Once and for all, Baltimore football fans have laid to rest any lingering doubts: it was Bob Irsay who drove them out of Memorial Stadium; the fans did not slip away in those last years with the Colts of their own accord. No one in the National Football League can any longer question this community's devotion to professional football. If anything, it is stronger for the nine-year drought. To the extent that fan loyalty -- make that fanaticism -- counts in the competition for an expansion franchise, Baltimore has it made.
It wasn't so much the fact that Memorial Stadium was sold out Thursday night for one more time. That's not much of a trick, as other cities have proved. The tailgate parties in the parking lot demonstrated that attending a professional football game in this town is a folk ritual as much as a sports event. Where else would a football team's band stick together so long without a team?
The frenzy at halftime that greeted the old Colts, led by the fabled quarterback John Unitas, was a message in itself. At least one NFL owner, the Miami Dolphins' Tim Robbie, got the message. He likened the cheers to another hurricane like the one that just devastated south Florida. And John Mackey, the legendary Colts tight end, showed the NFL how the former players feel about Baltimore fans by insisting his Hall of Fame ring be presented at Memorial Stadium and nowhere else.
So now it's a matter of waiting. Realistically, a lot more will go into the NFL's award of two new franchises than the devotion of the fans. In fact, there won't be a lot of emotion in the decision. But some of our rivals have insinuated that Baltimore lost its taste for football a decade ago. They can't use that argument any more.
Baltimore has put its best foot forward in every way that counts. We have financing for a new stadium and have the fans to fill it every Sunday. We have three well-heeled bidders vying for the franchise. We have a long and proud tradition of professional football which has not died for lack of nourishment. We didn't desert the NFL. A bumbler named Bob Irsay deserted us. We trust that a majority of NFL owners would now like to join us in exorcising the ghost of Bob Irsay from this town.