True blue in a sea of purple

Once upon a time, no one around here would have blinked at Deborah Lawler's order for a sheet cake to serve at her football party — a blue horseshoe design with a "Go Colts" inscription.

"They refused to write it," she said of the employees at the grocery store's bakery. "I had ordered some Colts balloons online, but I needed to get them blown up, and the person there wouldn't do it either. I had to go and talk to the manager.

"It's just very brutal being a Colts fan in Baltimore," the Perry Hall resident said with a sigh.

Just how brutal will be evident Sunday, when Baltimore's present, the Ravens, hosts its past, the Colts, in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs. While the Ravens have captured most area hearts after 17 seasons here, there are still those who carry a torch for the Colts.

"My husband and I and my daughter just love the Colts," Lawler, 58, said. "Always have, always will."

They may be few and far between, but they are out there, a loyal group who didn't let 600 miles and 28 years break their bond to the team that was spirited away on that snowy night in 1984. They are joined by those who are too young to have their own firsthand memories of the storied Baltimore Colts but also wave the blue-and-white banner amid the purple tide that has washed over the area since the Ravens' debut in 1996.

"I always had the horseshoe vibe," said Devin Conaway, who at 30 was a toddler when the Mayflower vans took the Colts away. "When they snuck out of town, I knew it wasn't the players' fault. I wasn't going to let one man's bad decision change what I think about the horseshoe."

Conaway and Lawler were in Colts blue even as their co-workers, customers and much of Baltimore celebrated Purple Friday in advance of the postseason. Lawler, who works in information technology staffing at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, thought she might have to put cotton in her ears to block out the usual gibes from the Ravens fans who surround her.

Conaway, though, sounded as if he rather enjoyed the good-natured back-and-forth with the customers he serves at the deli counter at Eddie's market on North Charles Street.

"They come in, in all purple, and I'm like, 'It's Blue Friday,' " he said. "Last year, with the [Colts'] 2-and-14 season, they had a ball with me."

Some old-timers, though, appreciate seeing the familiar logo and will reminisce. " 'Oh, you still got the Colts hat on,' " Conaway said they tell him. "They'll give me the thumbs up, or tell me, 'Oh, Johnny Unitas baby-sat me, I sat on his lap.' "

The Park Heights resident believes that growing up and playing around Pimlico ingrained an allegiance to the horseshoe. With no football team in town during his youth, he found himself researching the Colts and becoming a fan. The Ravens' arrival did nothing to change that.

"I'm carrying on the winning tradition," Conaway said.

He plans on watching the game at home. "In games involving my team, I like to be in my own surroundings," he said. "I need to get the spirit going on. I can't be around those Ravens fans."

Nicholas Zarbos will be at M&T Bank Stadium, but his emotions will be ping-ponging in all sorts of directions.

"I'm torn," acknowledges the Bel Air resident, whose split loyalties will be reflected in his attire. "I will be wearing my Colts gear with my superstitious Ravens shoes."

Now 30, he grew up during those football-bereft years, after the Colts left and before the Ravens arrived. His family was no help in finding a team, with his dad, mom and other relatives all over the NFL map. The Indianapolis Colts quarterback at the time, Jim Harbaugh, happened to catch his eye and, without knowing too much of Baltimore's football heritage, he was hooked.

He eventually became a Ravens fan, owns a personal seat license and goes to every home game, but as with so many bonds made in childhood, his primary team is set for life. "The Colts are first," Zarbos said.

Ray Lewis' announcement that he will retire after the season, though, further complicates Sunday for Zarbos. He was going to go to the game by himself, but it might be Lewis' last home game so his wife wanted in. Zarbos was able to find a ticket for her and her sister in the row in front of him.

"I don't want the Ravens to lose because of the Ray Lewis thing. I'd just hate for him to go out that way," said Zarbos, a production manager at a Catonsville printing company. "This is Ray Lewis' last year. The Colts have Andrew Luck, so I have a lot more years to make the playoffs."

That's what his head says. But his heart? "If the Colts do well, I'll give a 'Yeah!' in my head," Zarbos said.

Colts fans can feel mighty lonely in Baltimore. This, after all, is a town of long-held grudges, where some fans can't even choke out the words "Indianapolis" and "Colts" in the same breath. Even the stadium scoreboard operator apparently can't bear to call them the Colts, opting instead for "Indy."

Jeremy Conn, who hosts a sports talk show with Scott Garceau on 105.7 The Fan, is accustomed to being surrounded at home and on air by Ravens fans.

"Part of me wishes I was part of that scene, pulling for who everyone else is pulling for," he said. "I'm the outsider looking in."

Conn, 33, didn't have a football team growing up in Baltimore, being part of that post-Colts, pre-Ravens generation. He started watching college football and became a Peyton Manning fan and decided to follow him to whatever NFL team drafted him.

Still, when the Ravens arrived, and especially during the 2000 Super Bowl season, he became a fan of the local team.

"I was all in," Conn said. "I'd never seen anything like it, the city all lit up."

Now, however, he's pulled in a number of directions. He'd like to see Lewis play more than one playoff game. He remains true to the Colts, feeling it would be hypocritical to have dumped them when they dumped Manning.

"It really has been an uncomfortable week," Conn said.

Local Colts fans have been here before, of course: The 2006 season brought the Indianapolis team to town for an emotionally fraught playoff game in which they beat the Ravens, 15-6, en route to winning Super Bowl XLI.

That was the year Lawler had her cake and balloon troubles, eventually straightened out by a "very nice" manager.

"We ate the cake. We don't know if any of the employees spit in it," she said with a laugh.

Lawler grew up the daughter of a Colts fan and has bonded with the team for life. She and her family have put up with enough abuse at M&T — beers thrown, Colts pennants trashed — that they've started going "incognito" or just watching on TV. One of her fondest memories is of a trip two years ago to Indianapolis, where they watched what turned out to be Manning's final game with the Colts, who lost to the Jets by a single point.

"When they found out we had come from Baltimore, they let us go down on the actual field," Lawler said dreamily. "We stood on the Colts helmet and took pictures."

The Lawlers and their 28-year-old daughter will have their own little party at home on Sunday, with steamed shrimp and oysters and, yes, a Colts cake, for the playoff game.

"My daughter's boyfriend is a die-hard Ravens fan; they're not going to attempt to watch the game together," Lawler said.

Lawler feels no pull to the Ravens, so she'll watch with no mixed feelings or competing loyalties. That would only come if the Colts win and ultimately face Manning's new team, the Denver Broncos.

"That," Lawler said with a shudder, "would tear my heart apart."

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