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The ghosts of football past, and present — from Colts to Ravens

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Do you believe in ghosts?

To live in Baltimore is to live in city haunted by its past. I think it's part of our lingering Southerness — the excessively sweet desserts, the annual freakouts over snow, the Faulknerian thing about the past not even being past.

Lord knows how many wallets in town still have Hutzler's cards buried behind the ones for Macy's or the ATM, or how many anniversary-celebrants still try to make reservations at Haussner's. Because nothing, of course, is quite so beloved as something that's no longer around.

But no ghosts have ever wafted as palpably in our midst as the Baltimore Colts. The Colts were Baltimore; Baltimore was the Colts. It was just that simple, until it became very complicated one snowy night in 1984 when some Mayflower moving vans drove away with not just the city's team but its very heart.

Fans mourned, they raged, but mostly, they learned to just live with the ghosts.

Still, even in history-haunted Baltimore, you need more than memories. You need more than a band that, literally, played on. You need an exorcism.

But who could ever fill the void of the Colts? After they left, a couple of rebound teams came and went — the not-Colts, a short-lived Canadian Football League team that couldn't even get the right to use the storied name; the Stars, a United States Football League team that couldn't even get the right to play at Memorial Stadium.

And then the Ravens landed. They were welcomed from the moment they re-filled Memorial Stadium for in 1996, even if their first couple of seasons still seemed a little Colts-haunted, caught in an emotional push-pull between old loyalties and whatever this sparkly new team would become.

There was something of the second wife about the Ravens — something younger, sexier and harder-edged about them than the dear old Colts. Some of that was just part and parcel of how the NFL itself had changed over the years in which it had denied Baltimore a team, how it had gotten much more big-money and glitzy spectacle.

But mostly, I think it just takes a while in Baltimore for anyone or anything to become Baltimore. It's the from-here syndrome — that question, whether or not it's articulated, that comes up when you meet "real" Baltimoreans. They want to know if you're from here. (And "here," tends to be highly specific, like down to the neighborhood- or high school-level.)

I used to think it took several generations of uninterupted residency and a drawer full of Orioles T-shirts so old that the number 8 is cracked and faded before you were considered from here. But like everything else, even that's changed, and people warmed up to the Ravens way faster than I would have imagined.

The old Colts Corral fan clubs sequed into Ravens Roosts. The Colts Marching Band became the Marching Ravens. The purple reign got underway just like that, and somehow, a town that always seemed to be looking backward actually started looking forward — to Sunday's game and beyond.

Getting their own new football stadium helped. Being competitive just about every season was a factor, as was simply the years passing, farther and farther from 1984.

"And then they went to the Super Bowl," said fan Jeff Weitzel, "just like they're going to go this year."

Weitzel, who is 42 years old, hasn't thought much of the Colts for years, so consumed is he by the Ravens. I'd sought him out after his Hampden rowhouse caught my eye the other day, wiwth its postage-stamp backyard crammed with signs, flags, inflatables, dolls and just random stuff, all touting the hometown team.

"There would be even more," he told me, "except my wife made me put up some Halloween decorations."

Which he did, including a not so scary looking ghost. It's wearing a purple bow tie.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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