Sunday memories warm NFL outlook


And so, on the last pro football Sunday before the NFL makes its expansion call, there was in our city one final tease. One more agonizing reminder of what we had, and lost, and want back so badly.

A perfect day for football. A day for one of Grantland Rice's sonnets.

A day with a deep blue sky and a white, slanting sun. A lightly chilling wind out of the north. Bright festoons of red and yellow leaves falling from the trees. A day to wear one sweat shirt and carry along another for the fourth quarter, when the sun dropped behind the upper deck.

On how many such afternoons did the Colts bring the city together? For how many people did the textures of yesterday's climate jog those distant but indelible memories?

Remember gathering at someone's house in the morning, wondering if you were dressed right? Remember car-pooling together, taking your favorite back route to avoid the traffic? Remember your fellowship with the strangers in the row behind you, your Sunday-only friends?

Remember the smell of cigars? The wind? The cold drive home?

There can be no denying that a football Sunday is a powerful force in a city. Baseball is different, a constant, casual companion, not unlike another person in the family. Football is a tense, sharp-edged ritual, a slightly apocalyptic summoning of a week of buildup: three hours when everyone gathers, in a sense, to pay attention.

You don't have to like it. Plenty of people don't. But it's the most alluring force in sports. You can look it up.

A whole generation has sprouted in this town since that snowy night in 1984, a whole generation weaned on Sundays without football in Baltimore. A whole generation for whom a Grantland Rice Sunday, or any Sunday, evokes nothing. And what empty Sundays they are now.

What is today's NFL experience in Baltimore? Games from somewhere else show up on the tube and get turned on in bars and taverns and living rooms, but no one really watches, at least not the way they used to watch. Pro football is background music here, droning on, Bengals and Jets, Niners and Cardinals, look at that pass, big deal, droning on . . .

What we are, basically, is unplugged, disconnected from the giant network to which millions tune in on Sundays. Our allegiances, whatever they may be, are cheap. We're on the periphery, borrowing emotion from those other cities.

They're the ones gathering in the mornings on perfect autumn days, bringing along the extra sweat shirt, car-pooling, starting the ritual. We're just watching them, maybe stealing a shout or two. It's worth about a nickel on the dollar.

Baseball is where we get full value now. Baseball is where the difference between our football past and present is illuminated. Have you noticed what happens now when you tell baseball fans you're from Baltimore, the city of the baseball monster? They just smile. Because they know you're at the center of where it's happening, that you're totally plugged in.

That's our football past, the way it was back when Baltimore was a football town. The opposite of the way it is now.

So, which will be our future? Plugged or unplugged? Any day now . . .

It's funny, the way emotions can change. Immediately after the ++ Colts left, a popular opinion in town, maybe even the prevailing opinion, was good riddance to the NFL. Everyone felt burned, betrayed, bitter. It didn't even matter that a splendid Sunday afternoon now wrenched the stomach. Who wanted any part of those soul-stealing NFL rascals? A pox on their heads!

Slowly, however, the anger began to melt. Then the possibility of expansion began to creep into the papers.

At first, it was met with cynicism. The league said it wouldn't expand without a collective bargaining agreement with the players' union. The sides were miles apart. It was fair to wonder if the owners really wanted to expand.

But the expansion process moved on, and we jumped through a thousand hoops, and then there finally was a collective bargaining agreement. And, on the eve of the decision, where are we now?

All the way back. Emotionally invested. Ready for a new team, a new era, but that same, old Sunday feeling.

You know the deal, right? Even the owners themselves have no idea what will happen when they meet and vote in Chicago tomorrow. There are no promises. But there is reason for optimism. We have a terrific offer. We're sound, stable, ready. The other cities have holes.

And so, on the last Sunday before the call, a Sunday meant for football, it was easy to close your eyes and rekindle the past. And envision the future. And hope they're one and the same.

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