Ravens put football back in Baltimore


THIS WAS THE ONE that got rid of all the frustration." So said then-Baltimore Colt Leonard Lyles to Sports Illustrated following the team's 34-0 annihilation of the Cleveland Browns in the 1968 NFL championship game.

His words come to mind in light of the most recent watershed moment in Baltimore football -- the Ravens' stunning 39-36 comeback victory over its former biannual nemesis, the two-time defending division champion Jacksonville Jaguars. But the Ravens' win was not so much about relieving frustration as it was a retrieval of something in our collective past, a part of our community soul.

The frustration about which Mr. Lyles spoke was what we all dutifully shared as unwavering fans of a much beloved team.

It included a shutout loss to the Browns in the 1964 title game; an overtime conference playoff loss in 1965 to the Green Bay Packers after Don Chandler's infamous wide field goal tied the game in regulation; and, thanks to a newly adopted division format, missing the playoffs entirely despite losing only one game during the 1967 season. We bore that despair as readily as we had embraced the pride of back-to-back championships, because the team was a palpable part of who we were.

Of course, Mr. Lyles' remark betrayed a fatal flaw that would lead to unprecedented grief. The team placed so much emphasis on its NFL crown that it overlooked its Super Bowl opponent, the AFL champion New York Jets, who forever altered the balance of power in professional football with an unimaginable upset.

Such was our lot as fans to feel jubilation and pain for the Colts in much the way that a parent does for a cherished child. It is the emotional roller coaster that is the compensation for our uncompromising commitment. And we wore both the joy and sorrow like badges of honor and shared them in a togetherness that can only be engendered by mutual devotion.

The Colts' departure stole that from us. It took the collective hope and shared passion that are the reasons we invest our dollars and hearts in professional sports. That is why the pain of loss was so deeply felt.

We tried diligently to fill the void, going so far as to welcome the Canadian Football League, as if that could be a fitting substitute. We invested public dollars and a huge effort in offering the most enticing of expansion opportunities, but the NFL had other ideas. It was more interested in Sunbelt demographics than our time-worn sentimentality and yearning broken heart.

Having been rejected by the league, with much embarrassment and guilt, we turned to another town's team. The NFL was back, but betrothal to Baltimore would have to await a long engagement. We bought the expensive private seat licenses and cheered mightily, but we guarded our virtue against consummation. Then Cleveland got a team, its old name and colors, and the new stadium it had refused Art Modell; and the Ravens got Brian Billick and new competence. Then came Jacksonville.

Before the Ravens' win against the Jaguars, that last truly meaningful football game in Baltimore was the Colts' overtime loss to the Oakland Raiders in the 1977 playoffs. Yes, it was exciting when the NFL returned in 1996. And yes the new stadium and the 1998 win against the Indianapolis Colts brought some closure. But a meaningful game in football terms is measured, win or lose, by whether it touches the common spirit of our community.

Last Sunday, the Ravens won a huge game and did so in the most improbable of fashions. And they offered up a leader in quarterback Tony Banks, whose unflappable casualness is both maddening and awe-inspiring.

And the long-absent passion suddenly burst out of its hibernation. It could be seen and heard in the roar of euphoria that engulfed the after-game concourse as the lower and upper decks spilled into one another with unbridled glee. It was a town meeting in celebration of the wedding of a city and team.

We rediscovered a part of ourselves that day. Surely it cannot be exactly as it was. The players are millionaires now, and we will not meet them at their off-season jobs around town or at our local tavern. Free agents will continue to come and go. But our long-guarded hearts have been released to again face the trials and tribulations that come with commitment and the quest for glory.

Football is back.

Raymond Daniel Burke is a partner with the Baltimore law firm of Freishtat & Sandler.

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