It was bitter cold in Denver last weekend, but that didn't matter to four Fallston High School graduates who braved frigid temperatures to cheer on the Baltimore Ravens to a three-point, double overtime victory over the heavily favored Broncos in their AFC divisional playoff game.
Die-hard Ravens fans, Brett Birkmire, Rich Schwartz, Matt Sochurek and Ed Wienecke flew out to Denver for this past Saturday's game, an epic 38-35 win which allows the Ravens to move on to the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots this coming Sunday at 6:30 p.m. in Foxboro, Mass.
Also at Saturday's game were Mike Axelsson, a Bel Air resident and a 1990 North Harford High School grad, who called an old friend and former Harford County resident to arrange a visit, just in time for the game, and former Bel Air resident Mike Beczkowski, who met a fellow Ravens season ticket holder who recently moved to Denver and didn't convert to a Broncos fan.
"I think it's great support for our team. It's an experience I'll never forget," Axelsson, who was snowboarding Monday at Loveland Pass, Col., said. "They're memories that you'll forever have."
"Where are better memories created? Sitting in my basement or flying 2,000-plus miles across the country, storming the stadium in the middle of winter and celebrating a Ravens victory?" said Beczkowski, a 1987 John Carroll School graduate. "Life is too short, you only have so many chances to go to so many road playoff games in a lifetime."
The four Fallston High alums and friends who went to the Mile High City for Saturday's game have known each other since they played youth sports together, lived together for a while after college and have been in each other's weddings, so the weekend trip was a reunion of sorts for them.
Schwartz is a season-ticket holder and was with Birkmire at the Ravens Jan. 6 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the first-round of the playoffs. As soon as the game was over, Sochurek said, Schwartz started talking about going to Denver. He got on the phone to Sochurek and Wienecke, who were watching the game on TV from their homes.
"We found some tickets and found some flights" and they were on their way, Sochurek, a 1997 Fallston grad who lives in Baldwin, said.
It was really a no-brainer for them to go, and they were able to get tickets because they started looking right away, as soon as the game was over.
"It was history," Wienecke, who graduated from Fallston in 1998 and now lives in Lutherville, said.
"I was a moment in history. It could have been Ray Lewis' final game," Sochurek said.
He and Wienecke own Business Finance Store, which finances entrepreneurs and small business owners all over the country. Birkmire is their sales manager. They have offices in Towson and in Southern California.
As soon as he realized there was a possibility the Ravens could play in Denver, Axelsson, who is a Ravens season ticket holder, called his buddy John Dittmar, also a 1990 North Harford grad, who's been in Colorado for more than 10 years and is an avid Broncos fan.
"I called him, got a flight, got tickets and came out here," Axelsson said. "As much ribbing as I got from the Denver guys, it was fantastic to walk out of the stadium with my head held high and theirs all down."
It was all done in fun, he said, but the ribbing was "relentless."
A 'gross minority'
Sochurek and his friends said walking into the stadium in Denver dressed in their Ravens purple, they were the "gross minority," he said.
The crowd was hostile, he added, but the Denver fans were "really, really good people."
Many of the Broncos fans asked Beczkowski, who's been going to Ravens road playoff games since 2008, if he was there for Ray Lewis' retirement game.
"I heard that more than once," he said.
After the Ravens won, many of the Denver fans wished the Ravens fans good luck, hoping they'll beat Tom Brady and company, Beczkowski added.
The Ravens fans said they saw few others in purple and black in Denver, and those they did see were from places like New Mexico and Nebraska, not the Baltimore area.
Broncos fans were also loud, Birkmire said, but much of the noise stopped with just seconds left in the fourth quarter, when Jacoby Jones caught a Joe Flacco pass then ran in the end zone for a touchdown to tie the game at 35 at the end of regulation.
"Then there was silence," Wienecke said.
"You could have dropped a pin in that stadium. It was complete quiet," said Axelsson, who was in the fifth row behind the Ravens' bench. "It was loud the whole entire game, but as soon as Jones caught that pass, that stadium was completely quiet. They're like 'I can't believe that just happened.' While I was going ballistic. I was in a sea of Denver people, with only one other Ravens fan in general area I could see."
"You could hear the Ravens bench where I was and Ravens fan cheering, but every single person had their heads down," Axelsson said.
The fans picked up their cheering again in overtime until the Ravens kicked the field goal, right into the end zone where the four Fallston friends were sitting, and the stunned crowd just stood there.
"While the four of us were jumping up and down, hugging each other," Sochurek said.
The Ravens may have gone into the game as 9-point underdogs who most analysts believed would lose, but these Ravens fans never doubted it.
"Absolutely we thought they were going to win. Everyone in Maryland did. All the media, ESPN, no one believed in the Ravens. But we've seen it happen time and time again. When it did pan out it was even better," Sochurek said. "It was one of the best games ever and we were there."
Axelsson, too, thought the Ravens would win.
"I was hoping, absolutely. I knew it was going to be a good game. Peyton Manning is an elite quarterback and I knew we needed to bring our A-game against him," Axelsson said.
On to Foxboro and...
Beczkowski, however, was a little more hesitant. He said he goes into road playoff games "cautiously optimistic," that way if they lose, he's not so disappointed.
"I know you have a very, very difficult time winning road playoff games. So I hope for the best and don't get too optimistic," Beczkowski said. "That's why victories like Denver feel so good."
The Ravens will need to bring their A-game again this weekend, when the Ravens face off against Tom Brady and the Patriots Sunday evening
Wienicke and Schwartz, as well as Schwartz's sister, Laurie, and her husband, a Patriots fan, are going. Beczkowski has his trip booked, too, while Axelsson is looking for a way to get up north.
They're all hoping for another win to take the Ravens to the Super Bowl in New Orleans Feb. 3. Beczkowski, incidentally, already has his tickets booked for the Big Easy.