NFL sees, hears Baltimore message


Opening and closing the season in one sauna-like night in August -- with the teams on the field from somewhere else and the sound level resembling what's heard at Aberdeen Proving Ground -- provided a testimonial more effective than words or pictures could ever convey. The emotional message was delivered by 60,021 people to the National Football League.

Baltimore's demonstration was accompanied by heart-tugging

affection, the kind that marketing surveys and demographics could never show as well as could a capacity crowd's presence. More importantly, the enthusiasm impressed the NFL inspection team and league president Neil Austrian.

Jim Finks, the quarterback the Pittsburgh Steelers kept when they released John Unitas in 1955, is now the general manager of the New Orleans Saints, was there. He's one of the smartest individuals in football and received strong support to be the commissioner when Pete Rozelle resigned and Paul Tagliabue was selected.

Finks looked on at the scene in Memorial Stadium, and said, "This city is remarkable. Everything I see is positive. The halftime show was a trip down memory lane for all of us. To see the former players brought on with such enthusiasm tells everyone the love affair Baltimore has for our game of professional football."

Yes, Baltimore is in heat -- 88 degrees worth last night -- over the possibility of again having a football team. The Colts had thrilled fans in Baltimore for 35 seasons until the team was summarily trucked off to Indianapolis in 1984.

The subsequent eight-year wait in purgatory hasn't been easy. Baltimore wants to rejoin the parade.

The introduction of 69 Colts' alumni -- from Averno to Wingate -- at halftime of the Saints-Miami Dolphins warm-up contest was executed with taste and professionalism. Announcer Chuck Thompson was extraordinary. He moved the program quickly, leading to the moment when firmer tight end John Mackey received his Hall of Fame ring from director Pete Elliott, who came from the game's shrine in Canton, Ohio, to make the presentation.

"I'll remember the ovation from the fans for as long as I live," Mackey said later. And Sylvia Mackey, his wife, wondered if it just wasn't meant to be. Mackey waited longer than some observers believed he should have to be elected to the Hall but, to his everlasting credit, never questioned the system. It happened at the right time for Baltimore. A plus.

With Mackey being honored, the exhibition had a story line the game otherwise wouldn't have had.

Leonard "Big Wheel" Burrier cued the chant of "We Want A Team" and the NFL visitors, again, were impressed. It was disappointing that other former Colts heroes weren't present. Bert Rechichar, Y.A. Tittle, Billy Ray Smith, Joe Perry and coach Weeb Ewbank come to mind. The only explanation is that a volunteer committee, headed by Joe Ehrmann, one-time Colt, and Maureen Kilcullen, a former team secretary, didn't have the time or resources to do a more comprehensive job.

But they should not be faulted. They excelled in their efforts and the players spoke enthusiastically of the harbor cruise that was provided them yesterday afternoon. The Maryland Stadium Authority, doing an otherwise excellent job, made no provisions for a post-game party at a downtown hotel, as the Orioles staged for their alumni when the team played its last game at Memorial Stadium last October. This should not have happened.

The appearance of the Colts from the past packed an emotional wallop. But the event also attracted such former front office members as George Young, general manager of the New York Giants; Ernie Accorsi, former general manager of the Cleveland Browns; Bert Bell Jr., now involved in fun and games at Atlantic City; Jim Husbands, providing computerized sports information to ESPN (which carried last night's game) ; and Jim Miller, who once covered the Colts for The Evening Sun and is now vice president of administration for the Saints.

There's such a thing as overdosing on nostalgia. But it never came to that because the thrust of the evening included such high expectations for the future. Mayor Kurt Schmoke -- who played in Memorial Stadium as an unbeaten quarter back for City College before going on to Yale and making an impressive mark in athletics and academics -- had high praise for his Department of Recreation, which had prepared the field.

"I believed Baltimore's bid to regain a NFL team was strong to begin with," he said. "But this reaction makes it even stronger."

A banner draped from the end zone had the names of the five candidate cities listed -- Baltimore, Memphis, St. Louis, Charlotte and Jacksonville. The homemade designer had crossed out all but St. Louis and Baltimore.

That's the kind of optimism that prevailed. The returning players were as impressed with the reception they received as the spectators were in seeing the players.

"It makes for a special memory I'll keep the rest of my life," said former center Ken Mendenhall, in from Oklahoma City. And Paul Salata, a Colts end from 1950 who lives in Newport Beach, Calif., added, "This crowd was louder than you'll hear at a Super Bowl. Maybe even the Rose Bowl, because I played in two of those. The halftime ceremony was just the nicest I've ever seen."

The three would-be ownership groups, headed by Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, Tom Clancy and Jim Robinson, and the Malcolm Glazer family, had a presence. Weinglass was out front, even down on the field, which is what Baltimore doesn't need -- another owner or potential owner on the sideline. The Glazers, the calm, reserved gentlemen they are, were seated in section eight enjoying it all and elated that the pompons they paid for and had distributed to the crowd made such a striking impression, both in-house and on television.

Meanwhile, Clancy and Robinson were in the exact seats, right above what used to known as "Orrsville," that Clancy occupied as a child attending Colts games. He knows the location better than his Social Security number. Upper section 6, row 2, seats 6 and 7.

As exhibition football games go, this was a rare experience. Why? Because of what surrounded it. None of the other expansion places could do it because they don't have the heritage. The message was there, just everywhere, that this city belongs in the NFL. Baltimore rests its case.

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