Saturday, January 13, 2007

BALTIMORE — What is particularly amusing about today’s classic matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts is that it means something far different for the Baltimore fans than it does for the players.

For the Ravens, the game is one step closer to a Super Bowl, just like it is for the Colts and the other teams in the NFL playoffs. Oh, the Ravens players have heard all the stories about the old Baltimore Colts and, lest they forget, there is the statue of Johnny Unitas in front of M&T Bank Stadium to remind them of the gods that used to rule this city.

But for some players who were just in diapers when the Colts left town in 1984 in Mayflower moving vans in the dark, snowy night, they can’t appreciate the depths of despair this city and its football fans went through when they lost their beloved Colts, and the thirst for revenge that will be flowing this afternoon in the stadium and in sports bars and living rooms throughout the area when the Ravens and Colts take the field.

Those players could get a lesson of the pain of that night and the anger that remains if they made a visit over to the Sports Legends of Camden Yards museum, not far from the stadium at Camden Station. They should take a tour of the Colts exhibits at the museum, one of which is called “Almost Religion.”

When the Colts ruled the city and played at Memorial Stadium, it was called by one sportswriter “the world’s largest outdoor insane asylum.” At Sports Legends, there is a theater with authentic Memorial Stadium seats, where the experience of attending a Colts game is recreated, from the sounds of the crowd right down to the shaking of the seats.

This is, mind you, for a team that left town 23 years ago and played in a stadium that no longer stands.

If they have any doubt that March 28, 1984 is a day that will live in infamy for Baltimore sports fans, they should definitely make a point of stopping at the exhibit detailing the Colts leaving town, with radio coverage from that day playing over speakers and other artifacts — all presented from the back of a green, yellow and red moving van.

There has never been anything before, or since, like the devotion of Colts fans. Consider that during the 12 years there was no NFL team in Baltimore, the Colts fan club — Colts Corrals — continued to meet and hold their annual convention and parade in Ocean City. They still hold meeting to this day, only as the Ravens Roosts. The Colts Marching Band stayed together and played, despite the lack of the Colts themselves.

And if they needed any more validation of the passion for Colts football, all they would have to do is rent Barry Levinson’s classic film “Diner,” where Eddie, played by Steve Guttenberg, requires his fiancee to pass a Baltimore Colts test before he will marry her. Retiring New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi (a former sportswriter) who, at the time, was the assistant GM for the Colts in 1982, came up with the questions for the film — questions like, “Was George Shaw a first-round draft choice?” (yes), and “What were the colors of the original Colts franchise?” (green and red).

One of the most remarkable displays of a connection between a team and its fans happened in Canton, Ohio, in 1992 at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. It was the class that included Redskins running back John Riggins, Raiders owner Al Davis and finally, in his last year of eligibility, legendary Colts tight end John Mackey. Eight years after their team had left town, members of various Colt Corrals dominated the crowd. The outpouring of emotion between Mackey and the fans was moving.

Traditionally, the Hall of Fame ring is presented to a player at halftime of a home game of the team he played for. Mackey was the first Colts player inducted since the franchise moved to Indianapolis, meaning he was supposed to receive his ring at an Indianapolis home game.

But Mackey refused, and instead received the ring at halftime of an exhibition game between the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints — at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.

“There was no other place I would rather have been when the final chapter of my Hall of Fame saga closed,” Mackey said later in an interview.

That is what today is all about for anyone who ever rooted for the Baltimore Colts or wore their uniform — loyalty and commitment between a team, its players and its fans. All of those things mean more than any Super Bowl championship ever will, because Super Bowls are played every year. We will never see the likes of the relationship between the Colts and Baltimore ever again, anywhere.

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