Council.

"We couldn't hate you too much," said 30-year-old Erik Hoffman, a native Tennessean. "I mean, y'all got Jamal Lewis [formerly of the University of Tennessee]. He's still part of the family."

What? No bile?

People here are so happy about their Titans and how football has "pulled everybody together," as folks here constantly point out, that they seem to forget that Baltimore is not part of the same happy clan.

How could that be?

Mayor Bill Purcell put it plainly: "We're still learning what it means to have professional football in Nashville."

In fact, what they feel here in Nashville is what your dear old granddad probably felt during those astonishing, starry-eyed days when the Bugle Boys played Charge! for Johnny U.

The reality is this: Tennessee has not yet learned to cry.

Time taught Baltimore the truth about pro football. The happy days may be back today, but after 12 years of suffocating grief over busted dreams, there's no innocence left in Charm City.

While Baltimore pined over the loss of its beloved Colts from 1984 to 1996, Nashville never imagined a pro sports club would come here. This is "Big Orange Country." The University of Tennessee Volunteers can pack a football stadium in far-away Knoxville with more than 100,000 fans. But the best anyone can say about the local team - Vanderbilt University - is that it tries real hard.

`Smallest big city'

Nashville wasn't even sure it wanted pro sports. In 1995, Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams called then-Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen and outright offered the whole package over the phone. The mayor thought it was a crank call and hung up.

A Harvard man, Bredesen had never been to a football game in his life. And don't forget, this humble city of 541,000 considers itself "the smallest big city in the country." Over the last one hundred years it has hailed itself as "the Minneapolis of the South," "the Buckle on the Bible Belt" and "the Home of Country Music."

What does that tell you?

Even when Bredesen embraced Adams' offer, it was a hard sell. The first public vote on a bond issue in the city's history was to raise money for the stadium. People said they didn't want Nashville to become another crowded, bustling, hardened callus in the heart of the New South. Forty percent voted against it.

Change of heart

Today, Bredesen is a heroic figure. "At the last home game," he said recently, "a woman walking down the aisle to her seat leaned over and said, `I voted against this thing, and I'm so sorry, I want to apologize.' I've had that with a lot of people. Success works."

As every Baltimorean knows, success also works its way into your heart. It makes memories. It becomes lore. It makes the occasional loss easier, but the long loss intolerable.

Nashville doesn't know that. The Titans have never had a losing season. Last year, they went to the Super Bowl. They think they're going again.

And yet, you don't see as many team flags, stickers, hats and jackets around here as in Baltimore. Titan fans would never think of calling their prized Adelphia Stadium the world's largest outdoor insane asylum, as Baltimoreans proudly branded Memorial Stadium, bless her withered soul. You won't see police hustling to quell out-of-control tailgate parties, hear "Sympathy For the Devil" played when a despised team owner walks onto the field or read a sports columnist calling a Titan game a "Holy War," as one Baltimore writer described a grudge match with Cleveland in 1999.

No hate in Nashville

There's just no hate here. Nashville hasn't learned to hate.

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