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Speros rides high to usher in return of football


It would take more than the NFL, the courts and circuit judges to separate Jim Speros from the horse of his dreams.

Before the official home opener against the Calgary Stampeders last night, the owner of the expansion Baltimore CFL's took the ride of his life at Memorial Stadium on the back of a spotted appaloosa named "Horsefeathers" to the resounding cheers of 39,247 spectators.

It was the closest thing Speros could find to the beloved white stallion "Dixie" that used to circle the stadium in the halcyon days of the Colts.

"The message," he told a TV reporter, "is that this is our horse and we've brought it and professional football back to Baltimore."

Earlier, Speros, hardly dressed for riding in his business suit, said: "I actually haven't been on a horse since 1986 when [former linebacker] Jim Haslett of the Buffalo Bills took me out to his 'Double Nickel' ranch.

"I know [former Colt halfback and now Baltimore CFL vice president] Tom Matte planned on using a slingshot to start the horse, and I'd be caught in a scene from 'Animal House,' " Speros said.

He wisely waited until CFL commissioner Larry Smith mounted a frisky pony before choosing "Horsefeathers," a docile creature who looked like the was left over from the Marx Brothers' movie by the same name.

When Horsefeathers miss-stepped on the way to the coin flip, Mayor Schmoke said, "We almost lost the franchise."

After regaining his composure, Speros said, "The adrenalin is really flowing. Our game here with Winnipeg was only an exhibition. This one counts."

In his executive office, Speros extolled the merits of reviving football in Baltimore to visiting VIPs that included Canadian ambassador Raymond Chretian, commissioner Smith, Calgary owner Larry Ryckman and Crown Petroleum president Henry Rosenberg.

While checking the flow of traffic on 33rd Street, Speros said, "They were saying this stadium was a white elephant. But bringing football back and signing a five-year lease probably saved a lot of decent ethnic neighborhoods in the area. In the last five months, it's taken a new lease on life."

For his visiting dignitaries, he supported the wisdom of hiring Don Matthews to run his team on the field.

"I know there were a lot of NFL coaches interested in coaching this team," he said. "But I also know Forrest Gregg is having a heck of a time getting started in Shreveport. Matthews and [personnel director] Jim Popp know where all the bodies are, how the CFL rules work, and how to grab guys off the wire. That gave us a jump on the other expansion teams."

After sharing the pre-game cameras with the mayor, it was time for Speros to become a concerned team owner and full-time football fan.

When it appeared the referee gave Baltimore a bad spot on a first-down attempt inside the Calgary 25 on the first offensive series, he shouted his dissatisfaction.

After one quarter of patrolling the sidelines, Speros joined his family and well-wishers in his mezzanine box for the rest of the first half.

He groaned audibly when punter Josh Miller got off a line drive kick that elusive Pee Wee Smith turned into a 58-yard touchdown return.

"We can't allow plays like that," Speros said. "We're doing a great job containing [Calgary quarterback] Doug Flutie," he said. "He's the best in this league. If you control him, you ought to be able to win."

Speros scanned the stands again, nodding approvingly as the end zone sections began to fill. "This is a big ball park. But that's good. One day, we'll fill all those seats."

Speros spent the second half as a commentator for station WJFK, which broadcasts the games locally. But it became an agonizing task as the game got out of hand.

"We certainly made mistakes," he said, after watching Calgary score its final touchdown as time ran out. "We broke down on special teams. You can't do that against a Flutie-led team. He'll always take advantage.

"Sure, it's hard losing your home opener. But we knew we were taking on a monstrous job when we scheduled Calgary. This wasn't like a 'Homecoming' where you pick the weakest opponent on your schedule. Tonight, we played one of the premier teams, and it showed us how much we have to improve."

But the crowd -- the biggest in the CFL this season -- gave Speros heart.

"These are the true fans of Baltimore," he said. "And we'll reward them by getting better each week.

" 'Horsefeathers?' I don't care if I ever see him again, to visit," Speros said unless it's just to visit."

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