By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2007
BALTIMORE -- A framed program and tickets from the Baltimore Ravens' first NFL game in 1996 hang inside Nacho Mama's a few feet from the sliver of a goalpost plundered from Yankee Stadium in 1958 when the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants for their first NFL title. Outside the tiny Mexican restaurant, above the Elvis Presley statue splashed in Ravens purple, a sprawling sign reads:
"Hey Indianapolis! Johnny Unitas is a Baltimore Colt!"
Nearly 23 years after they sneaked out of town for Indianapolis, the Colts return to Baltimore today to face their replacements, the Ravens, in an AFC semifinal game. Although the teams have played six times since the Colts' departure, none of those games mattered as much as this one -- and none has given Baltimoreans as big a platform to vent the hurt and anger many still harbor toward the franchise they once called their own.
"I can't wait to beat the Colts in our house," said Patrick "Scunny" McCusker, owner of Nacho Mama's, which in the Colts' heyday was in the middle of a solidly working class Canton neighborhood. Today, it has trended decidedly upscale. "Then I think finally the knot in my stomach will go away, because anytime I hear about the Indianapolis Colts I still can't stand it."
It's hard to overstate the sting this city felt on March 28, 1984, when a fleet of Mayflower moving trucks drove out of town in the middle of the night packed with Colts helmets, pads, uniforms and memories of 31 years.
"When the Colts picked up and moved, that was the start of the era of football being a business and not a game that an entire city can rally around and be passionate about," McCusker said. "We love the Ravens and we're very passionate about them, but it was a little bit different back then. The players lived in the area. You would see them in the offseason and they were approachable. They were just like us."
Movie producer Barry Levinson, whose breakthrough 1982 film "Diner" was at least tangentially a love letter to the Colts of his youth, says the Colts-Ravens game is a referendum on civic pride -- though he shares the faint disorientation many still feel when they see the team with the distinctive horseshoe helmets and blue and white jerseys run onto the field.
"It's like we're playing against ourselves, or ourselves from the past," said Levinson, who began going to Colts games in 1953, when the city was awarded an NFL franchise. Levinson was in California this week in pre-production on his latest movie starring Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn though was trying desperately to get back for the game.
"It's very strange, and has always been strange, that we went from rooting for the blue and white and the horseshoe to vehemently rooting against it," he said in a telephone interview. "I have to admit that this is not rational behavior on my part, and my friends from out of town say I'm nuts, but I root against the Indianapolis Colts. I never want to see them win, ever. At the draft, I hope they make bad picks."
Once the Colts meant everything to this city. They were the NFL's model franchise, enjoying their first winning season in 1957, then going 15 years without a losing record. They captured the league championship in 1958 and 1959; the '58 game against the Giants at Yankee Stadium, won in overtime on a touchdown run by fullback Alan Ameche, was dubbed the "Greatest Game Ever Played" and provided a huge boost to the league as it entered the TV era. The Colts lost Super Bowl III in January 1969 to Joe Namath and the New York Jets, but beat the Dallas Cowboys to win Super Bowl V in 1971. The roster was stocked with Hall of Famers -- Unitas, Art Donovan, Lenny Moore and Gino Marchetti, each of whom became pillars in the community.
Most players needed a second job in the offseason back then, well before the NFL became a multibillion dollar industry, and they made Baltimore their home. It was a time when the foreman on the night shift at the Bethlehem Steel Plant and the hefty fellow at the end of the corner bar just might have been a Colt.
"I got to know Lenny Moore and met him for the first time when I was 10 years old," said Calvin Hill, 60, an East Baltimore native who attended Yale and starred as a running back for Dallas, Washington and Cleveland. "He encouraged me to go to college. Up until then my father had told me how important it was to go to college, but now Lenny Moore was saying the same thing and suddenly it was etched into my psyche. The Colts were just such an important part of the ethos of Baltimore."
The team's foundation began to decay in the late 1970s under former owner Robert Irsay's stewardship. Irsay, who died in 1997, acquired the franchise in 1972 but had no ties to the area, swapping his Los Angeles Rams for the rights to the Colts. Baltimore won division titles from 1975 to 1977 but lost a playoff game to Oakland in double overtime on Christmas Eve 1977 and never reached the postseason again. A downward spiral of mismanagement and losing seasons followed.
Irsay pressed for a new publicly funded stadium to replace Memorial Stadium. Even as he vowed never to move the Colts, he flirted with several other cities; the state of Maryland countered by threatening to seize the team by eminent domain. Finally, under the cloak of night in a driving snowstorm, Irsay cleared out the team's offices in Owings Mills and shipped everything to Indianapolis, where local officials had promised a $12.5 million loan, use of the Hoosier Dome and a new training complex.
"I remember when they moved I was home watching the O's [Baltimore Orioles] and they were packing up from spring training," said Donovan, 81, who has lived in Baltimore since becoming a Colt in 1953. "Then I switched the channel and they showed the snow and the moving vans and I said, 'Christ, I must have drank too much beer. There's no snow in Florida. What the hell is going on?' But I could kind of see it coming. The team was really lousy and there were 16,000 people in Memorial Stadium. Some people said it was a tragedy, but that's no tragedy. Children dying of cancer is a tragedy."
Since then franchise moves have become more commonplace in professional sports, but at the time it was shocking for an NFL team with such a storied past to just pick up and leave. In the 12 years that followed, Baltimore was twice passed over for an NFL expansion franchise. It supported a Canadian Football League team for two years -- but it wasn't the same.
So deep was the hurt that the villains of the Colts' departure -- Irsay (the franchise is run today by his son, Jim Irsay), then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle (who died in 1996) and former Indianapolis mayor William Hudnut (who now lives in Chevy Chase) -- remain bathed in infamy here.
"They're not the Colts, they're the Indianapolis Irsays," said "Wild Bill" Hagy, Baltimore's legendary superfan who stirred up Memorial Stadium crowds in the 1970s and '80s. Hagy took a pronounced pause, letting the sentiment sink in. "It was a sad time when they left, but I've gotten over it," he continued, not entirely convincingly.
The shock of the Colts' hasty goodbye was worsened because Irsay took the team's cherished history and archives with him to the Midwest. Baltimore fought in vain to keep the Colts' name and trademarks. Former Ravens owner Art Modell offered Jim Irsay several million dollars to reacquire those rights when he moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1996 but was rebuffed. Modell's team was renamed the Ravens. (Cleveland was allowed to keep the Browns name, which it used when it was awarded an expansion franchise three years later.)
Irsay declined to comment for this story. In an interview with the Associated Press this week, he said he did not believe there was any special significance behind today's game. "That was another time, another place and another era," he said.
Ironically, public money did finally go toward building a new football stadium in Baltimore. It is where the Ravens now play before sellout crowds. A statue of Unitas, who was a mainstay on the Ravens sideline before he died in 2002, stands in front of it.
"My father was a fan of the Ravens, he loved the Ravens, he wasn't rooting for the Colts," Johnny Unitas Jr. said. "He always said he played for the Baltimore Colts and for the people of Baltimore, and no place else. That's what really stuck in his craw. I remember my father going to the Hall of Fame to see a display honoring the '58 and '59 Colts and they have all the memorabilia there and he looks above the display and it says 'Indianapolis Colts.' It wasn't under Baltimore. That's what [angered him] more than anything else."
Moore, 73, who starred as a running back for the Colts from 1956 to '67 and was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1975, harbors similar feelings. He proudly pointed to the "Baltimore Football Alumni" crest on his purple and black sweater, the Ravens official colors. The crest featured a Ravens logo and made no mention of the Colts.
"That right there, that that tells the story," Moore said, jabbing his right index finger into the emblem. "We put our alumni together shortly after they left, and we disassociated ourselves completely from them and had no more thoughts about it. You see all the tradition over the years and the camaraderie that grew here, you don't just throw that out the window, man."
Some residents vowed never to support the newcomers, but over the last decade the Ravens have supplanted the Orioles as the city's most popular team; Baltimore won the Super Bowl in 2001.
Downtown buildings and storefronts were covered in purple this week as hopes are high for another title after this year's 13-3 regular season. Unitas's son and Donovan have each created "Beat Indy" T-shirts, with proceeds going to charity. Donovan and Moore said they will be among a number for ex-Colts who will attend the game to cheer for the Ravens.
As for the Ravens players, even the youngest who have no recollection of when the Colts were in Baltimore have been thrown into the rivalry.
"They can't not know it," Ravens Coach Brian Billick said. "Just going to the market, picking up cleaning, whatever, it is very real and very tangible. . . . I don't know if they fully appreciate it, but they can't not be aware of it and live in this city."