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Baltimore will score one for the NFL tonight


Never has any city in America been made to endure such torment over a team that was stripped from its possession and carted off under the cover of darkness. The National Football League didn't attempt to rationalize the plundering. It feels embarrassed. Uneasy. There's no acceptable explanation, so it doesn't try.

What it can do -- which is foremost among all men of decency -- is to right a wrong. And that's why Baltimore has the inside position among NFL officials when it comes to awarding an expansion franchise.

The league, in 1984, thought its constitution and bylaws would prevent a team from moving without permission of the other 27 owners. But the Colts just arbitrarily took it upon themselves to leave, and to hell with the commissioner, official procedures and gentlemanly ethics.

Al Davis had established the precedent when he moved the Raiders out of Oakland, Calif., and went south to Los Angeles, so Bob Irsay followed the Davis script.

Baltimore was a jewel in the minds of the NFL. It had tradition and credibility, producing 10 Hall of Fame players, a coach and another eventually to be added, Don Shula, who has a homecoming tonight when his Miami Dolphins meet the New Orleans Saints in a preseason game at Memorial Stadium -- the scene of so many past glories and the genesis of warm and wonderful feelings that have never been duplicated anywhere else.

This is where men literally sold their own blood to buy a ticket to a game and parents named children after Alan Ameche, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore and John Unitas. The fervor in Baltimore brought an attention to the NFL that it never dreamed possible.

The NFL doesn't owe Baltimore a team. To think that is presumptuous and self-serving. But it will see evidence again tonight when two clubs detached from Baltimore and which came into being long after the Colts were born compete at the stadium. Oh, how deeply this city treasured having a pro football franchise. The NFL, deep within itself, realizes the loss.

Credibility of the league was lost, since it was powerless to act in preventing the Colts from leaving without even asking permission. The Colts just packed, then headed for the open highway and a place called Indianapolis. Instead of a lawsuit, Baltimore decided to terminate any such plan and go about it in an amicable way.

It just never thought it would take this long. A good relationship was fostered with the league, and the desire is so strong to gain an expansion franchise that three groups of would-be owners have filed applications. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, rightly so, said such interest indicated how much the city wanted to be included in expansion.

St. Louis, Charlotte, N.C., Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla., are in the race with Baltimore for the two locations to be selected. Baltimore will pack Memorial Stadium, not to see the Dolphins and Saints, but to remind the league of the history created here and the personalities passing in review.

The Colts were the first pro team to have a cheerleading squad, long before the Dallas Cowboys ever thought of it, and a horse mascot that sprinted the field after every home team score. Les Richter of the Los Angeles Rams once said, after a bad beating, "Why, that horse ran up and down the sidelines so often I thought I was at Santa Anita."

The enthusiasm is still within the hearts and souls of the Baltimore football faithful. The Colt Corral fan clubs still meet, and the Colt Band continues to march and make appearances at league games.

A folk hero named Leonard Burrier, otherwise known as the "Big Wheel," will have the stadium rocking tonight. He's a volunteer cheerleader who can deliver a message. And, on hand, too, will be an anticipated delegation of 70 former players, including seven of the 11 Hall of Famers. It's going to be a momentous night for nostalgia and reminding the league that Baltimore's record is too good to be denied.

At the crab feast and reunion held last night for charity at Martin's West, the atmosphere was charged. Eating crabs and drinking beer, Baltimore-style, a favorite sport, indoors or out, attendees were overwhelmed by the excitement the players generated. Shula came to visit and was surrounded as if he had the powers of a pope -- but not to forgive sin or absolve fumbles.

"This city is just unbelievable," he said. "I don't know how the decision to award a franchise in the expansion effort will be conducted. But Baltimore deserves to be back. If I had a vote, this is where I'd put a team."

And in the crowd were some of the old familiar faces. Former players with such nicknames as the "Hawk," "Papa Gino," "Bubba," "Buzz" and "Johnny U." And, yes, over there on the other side of the ballroom were Romeo Valenti, who used to entertain the Colts at his Westminster home; a football player who became a talented actor and then businessman, Paul Salata; and Bee-Bop, who knew how to hustle pennants and badges to make a dollar.

How could the league say no to such football pride in a city that offers so much of everything but, most of all, a true understanding of the game? That's why the conviction has always been held, for reasons cited above, and more, that the NFL will open the door for Baltimore.

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