In glare of present, old Colts fade away

September 12, 2005|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,SUN COLUMNIST

A BOY STOOD near the beautiful statue of Johnny Unitas on the north side of the stadium and watched as history shuffled past him.

Lenny Moore walked by with a slow gait, shaking hands as he went. The boy was told that Moore was signing autographs.

"Who's he?" he asked. "Some old actor or something?"

No. He's history, a Baltimore Colts Hall of Famer who changed what it meant to stand in the backfield.

Sure, last night's game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Ravens showcased the throwing arm of quarterback Peyton Manning and the powerful legs of running back Jamal Lewis. But that brief scene outside Gate A illustrated something bigger.

This city is moving on. A younger generation feels no connection to the relics, to the football foundation that was laid a half-century ago.

There it was, as plain as ever: our past versus our present, dual identities showcased live on national television. And we're forced to finally acknowledge that even though the Colts still symbolize something important to Baltimore, their meaning and relevance is fading.

Moore seated himself at a table to sign copies of his autobiography. There was a line about a dozen deep outside the tent - white hair, bad knees and Ravens jerseys. There were no young people waiting to shake his hand, to meet a legend.

"There's nothing to be done about that," Moore said. "Young people are not concerned with what was. They are concerned with what is and what will be."

In the stands, outside the stadium and watching on television, the Baltimore Colts fan is fading. It's a sad thing. But that's what happens, isn't it? Stars burn bright and then pass. Veterans defend our country and then grow old. We preserve our history, but we don't usually wallow in it.

Before last night's kickoff, Herman Green, 55, stood outside Gate B, leaning onto his cane. He wore a blue Unitas jersey and white Indianapolis Colts hat.

"That's 101 and there's 102," Green said, pointing to a pair of fans wearing jerseys that bore the name of Manning, the Indianapolis quarterback.

"And look over there," he said, pointing to a young man wearing the jersey of Indianapolis wide receiver Marvin Harrison.

"103."

Green roots for the Colts because they're a part of his childhood. Just like a young fan today will be still cheering for the Ravens years from now.

As you'd expect, blue was in the minority at M&T Bank Stadium. Many fans of the old Baltimore team simply refuse to come to Ravens' games. But it's not just in the stands where we question the Colts' relevance. Check out the locker room.

Scanning over either side of the field Sunday night, there were 68 players in uniform who weren't even in grade school when the Colts loaded everything onto that Mayflower truck and disappeared to the Midwest.

Many were barely old enough to stretch their fingers around a football. When the Colts played their last game in Baltimore, Ravens running back Jamal Lewis was 4 years old, quarterback Kyle Boller was 2, rookie wide receiver Mark Clayton was 1.

As time passes, you hope the old team doesn't slip entirely from memory. In a blue-collar city, the Colts were a group of players who reflected their fans. A blue collar wasn't even enough for those old teams. Their whole jersey was blue.

You could relate to them, couldn't you? They didn't make that much more money. They weren't that much bigger. They didn't practice at a complex that dwarfs most shopping malls.

Those guys handed the ball to the referee after a touchdown - isn't that how you would've done it?

The younger generation only knows one way. They only know the celebrations and the multimillion-dollar contracts. They only know the Ravens.

Joe Ehrmann is a former defensive lineman for the Baltimore Colts who has worked with young people in Baltimore for the past two decades, currently as an assistant volunteer coach at Gilman School.

He said that though a new generation of football players and football fans doesn't identify with the Baltimore Colts, he still feels loyalty to both teams. In fact, on Saturday night, he performed the chapel service for the Indianapolis Colts. He attended Sunday night's game rooting for two teams.

"The Colts were a source of civic pride here for a long time," he said. "They connected this city. In many ways, the Ravens have followed in those footsteps."

Anyone who has lived here since at least the 1960s watches a game like last night's and faces an internal struggle. Your adulthood battling your childhood. It used to be Johnny U. calmly peering over Jim Parker. They're both gone now - yesterday marked the three-year anniversary of Unitas' death, and Parker died this summer.

You're left with memories. You want to think of the Colts as your team. Young fans don't see it that way. Many older ones can't relate either.

"I can tell you this much - I don't have nothing to do with these Colts," said Moore. "When they left here, they became something different."

The old Colts still exist under a reading lamp. And when you're talking to your grandchildren. Keep doing that. The new generation needs to know. But please don't fault them for wearing purple.

They have their own team now. It's a different name and a different feel and a different Baltimore. Have reverence for the past, but embrace what's in front of you.

Johnny U. doesn't have to die if you don't want him to. But he doesn't play here anymore.

Contact Rick Maese at rick.maese@baltsun.com.

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