Colts fans will never forget the day their beloved team left Baltimore, 30 years ago

March 28, 2014|Peter Schmuck

It has been exactly 30 years since a covert convoy of Mayflower moving vans spirited the Colts out of town, but all that proves is that time doesn't really heal all wounds.

That snowy night in 1984 still lives in sports infamy for the generation of fans who kept the flame and the generation that grew up hearing the sad story of Baltmore's betrayal over and over again at the dinner table.

Which is why Ron Piper Sr. showed up this week for a Sports Legends Museum event commemorating Bob Irsay's despicable midnight ride wearing the blue vendor's jacket he wore for 23 seasons selling programs at Memorial Stadium. He also brought along his souvenir program from "The Greatest Game Ever Played" and, oh yeah, his grown son, Ron Piper Jr.

"I watched it on TV, hoping that someone would stop them and turn the vans around," the elder Piper said. "It was absolutely awful. It was horrendous."

Of course, it was both an ending and a beginning. The Colts slipped away with the Horseshoe and all the history and local football fans waited 12 long and frustrating years for NFL football to return to one of the cities that helped turn it into a national obsession and a multi-billion-dollar industry.

If the arrival of the Ravens — or the fact they have won more Super Bowls than the Indianapolis Colts over the past 18 seasons — was supposed to erase the feeling of abandonment and make everyone forget what it felt like to watch a truly beloved team skip town, guess again.

"It's a scar,'' said John Ziemann, whose heroic effort to keep the Colts Marching Band alive is the subject of Barry Levinson's ESPN "30 for 30" documentary "The Band That Wouldn't Die." "That scar will never heal … It will always be remembered, as far as I'm concerned, as the biggest tragedy in sports history. This will be a black mark on the NFL forever."

Forever is a long time, but for the fans who invested their hopes and their hearts in a bunch of blue-collar players who lived and worked alongside of them, that innocence-shattering night will never be forgotten or forgiven.

"It was heartbreaking, because we all had a love for the Colts,'' said Howard Schultze of Hampstead, who arrived for the Sports Legends fund-raiser at Stevenson University's Rockland Center Wednesday night wearing his classic Johnny Unitas jersey. "I mean, there was nobody to take their place. We just loved these guys. They were so down to earth. And these guys are still here today and they still get together."

John Gori of Perry Hall was 12 years old when the Colts won the legendary 1958 title game. He was 38 when they slipped away in the dead of night.

"I couldn't believe they were going to be moved out of town,'' Gori said. "I just couldn't believe Irsay was going t'It was o do that to Baltimore, but he did it."

Gori, however, said he believes that the old Colts — at least in spirit — stayed behind when team officials packed up the shoulder pads and office furniture and headed for Indianapolis.

"The allegiance of old Colt fans is still there,'' he said. "You still get that good feeling about the (old) Colts. I don't think you'll ever take that out of the heart of the fans from that era."

Sure, it's a generational thing. This is no longer the same city that hugged that team so tightly. It certainly isn't the same NFL, which was already evolving into anything but a blue-collar sport when Irsay backed up the trucks.

When you're observing — but certainly not celebrating — a 30-year anniversary, there is going to be some gray hair under those horseshoe hats. There also is going to be a deeper level of nostalgia among the older fans whose association with the team dates back well before 1984.

Still, if the continuing interest in throwback merchandise is any indication, there are plenty of next-generation and now-generation Baltimore sports fans who have been indoctrinated into the cult of the old Colt.

"Colts merchandise is still very popular,'' said Ziemann, who also serves as deputy director of the Sports Legends Museum. "The different jerseys … the Unitas jersey, of course, is a very hot item. We also have Lenny Moore jerseys, helmets. The younger generation does learn who the Colts were from the older generation teaching them. It (Baltimore Colts merchandise) is very much in demand and so are the autographs of some of the older players."

Former Colts running back Tom Matte has watched the old Colts Corrals transform into Ravens Roosts. He has seen a city full of disenfranchised football fans reconnect with the NFL. And yet he knows that every March, just before the Orioles get ready to open a new season, the old Colts faithful and their progeny remember that night when everything but the music died.

"It still leaves a bitter taste in their mouths,'' he said. "and I don't blame them."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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