There's no doubting Tony Ewers' passion for the Baltimore Ravens. Just look at his lower leg, with its tattoo of a glowering black bird preparing to snap a football. Yet until Friday, the 43-year-old quarry manager from Forest Hill had never ventured to Westminster for the team's training camp.
Ewers had plenty of company Friday at McDaniel College. The attendance of 11,506 set a record for a non-scrimmage practice, the Ravens said. The experience made quite an impression on Ewers. "The atmosphere…it's football," he said. "It's ready. It's time."
The huge turnout, driven by lofty expectations for the coming season and balmy sunshine, was exactly what the leafy Carroll County community had been counting on as the annual four-week camp got under way.
"With the economic conditions today, every little bit helps, and this is definitely more than a little bit," said Stan Ruchlewicz, the city's economic development administrator.
Westminster has rolled out a purple and black welcome for football fans, with flags and banners all over town. Ruchlewicz conservatively estimated that visitors will hand off a collective $1.6 million over the next month, assuming each of the 80,000 anticipated fans drops $20, whether along the historic Main Street or at the strip malls on Route 140.
Residents feel a sense of civic pride, too, as host of what fans consider the unofficial start to football season. "I feel like there's this town unity when the Ravens come to train," said Kristin Prochniak, a children's camp counselor who led a gaggle of youngsters up Main Street to get autographs.
Prochniak, 19, wore lavender-tinted sunglasses and toenails and fingernails painted a shiny purple. The children all had on T-shirts that they'd tie-dyed in team colors. The youngest, 5-year-old Brandon West, clutched an empty spiral notebook ready to be filled with autographs.
In a change from past training camps, only children ages 6 to 15 were allowed to gather autographs. Adult signature-seekers were shut out. The Ravens gave wristbands to about 1,400 youths, allowing them to approach players.
This is the team's 15th year of summer training at McDaniel, but Westminster hardly seems jaded.
Harry's Main Street Grille decked out its dining room in Ravens decor — one banner read " Super Bowl Bound" — and rolled out special items that included a Raven Dog wiener topped with chili, cheddar cheese and, of course, chopped purple onions. It's the most popular item on the menu, said server Crystal Catt.
The Gaarder family from Baltimore lunched at Harry's after Friday morning's training session. "We like to walk around, check everything out," said Jason Gaarder, a lawyer. "It's a new town we haven't really checked out."
Annemarie Gaarder, 8, recounted what she liked most about training camp: going down the slide in the Ravens' kid-friendly play zone and scoring three player autographs. "And," she said, "seeing the Ravens people eight times bigger than me."
The lunch tab for one adult and two kids came to $23.66, well below Ruchlewicz's $20-a-head estimate. But Gaarder said they had also bought markers and notebooks at a local CVS. After lunch they planned to pick up two peach cakes from nearby Heinz Bakery, as requested by Gaarder's wife.
Along Main Street, shops went to great lengths to outdo one another.
A law firm hung a purple banner with the phrase "Let justice be served" over a window display that depicts a raven as Judge Poe, presiding over two shackled stuffed animals and a Pittsburgh Steelers figurine. The jury consists of 12 tiny footballs with drawn-on faces.
The Aura Salon and Spa's street-front window looked more like that of a sporting goods store, with its Ravens jerseys, bobbleheads and balloons in purple, black and gold, along with a couple bottles of conditioner. Owner Nancy Milesky said it was too soon to tell whether the display might boost business. The main effect so far, one employee said, had been to draw admiring gazes from men.
Maggie's Restaurant and Pub owner Jim Breuer launched a free shuttle service to entice fans to travel the 1 1/2 miles from training camp. He also stationed someone at McDaniel to hand out menus bearing a 10-percent discount, and that's what drew the Thomas family of Ellicott City: Jon and Roxie, and sons Joshua, 5, and Jonathan, 7.
"For men, it's that first taste of football," Roxie Thomas said, explaining why her husband took a day off from his federal job to see the Ravens practice. "It's official. There's going to be a season."
Turning to her husband, she asked with a smile, "Was that accurate?" Husband: "That's accurate."
After lunch, crowds swelled again at McDaniel in anticipation of the afternoon workout. Fans said the morning session was packed.