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Ravens Insider: Mike Preston: 40 years after Colts left, Baltimore remains a football city like no other | COMMENTARY


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During the fall of 1983, I was asked to go out and write a feature on Baltimore Colts rookie linebacker Vernon Maxwell. Even though I was still a sports clerk, this was the best assignment ever because I finally would get into an NFL locker room and begin covering a pro team.

Little did I know that I would not cover another pro team in Baltimore for the next 13 years.

On March 28-29, 1984, there was professional anger because the Colts left their training facility in Owings Mills for Indianapolis on a cold, windy and snowy night. The personal pain was even greater because, like all Baltimoreans, I had grown up with Colts legends such as Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, John Mackey, Mike Curtis, Artie Donovan and Bobby Boyd.

The new generation of Colts, including Bert Jones, Lydell Mitchell, John Dutton, Freddie Cook and Roger Carr, were just as exciting and were starting to win on a regular basis, too. Then it was all gone in one night when the Mayflower trucks left under the cover of darkness.

That was 40 years ago, and the fond memories are still etched deep in our minds. So is the pain, especially then-Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer looking as if he was about to cry.

“I was still living at home with my parents. I was 26, definitely a Colts fan,” said Mark Crilly, 67, of Hagerstown. “And when I heard the news, I remember it being an empty feeling. It was like, ‘No, this can’t be happening, this doesn’t ever happen.’”

Paul Hocheder, 89, of Taylorsville had a similar reaction.

“Every time I see a Mayflower moving van I still get mad even until this day,” Hocheder said. “Secondly, Mayor Schaefer had assured us that they had a plan in place to build this guy [Robert] Irsay a stadium and I am not happy one bit to this very day that they’re gone. It was just a shock, a total shock when I woke up and saw those moving vans in the snowstorm leaving the complex.”

Will we ever get over it? Nope, not as long as the old Colts fans are still around.

The former players lived among us year-round. They owned transportation and freight companies, liquor and sporting goods stores and several restaurants. It wasn’t unusual to see the players out at charitable events because, unlike a lot of current players, Baltimore became their home.

That all changed when Robert Irsay became the owner of the Colts in 1972. He ran one of the NFL’s most storied franchises into the ground with mistakes in the hiring of front office executives as well as head and assistant coaches.

  • Baltimore Colts' owner Bob Irsay engages in a shouting match...


    Baltimore Colts' owner Bob Irsay engages in a shouting match with reporters at a news conference on Jan. 20, 1984. Irsay denied making a deal to move the Colts to Phoenix. Irsay moved the team to Indianapolis two months later. Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer is on right.

  • Under cover of a night snowstorm, the Colts steal out...

    Lloyd Pearson, Baltimore Sun

    Under cover of a night snowstorm, the Colts steal out of their Owings Mills complex on their way to Indianapolis on March 29, 1984.

  • Colts' owner Robert Irsay at a press conference in Indianapolis...

    UPI file photo

    Colts' owner Robert Irsay at a press conference in Indianapolis on April 14, 1984. At left is acting general manager Jimmy Irsay.

  • Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas carries the ball as the...

    Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas carries the ball as the Oakland Raiders’ Gus Otto comes up to make the stop during the AFC championship game at Memorial Stadium on Jan. 3, 1971. (Staff file)



Before the Colts left for Indianapolis, they had six straight losing seasons, including going 2-14 in 1981, 0-8-1 in 1982 and 7-9 in 1983. In the 1960’s, Baltimore had 51 straight games with at least 60,000 in attendance, but the Colts were averaging only 42,000 per game before they left.

The passion surrounding this team had subsided. On Sunday nights after games in 1983, I was one of the clerks who had to take statements from callers who wanted to ask then-coach Frank Kush a question.

Few people called because no one seemed to care. It wasn’t just because of the win-loss record, but Irsay had consistently threatened to move the team to cities such Phoenix, Memphis, Los Angeles, Jacksonville and Indianapolis.

Irsay eventually moved the team shortly after a chamber of the Maryland State Legislature had threatened him with eminent domain, which gives the government power to take your property even if you don’t want to sell.

In some places in Baltimore, Irsay, who died Jan. 14, 1997, still might be considered Public Enemy No. 1.

“I have never forgiven Irsay for doing what he did,” Hocheder said. “[Memorial Stadium was] the greatest insane asylum in the world and we were denied a team because of this guy.”

“There was emptiness and heartache,” Crilly said. “Most NFL fans don’t comprehend that you wake up tomorrow and your team just isn’t there. It ain’t like they were having a terrible year, you go 0 and 10 or 0 and 20. They just weren’t there.”

Irsay might have merited some forgiveness if he had left the memorabilia, the records and team colors behind, but the Colts piled those into the moving vans as well.

To me, that horseshoe on the side of the helmet is still the greatest logo in sports.

“The thing that hurts the most is they took the name,” Crilly said. “They have Johnny Unitas holding an Indianapolis Colts record, and he never played in Indianapolis. If they had just left and not taken the name, it might not have hurt so bad.”

The hurt continued for more than a decade. Hocheder remembers going to the stadium on Sundays the year after the Colts left, standing around with fans.

“Those were desolate and depressing times,” said Hocheder, then a Colts season-ticket holder.

Baltimore fans were left in a limbo. They couldn’t decide if they wanted to root for the hated Washington franchise or another team close by such as the Philadelphia Eagles.

In the Colts’ 13-year absence, there were several attempts to lure another team away from its home city or possibly acquire a new franchise. But Baltimore lost out there, too, in 1993 when the NFL awarded Jacksonville and Carolina franchises to begin play in 1995.

That’s when former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue told Baltimore to “build a museum” with their proposed stadium funds. Baltimore fans rallied around statements like that one.

“We kind of jelled so to speak, rallied around the cause,” Hocheder said.

Groups like the old “Colts Corral” stayed together and met every month for years until the Ravens came to Baltimore from Cleveland for the 1996 season. Under president John Ziemann, the Colts marching band continued to play until joining the Ravens organization.

The city, as well as state officials, didn’t cease looking for a viable franchise until then-Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell was lured here.

Baltimore is again a storied franchise in the NFL. The Ravens have won two Super Bowl titles since 1996, in the 2000 and 2012 seasons. In 2000, they put together one of the greatest defenses in league history led by a top linebacking corps. In 2012, quarterback Joe Flacco went on one of the best postseason runs ever. Under coaches Brian Billick and John Harbaugh, the Ravens have been one of the league’s winningest franchises over the past two-plus decades.

It fits into the old Colts history of having played and won the NFL championship in 1958 against the New York Giants in what some have described as the greatest game ever played. Baltimore might have produced the best quarterback ever in Unitas or running back in Moore or middle linebacker in Ray Lewis. Now they have a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player in quarterback Lamar Jackson.

There is no place like this city, regardless of the 13-year absence of its NFL team. From “Unitas We Stand” to “The Squirrel Dance,” there is no better place to get football memories than Baltimore.

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