Letting go of the Colts
32 years after the football team left Baltimore, a fan is finally ready to move on
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.
A moving van carrying the Baltimore Colts’ equipment leaves Baltimore for Indianapolis in the middle of the night March 29, 1984.