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Glories of football past

Memories: As the Ravens prepare for the Giants, old-time fans recall fabled Colts of yore -- Unitas and Berry, Marchetti and Moore -- and `The Greatest Game Ever Played.'

By Alec MacGillis

Sun Staff

January 24, 2001

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Like a few thousand other Baltimore fans counting down the days to Super Bowl XXXV, Brian Cooper can't help feeling as if he's been here before.

Depending on how you look at it, he has.

It was 1958 when his parents, Joseph and Annette Cooper, traveled to New York to watch the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants battle for pro football's championship in what became known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played." They left their two young sons at home, but they had company of sorts: Annette was four months' pregnant with Brian.

This weekend, Brian Cooper makes a return trip to the championship game, heading to Tampa, Fla., with his father and two older brothers for the Ravens-Giants Super Bowl. If he feels a twinge of deja vu at kickoff, he says, he'll know why.

"I tell people I was there [at the '58 game] and they say, `How were you there?' Then they figure it out," says Cooper, whose family owns Alex Cooper Auctioneers in Towson.

For many now rooting for the Ravens, such references to bygone days of Baltimore football are out of place in the era of Ray Lewis and Shannon Sharpe. But the select fraternity of fans whose football education dates to the 1950s and 1960s says these harbored Colts memories are in no way a betrayal of the present.

For them, the Ravens' rise merely closes a circle that rolled through the years, only to be severed with the Colts' dead-of-night flight to Indianapolis in 1984. Now, like a wayward uncle welcomed home after a long and mysterious absence, Baltimore football is back, and all again feels complete.

A similar enthusiasm

"There was a real enthusiasm, very similar to what we're witnessing the last few weeks. Everybody seemed to be connected to what was going on," says Ray Marocco Jr., recalling the days when he accompanied his father to Colts games at Memorial Stadium. "It's something we've rarely experienced since then, something that seemed to have disappeared with the advent of the modern sports age. It's nice to see we can still experience it."

For some, the associations are particularly vivid. Take Kay Wargowski. Sometimes, when a Ravens opponent is threatening late in the game, her mind winds backs four decades, and she's calling out names that mean nothing to the 11-year-old nephew watching at her knee.

"I'm telling people, the only thing we need to have now is Lenny Lyles or Milt Davis, to make sure that long pass doesn't get away," says Wargowski, 59, invoking the names of two former Colts defensive backs.

Fans with a long memory link today's Ravens with yesterday's Colts, while recognizing that the comparison is imperfect - so very much has changed since the Colts' Alan "The Horse" Ameche broke into the end zone for the winning touchdown in sudden-death overtime of the 1958 game.

The game took place at a time when sportswriters breathlessly reported the amount that winning players would take home as a championship payoff: $4,600 each. It was a time when Friendship Airport touted the imminent introduction of commercial jetliners; when classified ads listed a "colored garden apartment" on Cherry Hill Road for $13.75 a week.

Back then, Wargowski watched the games with her father, James Bory, a sports fan with eight children but not a boy among them. Together, father and daughter struggled for Sunday television rights at their Highlandtown home against Kay's seven younger sisters, who had no taste for football.

"I felt so sorry for Dad, having to work six days a week and then fight with my sisters to watch the games on his day off. So I kind of sided with him, and became a big fan with him," Wargowski recalls.

Sometimes, Bory won a pair of tickets to Memorial Stadium through his employer, H&S Bakery. When he did, he shared them with his ally Kay, who helped him bag bread on Saturdays. The games were nothing like those at PSINet Stadium, Wargowski says - there were no fancy food counters, no escalators, just big blue banners and chants specific to every section in the park.

"Now, it almost makes you feel like you're not outdoors. For outdoor screaming, it was Memorial Stadium. It was the insane asylum," she says. "That's the shame with the great purple thing they have now - people who take their young ones now won't be able to take them to see the craziness at Memorial Stadium."

Ravens maniacs who paint their bodies purple might dispute this assessment of relative rowdiness, noting that Colts fans, after all, attended games in suits and fedoras and didn't even tailgate.

But Wargowski isn't imagining things - accounts of Colts fans at Yankee Stadium in the moments after the 23-17 win in 1958 describe one small man who accosted a much larger Giants fan with the greeting, "We beatcha. Wanna make something of it?" Another "rather undignified gentleman overindulged in his ecstasy" had to be carried out of the stadium, but "every now and then would blink his eyes open and yell `Yeah' in a soft voice, then let his head loll again."

Neither Wargowski nor her father made the trip north for that game, although she was later given, via the bakery, a ball signed by several Colts. The ball, she was told, had been used during the championship game, and she has passed it on to her truck-driving son, David.

She listened to the 1958 game while working at the bakery, "with the radio up to my ear." She heard of the record-setting 12 receptions by Raymond Berry, "such a spindly little guy with the greatest pair of hands," and the rushing of Lenny Moore, who "come to mention it, didn't have too bad a pair of legs and feet either." She heard of Gino Marchetti's crucial third-down stop of Frank Gifford - a play on which the defensive end's leg was broken - and the MVP heroics of quarterback Johnny Unitas.

Among the 15,000 or so Baltimoreans who did make the trip to New York was Ray Marocco Sr. As his son recalls, he traveled with other Italian-American contractors who had season tickets in Section 9 at Memorial Stadium and who met for dinner after games at Velleggia's in Little Italy. Marocco Jr. was too young to accompany his father, but he did join him for home games in the 1960s - on game days when the weather was too crummy for his mother, who normally used the second ticket.

"I always prayed for cold weather on Sunday," says Marocco Jr., 50, who grew up in Homewood and now lives in Lutherville.

The Coopers were more fortunate - they had enough season tickets for the whole family, way up at the blustery top row of Memorial Stadium. The Coopers kept the tickets right up to 1984, and when the Ravens arrived, were ready for an upgrade. Today, they are "very spoiled," Joseph Cooper says, with six tickets in a luxury box and four in the club section.

Changing faces

The more comfortable seats aren't enough to keep Annette Cooper attending the games, though. More and more, she says, the crowd seems to be dominated by "rough" young men. This Sunday, she'll be at home playing host at a party while the men of the family are in Tampa.

"I guess I'm older. It's a young guy's thing now, as far as I'm concerned," she says.

Certainly, there are fewer left to share with among the eldest generation. Marocco Sr., who cheered on the Ravens for four seasons despite a lengthy battle with emphysema, died in October. James Bory died last April.

Not that Bory's daughter, Kay Wargowski, lacks for game-day companions in her father's absence. Her mother, who once was so harried by her eight daughters that she would accidentally cheer big plays by the Colts' opponents, has become a far more avid and informed fan.

"Then, I had no idea what was going on," Doris Bory says. "Now, I can sit and watch the game."

Then there are all the others: the brothers-in-law who have more than made up for the lack of sports interest among their wives, Wargowski's younger sisters; the many nephews and nieces who will gather at Doris Bory's house on Curley Street on Super Bowl Sunday - a day that just happens to be her 78th birthday.

Still, Wargowski will, once again, have her thoughts caught up partly in the city's football past, and on the father who lived it with her.

"I hope that if there's something up there, he can pull up a big chair and watch" the game, she says. "It would thrill him so."