"It was so cold that John Unitas' hair was frozen. I put my shawl over his head, and he stayed until every fan was gone. I'll never forget that."

In the Colts' heyday, fans flocked to Friendship Airport (now BWI Thurgood Marshall) to welcome the team home from a conference title game. In 1968, a throng of more than 10,000 cheering celebrants rallied there to greet the victors, only to learn that airport security personnel, fearing a riot, had landed the Colts' charter from Cleveland on a far-off runway.

Angry fans broke through a 9-foot wire fence and surged onto the tarmac and into the main terminal in a vain search for their heroes.

The Sun reported one injury in the melee:

"A New York-bound passenger, Walter D. Smith, of Tulsa, who looks like [Colts] coach Don Shula, from the back, was set upon by about 20 youths and knocked to the floor in the crush.

"As he got to his feet, Mr. Smith began cursing the Colts and the fans and football in general, and stalked from the terminal. He got into a cab and told the driver: 'Take me to the railroad station.'"

In 2001, a cavalcade of more than 1,000 cars lined Owings Mills Boulevard, near the Ravens' complex, where fans cheered their team as it bused home from the airport at 3:30 a.m. following a victory at Oakland for the AFC title.

"It was gratifying to round off the freeway . . . and see the cars backed up and the throng of people, in the cold," coach Brian Billick said then. "Kids and old people. I also noticed a number of crushed beer cans. They kept warm in a lot of different ways."

But the public will never concur with the players that winning the final tuneup to the Super Bowl is itself a heady achievement, former Colts center Bill Curry said.

"The culture we live in doesn't recognize what a great accomplishment it is to win a conference championship," said Curry, who played in three of those classics in Baltimore and is now head coach at Georgia State. "In the players' eyes, and among our brotherhood, it's a big deal. But today, for this generation, The Big One is what counts in this country — and if you don't win the Super Bowl, you ain't nothin'."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Matt Vensel and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this story.

Baltimore's history in conference championship games

1968 season (NFL title): Colts 34, Cleveland Browns 0

(Super Bowl III: New York Jets 16, Colts 7)

1970 (AFC championship): Colts 27, Oakland Raiders 17

(Super Bowl V: Colts 16, Dallas Cowboys 13)

1971 (AFC championship): Miami Dolphins 21, Colts 0

2000 (AFC championship): Ravens 16, Oakland Raiders 3

(Super Bowl XXXV: Ravens 34, New York Giants 7)

2008 (AFC championship): Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Ravens 14

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