Except with band, CFL debut hit all right notes


Everything but the final score made for a spectacular opening night show that drew rave reviews because it offered the perfect blend -- highlighted by the most entertaining and tasteful pre-game program old Baltimore has ever seen. There was the historical international aspect, teams representing two countries, the United States and Canada, that have enjoyed a perpetual friendship. The anthems were beautifully delivered. Dignity prevailed.

Then the extraordinary appearance of seeing a team owner and league commissioner on horseback in the middle of Memorial Stadium. It drew unusual attention. The cheerleading squad, running and jumping, was next to arrive. It was transported by a moving van company, Von Paris, that is a 102-year-old Baltimore institution.

This was scripted to play off the scenario of when the Mayflower truck fleet arrived in 1984 and took the Colts away under the cover of darkness to a place called Indianapolis. The debut of the Canadian Football League in Baltimore was truly historic and well-orchestrated. A long phalanx of Boy Scouts carried the American and Canadian flags.

This wasn't the Olympics of football, but it felt like it. The presentation will surely remain a vivid and pleasant memory for the crowd of 39,247, an attendance figure that was not inflated. If the new Baltimore CFL team was interested in doing that, it would have taken the figure to over 40,000 but such deception, if detected, would have meant destroying credibility.

The Baltimore players, in blue and silver uniforms, and the Calgary Stampeders, wearing red and white, made a major-league appearance. The Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs look just like them. And a quarterback named Doug Flutie was as good as advertised.

Bill Polian, former general manager of the Buffalo Bills, now heading the Charlotte Panthers, was present in Memorial Stadium. As Flutie performed almost flawlessly as a passer, runner, ball-handler and leader, he shook his head and exclaimed, "A perfect fit for the league, the kind of wide-open player you need in Canadian football."

As the teams lined up, Maureen O'Sullivan (wife of the Baltimore coach, Don Matthews) stepped forth to sing "O Canada" and Mary Aiello "The Star-Spangled Banner," both with sensitivity. They deserve to encore at future games. When Aiello sang "bombs bursting in air," they did -- a fireworks bombardment that lent a touch of realism to what the original country song writer, Francis Scott Key, was moved to compose in the War of 1812 while prisoner on a British frigate in Baltimore harbor.

CFL commissioner Larry Smith, after he got off his horse, didn't know it, but his counterpart with the National Football League, one Paul Tagliabue, was being carried around the stadium in dummy-form by four youngsters, Katie and Matt Everett and Steve and "Tup" Ricigliano. An accompanying sign read: "Give us our name back you dummy."

The spectators were enthused over what they saw, even if they had to watch (but with appreciation) as Flutie's Stampeders more than doubled the score, 42-16. A perceptive comment came from Mark Dobkin, an attorney, "I like the play of the CFL. It moves much more quickly than the NFL. There's no down time. Once the people begin to recognize the players, it'll be great."

Two friends from Bel Air, Bob Zeback and Jim Bowers, agreed they are ready for pro football and have accepted the CFL. Some fans forgot it's "just a game" when they ripped a placard from a Calgary visitor and shredded it on the spot. Too bad.

A vulgar sign was on display far too long before it was taken down. Another visible message: "Hey Tagliabue, Baltimore Has Football Tradition. You Have The Indy Idiot Irsays."

Smith, CFL leader, talking to Mayor Kurt Schmoke, said, "It's obvious these people are football fans. They know how to vocalize. I think your team is going to get tougher."

If there was a disturbing aspect to the evening, it concerned the Baltimore Colts' Band. Members had to wait in a locker room that was like a torture chamber. The temperature was 118 degrees, with no drinking water available. Three musicians fainted and didn't march.

The band is disenchanted. It also was denied the opportunity to play at moments during the game when it should have been. President John Ziemann and vice president Dr. Jack Vaeth are disturbed. Ziemann said he was told by E. J. Narcise, who is in charge of game operations, that discussing the matter with a certain reporter "was the last man you should have talked to."

That's unfortunate. Owner Jim Speros asked Ziemann to give him a full report today. He won't have the band mistreated. It's something the public won't accept because the band has been in our midst when there hasn't even been a team.

If Narcise is attempting to cut Baltimore off from its tradition, such as playing canned music instead of using the band, he's in for an awakening.

Overall, the crowd liked the show even if it couldn't change the result. Canadian football, specifically its mobility, is pleasing to the eye.

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