Chanting "Bring on the Raiders" and bearing signs declaring "All The Way to Tampa Bay," thousands of fans boisterously welcomed the Ravens last night at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
The fans -- many decked out in Ravens jerseys and some with their faces painted in the team's colors -- screamed and chanted almost nonstop for nearly two hours before the Ravens arrived from Nashville, where they beat the Tennessee Titans, 24-10, to advance to next week's American Football Conference championship game against the Oakland Raiders.
They erupted into a deafening roar as the players strode through the airport's international pier about 7:25 p.m., high-fiving fans on both sides of a path set off by police tape and string.
"Unbelievable," star middle linebacker Ray Lewis said of the reception.
"It's great. It's unbelievable," said defensive tackle Tony Siragusa.
"This is why I wanted to play football in Baltimore," said quarterback Trent Dilfer.
As flashbulbs popped, defensive end Michael McCrary captured the scene with a hand-held video camera.
"Got to enjoy the moment," he said over the din. "I didn't expect this much."
After passing through the gantlet of fans, Ravens President Davd Modell said, "Wow!"
"This is greater than I ever could have imagined," he said. "Baltimore is a great football town."
Sgt. Manuel Crew of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police estimated the crowd at 3,000.
Many of the fans came to the airport after watching the Ravens' victory at afternoon parties.
After having 25 people at their Hagerstown home, Pete and Kimberly Grunberg packed two other adults and five children into their camper and headed for the airport.
Their entourage was wearing Ravens jerseys with the number 12 for 12th man, signifying the importance of fan support for the team.
"We were watching the game and decided, `Let's go,'" said Kimberly Grunberg.
Bob Pitt, 37, and his wife Michelle, 33, of Havre De Grace arrived after watching the game with about 300 other Ravens fans at a Bel Air restaurant. Before they left for the airport, Michelle Pitt spent a half-hour painting Bob's face with the team's colors.
"I wanted to support the team," said Bob Pitt.
The No. 1 cheerleader
Among those in the crowd was Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who was dressed in blue jeans and a Ravens jacket.
"This is fantastic for the city," O'Malley said of the fans' enthusiatic embrace of the team's success. "It transcends sports. It cuts across all borders -- city-county borders, racial borders, class borders."
Earlier, O'Malley was at the downtown ESPN Zone watching the game on television.
After a key late touchdown, the mayor jumped up on his seat, knocking over a soda. He high-fived fans, lifted his 3-year-old son, William, in the air and let out a few "woofs" as the sports anthem "Who Let The Dogs Out?" pulsed in the packed room.
"The whole city is electrified, proud of Baltimore," said O'Malley. "I try to shake people by the lapels all year to have civic pride. These guys do it by making the playoffs. It's been fantastic."
Sports, he went on, can unite people "in ways nothing else really can."
That seemed true enough yesterday. From smoke-filled neighborhood bars in Glen Burnie to the electronically overloaded ESPN Zone at the Inner Harbor, and from cozy living rooms to spartan police stations, fans reveled in the hometown team's decisive victory in Nashville.
`It's Baltimore's Day'
For the first time in 30 years, a Baltimore football team is bound for the AFC championship game. The last time that happened was in January 1971, when the Miami Dolphins trounced the Colts, 21-0. A win next week in Oakland would put the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV.
"It's Baltimore's day," said Dan Granofsky, a National Guard sergeant who goes by the nickname "Real Fan Dan" and has the intensity to match.
Not that the game completely consumed the city. There was no horn-honking on Pratt Street. Lovers walking hand-in-hand at the Inner Harbor didn't seem to care -- or know -- about the Ravens. And as even devoted fans know, beating the Oakland Raiders next week will not be easy.
Still, for long-suffering Colts fans with fading memories of the glory days or for those too young to know that era as anything but history, the game was huge.
It was a time when people held tight to superstitions, even if it meant watching the game alone in their recliner. When people working outside set up scratchy black-and-white televisions on milk crates to catch snatches of action. When people actually bragged about having a dog named Raven.
"Thank God I don't have high blood pressure," said Bobbie Fine, a purple-clad Columbia lawyer. "My heart is pounding, my hands are sweating."
At Ravens Roost No. 18