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Retro-fans relish return of football


The crowd was black and white, male and female, young and old, a beer-guzzling, Colts-loving, NFL-hating slice of Baltimore.

On Opening Night at the Anti-Camden Yards, the city not only discovered a new football league, but also rediscovered its soul.

Norman Perkins was there, sitting in the last row of the upper deck in the end zone, with plenty of better, empty seats available.

Why the nosebleed, Norman?

He pointed at the seat in front of him.

Section 1, Row 34, Seat 27.

"My NFL seat for years," Norman said.

There were thousands like him at Memorial Stadium last night, thousands unleashing years of frustration, thousands celebrating the return of pro football to Baltimore.

No Camden Yards glitterati to be found.

A few tattoos, but no glitterati.

Many of the men came bare-chested. Others wore tank tops and T-shirts, all kinds of T-shirts, Colts T-shirts, "Horse With No Name" T-shirts, Irsay you-know-what T-shirts.

It wasn't a pretty crowd.

But it was Baltimore.

Never mind the final score -- Calgary 42, Baltimore 16. The attendance was 39,247. Baltimore nose tackle Jearld Baylis was so moved, he issued that rarest of edicts:

An apology.

"I can speak for myself -- I apologize to 'em for the loss," he said. "Hopefully, they'll be here next week. They deserve a win. They don't deserve losses."

Calgary quarterback Doug Flutie was born in St. Agnes Hospital and lived in the Baltimore area until he was 6. He could recall only a handful of times in his career when the crowd was as involved.

"At Alabama, at Texas A&M;, at Clemson, and in our league for the Edmonton-Calgary game," he said. "But this blew away the excitement and atmosphere in 90 percent of our games during the course of the year -- just blew it away.

"I can remember back when the Colts were here. When I heard the Baltimore Colts fight song being played, that was a major flashback."

Wild Bill Hagy was there. So was his football alter ego, Leonard "Big Wheel" Burrier. "Big Wheel" stood over the third-base dugout as the players left the field, asking Baltimore defensive end O.J. Brigance, "Did you hear us?"

"He told me, 'We'll be here next time, and we'll be even louder,' " Brigance said. "That's the first time I ever met him. Hopefully, it won't be the last. I didn't even know who he was before I came to Baltimore. But I learned real fast."

Paul Tagliabue was there, in the form of -- what else? -- a dummy. Matt Everett, 9, carried the torch for the next generation, waving a home-made sign in tribute to the NFL commissioner.

"Give us our name back, you dummy," it said.

Young Matt need not worry -- this team will be known as the Colts. What's the NFL going to do, sue every resident of Baltimore?

Much as it might disturb the league, freedom of speech still exists in this country, and we'll call the team whatever we please.

In a word, Colts.

It might not be legal.

But it's Baltimore.

The Colts left in 1984. For many of the fans 15-and-under -- and there were hundreds of them -- this was the first professional football game they had ever seen.

Winston Cornell was there, sitting with his 11-year-old son, Reggie, behind a pole in the lower deck. Reggie had been to one other football game in his life -- at Morgan State.

"I'm more excited than he is," said Winston, who graduated from City College and Morgan and now runs a wholesale business. "Kids these days are too cool."

Cool? This crowd wasn't cool.

It was burly, rowdy, sweaty.

The fans chanted C-O-L-T-S. They chanted Irsay you-know-what. And they responded in glee every time the public-address announcer said, "your Baltimore CFL. . .


It was ridiculous.

But it was Baltimore.

The cheerleaders emerged from a North American moving van -- the NFL Colts left via Mayflower, get it?

A Crown Central Petroleum scoreboard advertisement said, "A horse with no name smells just as sweet, as long as they play on 33rd Street."

The printable banners included "NFL -- Not Further Liked, CFL -- Colts Football Lives."

It was a night for scoreboard-watching -- Saskatchewan-Las Vegas and Toronto-Shreveport.

It was a night when the city had two teams going for first place -- the Orioles and your Baltimore CFL. . .


Paul Smith was there, sitting four rows from the top of the stadium with his wife, Diane, and three children -- Samantha 16, Heather 14, and Paul Jr. 4.

"It's our 17th anniversary," said Paul Sr., a Baltimore city policeman. "My wife said, we should go to the game."

And so they did -- without having to buy their tickets six months in advance. Winston Cornell picked up his pair at 4 p.m. yesterday. He went the old-fashioned way -- on a lark.

"This is a Baltimore crowd, no doubt about that," he said. "I know these people. The folks down at Camden Yards, they're kind of blase. Some of them don't even know a baseball game is going on."

There was no such confusion last night. This was a football game, a Canadian football game. Different rules, different league, different country, but who cared?

It wasn't the NFL.

But it was Baltimore.

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