The Ravens are us

January 12, 2001|By John A. Moag Jr.

THE FIRST NFL game in Baltimore since the Colts departed in 1984 was played Sept. 1, 1996, and the Oakland Raiders were beaten 19-14 by our new team, the Ravens.

I cut short a pre-game interview on the field to greet Raiders owner Al Davis on the 20 yard line to welcome him back to Baltimore. He thanked me, then told me he thought I was a "nice guy" and apparently made an on-the-spot decision that "I'm not going to sue you."

I don't know why Mr. Davis would have sued me -- he sues a lot of people -- but I was pleased that one less lawsuit, and one not from Cleveland, would arrive on my doorstep. I like Al Davis. I don't like his team.

After the kickoff of that re-inaugural game in Memorial Stadium, I became just another fan, which was the purpose of chairing the Maryland Stadium Authority. At the end of the game, two hard-core fans in the front row of the upper deck -- one who closely resembled a member of ZZ Top and his buddy, Ray -- recognized me and asked that I pose for a Kodak moment with them.

Throughout that season and the next, ZZ and Ray indoctrinated the lawyers, bankers and doctors behind them on what it took to be a Ravens fan in language, mannerisms and volume characteristic of the most typical of Raider fans. That first season -- which ironically ended with the mirror opposite of this one's 12-4 record -- was painful for the fans, as were the three years that followed.

It was as if the subpar football we watched was our burden to bear for the circumstances of Baltimore's return to the National Football League. Indeed, it has taken five years for our nagging, nauseating guilt to melt, helped, of course, by the NFL's quick replacement of football in Cleveland.

ZZ and Ray migrated with us to Ravens Stadium at Camden Yards, where we stake out the upper rows of the lower deck on the north side of the stadium. We are family, literally and figuratively. We gather for football in the early fall as if we are home for the holidays. We catch up on each other, a new baby shows up; this year, James Bond's son made several impressive appearances.

The Hart boys have become hard core. My teen-age daughters, Lauren and Alex, sat intently in their seats this season instead of prowling the concourses for their buddies. ZZ and Ray have either mellowed, or the rest of us who asked them to cheerlead have become much more vociferous. My dad did a jig at the Jacksonville game. ZZ asked us to watch ourselves because his mom was joining him for the game. Jim Mutscheller's sons sit with us, and it occasionally occurs to me that they are the age of their father when he played for the Colts.

But back a moment to that Jacksonville game in September.

The house rocked. And it rocked because the fans finally fell in love with their team, their coach and their owners.

We subsequently hung through the touchdown-less games because we believed in our defense. And our defense was epitomized by a man named Ray Lewis, who also taught us something about the rule of law, and about white men parking their "gut" and getting educated on due process, even if it took a valuable NFL player to take them on that journey.

There is something very different, and very good, about our largely white public seat-license owners' affection for our African-American Ravens heroes. At John Steadman's funeral last week, Lenny Moore stood out as one of the exceptions to the rule of the past. Times have changed, but times are good.

Because of the changed economic circumstances of the players, we may not see our favorite football star at the hardware store or shopping at the Giant, but this Ravens team is giving back.

Jonathan Ogden pays for hundreds of kids to see games they can't otherwise afford. Rob Burnett donated $21,000 for abused and neglected kids. And last week, my wife, Peggy, who teaches kindergarten at McDonogh School, rewarded kicker Matt Stover with a shirt made by the 5-year-olds in her class for his contributions to them.

Ravens owner Art Modell's insistence that his players weave themselves into the community fabric is just as responsible for our communal enthusiasm for this team as the team's win-loss record.

When a shaken and distressed Mr. Modell and I shook hands in a New York City skyscraper five years ago and agreed to his reluctant move to Baltimore, it was with a caveat: He would be a resident owner and he, his family, and his team would engage our community.

The financial implications for the team were not as good as we had offered during expansion, and the results of the team's move have proved better for our community than the state's economic estimates.

Objectively, Mr. Modell earned a place in the NFL Hall of Fame based on his substantial contributions to the league before coming to Baltimore; his graceful transition to our town and his support of Cleveland after he left should solidify that honor. But, as Mr. Modell surely would be the first to admit, this is not about him.

It's about my 70-year-old dad dancing in the aisles, the Bond baby's introduction to the NFL and friends tailgating. It's about one of our own -- Steve Bisciotti -- standing in Art's shoes in a few years, and David Modell's nightly visits to Ravens' Roosts. It's about Coach Billick's generosity with his time. It's about keeping Marvin Lewis as a Baltimorean.

It's about us. It's about winning. It's about time to meet the Raiders again.

This is the season that football came home to Baltimore.

John A. Moag Jr., managing director of Legg Mason Sports Investment Banking, is a former chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

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