They painted their cars purple and paraded through the streets of Dundalk. They piled shopping carts with purple doughnuts and cocktail sauce for ritualistic feasting. The threat of celebration grew so palpable the police readied themselves.
Fans of the Baltimore Ravens geared up for Super Bowl Sunday yesterday with a near-religious frenzy born of three decades of exile from the peak of American sport.
Fearing that fans' stress levels might equal their cholesterol intake during Super Bowl parties today, doctors warned of heart attacks and psychological phenomena known as "birging" and "corfing."
The former stands for "basking in reflected glory" -- the likelihood that thousands of Baltimore-area residents will float through their workdays tomorow with feelings of heightened self-confidence and optimism produced by elevated testosterone levels.
The latter, "casting off reflected failure," is the probability that Ravens fans will react to a Super Bowl loss by mentally disassociating themselves from their team and city.
"We won!" if the Ravens win.
"They lost!" if they lose.
Today's game against the New York Giants marks Baltimore's first love affair with football since it had its heart broken by the theft of the Colts in 1984. That means super anxiety. Super high hopes. Super fears. And super-sized chips -- bags of chips -- on the shoulders of fans who burn with the desire to see their much-maligned hometown hurl a rock at Goliath and knock the helmets off the Giants.
Even nuns have been swept up in purple passion.
Sister Michael Kathleen Deane, principal of St. Clement Mary Hofbauer School in Rosedale, wore a purple raincoat with the nun's traditional black veil yesterday as she judged a best-decorated car contest in the parking lot of a Salvo Auto Parts store at 7550 Holabird Ave. in Dundalk.
More than 70 vehicles, including a fire engine, bus, tractor-trailer, stretch limo and several pickup trucks, paraded 6 miles along Interstate 695 to the parking lot. They were decked out in grape-colored paint, balloons, streamers, raven heads, lights, horns, bells, flags and a Giants football helmet with a hatchet rammed through it.
Deane, a devoted scholar of the Ravens' defensive squad, helped pick the vehicle that showed the best spirit. She was helped by another devotee of hard hits, the Rev. Joe Ehrmann, a defensive tackle with the Baltimore Colts during the 1970s.
As Deane and Ehrmann walked down the line of vehicles, evaluating the spiked purple headbands and plum-colored face paint of their drivers, one contestant tried to take advantage of her.
"Sister!" shouted Dan Hochrein, a 31-year-old salesman from Towson wearing purple horns on his head and purple camouflage pants. "We're Catholic!"
He was referring to himself and his three stomping, shouting buddies, who were waving flags in the back of a 1973 Chevy pickup truck that had been painted purple, draped in purple satin and fitted with a 12-foot-long cardboard football field in its flatbed.
"That's cheap!" protested another competitor, who rode to the event in a 1980 Chevy pickup sporting a doll of a New York Giants football player dangling from a noose.
"St. Matthew's!" Hochrein shouted again. "Calvert Hall! Twelve years of Catholic education!"
"It's all fair play," yelled one of his friends, who had purple hair and a Ravens blanket draped over his shoulders.
Deane would not be manipulated.
She and Ehrmann awarded the $300 first prize to another team, the Purple Passion Bus. This was a former church bus that Calvin and Dave Hynson had painted purple and decorated with football helmets, ravens, speakers and a trio of stuffed birds named "Edgar, Alan and Poe."
Ehrmann, a member of the Baltimore Colts' famed "Sack Pack" defensive squad, said the frenzy over the Ravens served an important purpose.
"There couldn't be a more important time for the city and state to be coming together and celebrating something positive," said Ehrmann. "Dundalk is talking to Baltimore, blacks are talking to whites. If we're ever going to get over our problems, it going to be through such a spirit of community and unity."
On highways all around the Baltimore region, every third car seemed to be flying a purple flag. Government offices, universities and even parking garages glowed with purple lights. Checkout clerks and cardiologists wore the same purple jerseys.
But some doctors and police officials warned that people shouldn't let their Super Bowl parties get out of hand.
Dr. David A. Meyerson, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said that a recent study in the British Medical Journal found that heart attacks and strokes in Dutch men jumped 50 percent in June 1996 when Holland played France in the quarterfinals of the European soccer championship.