Saturday, January 15, 2011

Birds Fans With Baggage

It's the NFL Playoffs, and the Baltimore Ravens took on the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC divisional round game this afternoon. This entry takes a deeper look at the psyche of a Baltimore football fan...and it's not as simple as one may think...

Do you remember your first love?

Sports have a way of mimicking relationships. You become connected with a celebrate its suffer through its failures. When enough time (and occasionally money) is invested in the franchise, you develop a loyalty toward it. Passion begins to flow. You love that team...and every once in awhile, you hate them...but you always stick with them. So what happens when -- in the blink of an eye -- that the object of your affection is gone forever?

For older football fans in Baltimore, their emotions have run the gamut of extremes. After entering the National Football League in 1953, the Baltimore Colts became one of its most storied franchises. They won "The Greatest Game Ever Played," the 1958 NFL Championship against the New York Giants. They added NFL titles in 1959 and 1968, but lost Super Bowl III to the New York Jets in one of the greatest upsets in pro football history. The Colts then redeemed themselves in 1971, winning Super Bowl V over the Dallas Cowboys.

Alan Ameche scores the game-winning TD in "The Greatest Game Ever Played"

To have so much success, you need a lot of talented football players...and the Colts had no shortage in that area. Quarterback Johnny Unitas, wide receiver Raymond Berry, defensive tackle Art Donovan, linebacker Ted Hendricks, tight end John Mackey, defensive end Gino Marchetti, running back Lenny Moore, offensive tackle Jim Parker, and fullback Joe Perry -- in addition to head coaches Don Shula and Weeb Ewbank -- are all members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They were icons to generations of football fans, and beloved by Baltimore residents.

The fans held a special place in "Charm City's" football lore as well. For the duration of the Baltimore Colts' existence, they played in Memorial Stadium -- affectionately nicknamed the "World's Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum," for the noise and passion that Colts' fans brought to every home game.

Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, home of the Colts from 1953-83

In the early morning hours on March 29th, 1984, pro football in Baltimore changed forever. Under the cover of darkness, a fleet of Mayflower moving trucks pulled up to the Colts' headquarters in Owings Mills, Maryland -- and started transporting all of the franchise's belongings to Indianapolis. Dissatisfied by a lack of progress in talks for a new stadium, Colts' owner Robert Irsay had enough. Baltimore had its collective heart ripped out.

The Colts make their move to Indianapolis


Fast-forward to Week 1 of the 2010 NFL season.

The Baltimore Ravens were at New Meadowlands Stadium on a Monday night in September to take on the New York Jets. The Ravens -- established in 1996 when the franchise moved from Cleveland -- have a reputation for solid defense and a strong fan base. Numerous Ravens fans, dressed in the team's familiar black-and-purple colors, made the roughly 3-hour drive from Baltimore and its suburbs to watch their team.

The Jets and Ravens get ready to open the 2010 NFL season

Sitting directly behind me in Section 328 was a pair of Ravens fans -- a father and son. The son was dressed in a purple jersey with QB Joe Flacco's name and number adorning it. The father was donning a black polo shirt with the Ravens' logo over his heart.

During the course of the game, my friend Mike and I struck up a friendly conversation with these two. We discussed both the Jets' and Ravens' hopes for 2010, found out more about each others' respective teams, and talked about the travel involved for them to attend such a road game -- on a weeknight, no less. They were good, dedicated fans.

Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez keeps an eye on Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis

Knowing the history of the Baltimore Colts, but not the fans' mentality...I asked the older man a point-blank question at one point -- "Did you ever get over the Colts?" I was surprised by both the answer and the quickness of his response. After a roughly three-second pause, he looked up at me, raised his eyebrows and flatly said, "No," while shaking his head.

The Ravens are a franchise that, during its 14-year history, has won a Super Bowl. They are seemingly perennial playoff contenders. They fill their stadium week-in and week-out...year-in and year-out. All of these things were going through my mind, processing the man's initial answer, when he added, "The Ravens are great. I love them...but it's just not the same."

It's a sentiment that is apparently not unique in Baltimore. At M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens' home field, there is a Ring of Honor to commemorate the great players of the past...for both the Ravens and Baltimore Colts. Outside the stadium's main entrance is "Unitas Plaza," complete with a bronze statue of the Colts' Hall-of-Fame quarterback. There are numerous web sites dedicated to the history of the Baltimore Colts. To the longtime fans, Baltimore and the Ravens appear to be a marriage of convenience above anything. They still occasionally think about the one that got away.

A statue of the greatest Colt of all-time...outside the Ravens' stadium

On this particular September night, the Ravens edged the Jets, 10-9, in an expected defensive battle...but I came away with more than just the game experience itself. It's funny what you can learn while talking with other fans -- especially those of the other team.

When I watch Ravens' games now, I can't help but think about that conversation...wondering about the elder generation of Ravens' fans. When they win, can those fans match the feelings of joy that a Baltimore Colts victory brought them? Or when they lose, does some blue blood trickle from the black-and-purple wound?

Only they know where their heart truly stands.

Baltimore football fans have filled the void...for the most part

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