It's Baltimore's time

January 14, 2001|By Raymond Daniel Burke

ON THE OPENING day of the 1962 NFL season, the Baltimore Colts held an emotional pre-game ceremony at which they retired the jersey number of four-time All-Pro defensive tackle Art Donovan. Eloquently, he expressed the spiritual bond among the faithful congregation that attended and followed the Colts' Sunday services: "There's a lady up in Heaven," he said, "who wants to thank all the people of Baltimore for being so good to her boy."

Then Donovan, an ex-Marine and 12-year veteran in the trenches of professional football, wept, along with most of the more than 54,000 present at the stadium. So did countless others listening to radios on the steps of open-windowed rowhouses and in manses on tree-lined streets, at the well-worn bars of corner taverns and in carpeted country clubs, on pockmarked sandlots and manicured lawns.

This was a moment when the city was not merely a composite of physical geography and infrastructure, but a community bound by our adoption of Mrs. Donovan's son as our own.

In spectacularly reaching today's American Football Conference championship game in Oakland, the Baltimore Ravens have brought us together in the spirit of the family we are capable of being when our eyes are opened to how much we are alike inside. Unlike the contemplative pacing that marks the daily ritual of the long baseball season, football, after a weeklong preparatory build-up, demands full-throttle effort on every play from players and fans alike. The required investment is significant.

Players compel their bodies to endure the extreme physical rigors of the sport and fans take a sacred vow of loyalty and support. In serendipitous instances when the fates are properly aligned, a mutual devotion forms that can cut across divisions and define a city and its people. It is born gradually and grows in increments.

One such instance occurred on a characteristically hot day last July at Western Maryland College in Westminster.

Matt Stover, an exceptional place-kicker and accomplished ambassador, had just completed the morning portion of the Ravens' demanding two-a-day training camp sessions and headed toward the welcome relief of a midday break. It is only a short walk to the school's athletic facility, but it became a deliberate and meaningful journey because it was the time Matt Stover connected with the public.

Along with his teammates, he spent considerable time patiently signing autographs, posing for pictures and shaking hands. As he slowly made his way toward his destination, a crowd of all ages and races swelled and flowed in tandem, eagerly thrusting pens and books in his direction and vying good-naturedly for a brief moment of attention. He handled it all with aplomb.

It is a scene that has been shared across generations since Art Donovan labored on the practice field, and it is the incubator that nourishes the infancy of a love affair.

The Ravens' arrival in Baltimore was difficult.

The loss of the Colts and the wilderness years without a team had been wrenching, and we had developed a cynical hardness, which would not allow us to give our hearts easily. The rejection of our efforts to land an expansion team exacerbated our psychological wounds. When the team finally arrived, our celebration was tempered by the awkwardness of its removal from Cleveland. The team had inherent problems arising from lack of cash and limited talent, and the resulting play was less than inspiring. The fans turned out, but the town watched more like an impatient investor than a proud parent.

But that began to change, courtesy of a commitment to send the players into the community, an investor's cash infusion, the drafting and signing of quality athletes and, finally, the arrival of Coach Brian Billick.

By the time of Matt Stover's graciousness at this year's training camp, the seeds of anticipation had been sown in a public aching to again cheer for a champion of its own. A stirring comeback win over former nemesis Jacksonville sent us into a swoon. Gritty determination in the face of a monthlong touchdown drought, a record-setting defense and a seven-game season-ending winning streak consummated the relationship. Two rousing playoff victories have galvanized the region and captured its imagination.

Of course, it is only football.

It has not changed the nature of the overwhelming problems plaguing many neighborhoods that Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has taken to wearing a Ravens jacket, was elected to address. Good people still struggle to take back their communities from the violence and despair of the urban drug culture that is a daily reality. But Mayor O'Malley shows insight by grabbing hold of the energy generated by the Ravens' success. There was something very powerful that moved us all to tears at Art Donovan's retirement, and there is something equally strong that joins us in such fervent support for the Ravens.

Indeed, Mr. O'Malley's greatest potential for success may lie in the ability to tap us on the shoulder during this Festivus celebration and have us take note of how united we are, to remind us that we share a common humanity and can be touched by the same emotions and to have us recognize that we possess the ability to jointly commit ourselves to noble and humane accomplishments.

Just ask Mrs. Donovan's son.

Raymond Daniel Burke is a partner in the Baltimore law firm of Freishtat & Sandler.

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