Let­ting go of the Colts

32 years af­ter the foot­ball team left Bal­ti­more, a fan is fi­nally ready to move on

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Lee McC. Kennedy Lee McC. Kennedy is a his­tory teacher at Boys’ Latin School of Mary­land; his email is lkennedy@boys­lat­inmd.com.

The hush of bois­ter­ous foot­ball fans was sud­den and oc­curred in the most un­likely place: the left field men’s room of the up­per deck of Me­mo­rial Sta­dium, right where the 50-yard line would have been lo­cated in that grand old ball­park. It was there, where a crowd of slightly ine­bri­ated Colts fans had re­treated to do what peo­ple do dur­ing half­time, when Johnny Uni­tas, the most cel­e­brated name in Bal­ti­more foot­ball his­tory, walked in. Here was the Golden Arm stand­ing among us av­er­age fans, be­ing av­er­age. When he fin­ished ac­knowl­edg­ing his well-wish­ers, Uni­tas re­turned to his seat to watch the sec­ond half of what was surely an­other loss, this be­ing the Colts 1981 2-14 sea­son.

I saw other Colts in bars and tav­erns (Ar­tie Dono­van), in the gro­cery store (Barry Kraus), and at a stop­light (Bert Jones). Such sight­ings were not unique. If you lived in Bal­ti­more while the Colts reigned, I bet you have at least one mem­ory too. It is sto­ries such as these that made the Colts so ut­terly hu­man and their even­tual de­par­ture so wrench­ing and painful. But as we en­ter the first few weeks of an­other NFL sea­son, it’s time for me to say that, 32 years af­ter they left town, I fi­nally need to let go.

I ini­tially met Uni­tas as a first grader at St. Mary’s School in Go­vans. Our teacher was Sis­ter Mary Reparata, a stern taskmas­ter from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who prepped us on ev­ery­thing from sin and for­give­ness in cat­e­chism class to how to nav­i­gate the clas­sic David and Ann parochial read­ers. One day she pre­pared us to meet some­one im­por­tant. It turned out to be Uni­tas, who had come to school to present awards to sev­eral stu­dents, one of them be­ing me. I have very lit­tle rec­ol­lec­tion of what hap­pened dur­ing that meet­ing or what was said. But I knew this man with huge hands and a strange sound­ing name was some­one im­por­tant by the swirl of ac­tiv­ity sur­round­ing him.

The Colts were our friends and neigh­bors who came to awards cer­e­monies, at­tended bull roasts and sent their kids to our schools. Just a few years ago, upon meet­ing Ray­mond Berry, Uni­tas’ go-to re­ceiver for most of his ca­reer, I tried des­per­ately to be con­ver­sa­tional and not a fawn­ing fan. When I men­tioned to him that my two daugh­ters at­tended col­lege near his home in Ten­nessee, he asked me to look him up the next time I was in the area; his num­ber was in the phone book, he said. These were the kind of men the Bal­ti­more Colts were.

The team’s de­par­ture in 1984 tapped into Bal­ti­more’s in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex. Af­ter los­ing the Bul­lets to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in 1973, the city was not equipped psy­chi­cally to lose an­other ma­jor league fran­chise. Things ac­tu­ally were look­ing up in the years be­fore the Colts even­tual de­par­ture; in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the down­town land­scape was chang­ing daily. Har­bor­place had opened, mak­ing the wa­ter­front a des­ti­na­tion for lo­cals and tourists alike, and in 1983 the Ori­oles had earned a World Se­ries vic­tory over the Philadel­phia Phillies, the kind of city that al­ways over­shad­owed Bal­ti­more. Time magazine even touted Bal­ti­more in a cover story as a city that knew how to rein­vent it­self in the early years of the first Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion, when scarce fed­eral dol­lars were avail­able to help cities solve their prob­lems. And then came that snowy night in March when the Mayflower vans ar­rived, and, in an in­stant, Bal­ti­more was rel­e­gated to a one-fran­chise town again.

I can let go be­cause the Colts have de­vel­oped their own his­tory in In­di­anapo­lis, and we Bal­ti­more­ans are not a part of it any more. It’s their team now. Uni­tas, Berry and Jones have been re­placed by Man­ning, Luck, Faulk and Dungy. Dur­ing this sum­mer’s ex­hi­bi­tion game, I re­al­ized T.J. Green is No. 32, not Mike Cur­tis; Mathias Far­ley is No. 41, not Tom Matte; Matt Over­ton is No. 45, not Mr. Tough Guy, Jerry Hill.

But it’s OK, I tell my­self. As we get older our mem­o­ries be­come more sus­tain­able on their own. We don’t need to see those beau­ti­ful horse­shoes ev­ery Sun­day to re­mem­ber Bert Jones hold­ing hands with his team­mates in the hud­dle as a sign of of­fen­sive sol­i­dar­ity, or the vic­tory in 1975 over the Dol­phins in the fog when Toni Lin­hart’s field goal lifted them to the top again. Sis­ter Mary Reparata, may she rest in peace, taught me about for­give­ness, but not about for­get­ting.

LLOYD PEAR­SON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

A mov­ing van car­ry­ing the Bal­ti­more Colts’ equip­ment leaves Bal­ti­more for In­di­anapo­lis in the mid­dle of the night March 29, 1984.

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