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Once, the Stallions rode high

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They came out of nowhere - a nameless, patchwork expansion team peopled by rookies, free agents and vagabonds roaming the netherworld between college and pro football.

The mix proved magical.

In their short, two-year fling in the Canadian Football League, the Baltimore Stallions won a championship - five years ago today. In the process, they captured the hearts of a cadre of fans eager to embrace any form of surrogate Colts.

The Stallions also aggravated an entire nation of flannel-wearing, ice-fishing, Mountie-loving denizens vexed by the success of these blue-and-silver upstarts from south of their border.

The Stallions won the Grey Cup, hoisted the Grey Cup, drank from the Grey Cup ... and were gone. Poof. By 1996, Baltimore had married into the National Football League again. Once the Ravens arrived, the Stallions were, well, nevermore.

Gone, but not forgotten, certainly not in the Land of Long Johns. In its brief, drive-by showing, Baltimore set a CFL mark that may never be eclipsed - most victories in a season (18).

Moreover, the Stallions remain the only U.S. team ever to bag the cherished Canadian trophy. A moose head, it isn't.

"Winning the Cup was the high point of my 13-year career," said Tracy Ham, the Stallions' quarterback and Most Valuable Player of the 1995 championship game, played in Regina, Saskatchewan. "It defined me as an established QB."

In that windswept contest, a 37-20 defeat of Calgary, Ham passed for 213 yards, ran for a touchdown and outplayed Doug Flutie, the former Heisman Trophy winner who was then Calgary's general.

Rookie Chris Wright scooted 82 yards with a punt for the Stallions' first score. Carlos Huerta booted five field goals. And linebacker O. J. Brigance blocked a punt that was recovered for a TD.

The mostly Canadian crowd of 52,000 left, dazed.

"We ... got stuffed," Flutie said afterward.

The victory, Baltimore's 13th in a row, climaxed an 18-3 season in which heroes changed weekly. Any game might feature four touchdowns by running back Mike Pringle, five sacks by Elfrid Payton or a game-winning goal-line stand.

Once, left-footed Josh Miller saved the Stallions' hide by drilling six punts an average of 57 yards; twice, Huerta kicked last-second field goals for victory.

"Every game, it was like, 'Who's going to step up and meet the challenge?' " Ham said. "Our motto in '95 was 'Unfinished Business'; we'd lost the Grey Cup the year before on a late field goal. Our desire to go back [to the title game] was so great that everyone put aside their personal issues. There was no animosity. That's the mentality of a good team."

Retired in February, Ham, 35, went home to Statesboro, Ga., opened a 10-chair barbershop (The Master's Den) and tucked away his championship ring, a diamond keepsake for his two sons.

"We felt like we left a legacy to our fans in Baltimore, too, except they got robbed of enjoying it with us," Ham said. "Normally, that celebration starts the following year, in training camp, when people come out and relive that great season. Only the fans didn't get to experience that.

"They got cheated, more than anyone."

When the Ravens arrived, the Stallions bolted to Montreal, where they adopted a new name (Alouettes, the name of the former franchise in that city), coach and owner. Financial woes dislodged Jim Speros, who had owned the club in Baltimore. Speros could not be reached for comment last week.

Today, five years out of Maryland, the Alouettes will play in the Grey Cup for the first time since their transformation. Montreal (14-6) will face British Columbia (10-10) for the title in Calgary.

There are a few vestiges of the franchise's past, notably Pringle, who rushed for a league-record 19 touchdowns this year, and general manager Jim Popp, a holdover from Baltimore.

The Alouettes have won at least 12 games in each of their five years in Canada. Yet among the knickknacks on the desk of his Montreal office, Popp keeps both a miniature replica of Memorial Stadium and a tiny Stallions helmet.

"Sure, I reflect back on it," Popp said. "There's nothing like drinking champagne from the Grey Cup. It crystallized all we'd done in those two years, from the day we hauled card tables and folding chairs into our 'offices' in the stadium, stepping over the rats that were running through the place.

"For that team to accomplish what it did, in that amount of time, was absolutely remarkable."

Assembling the roster from scratch was a hectic experience, said Don Matthews, the Stallions' head coach, who has continued to coach in the CFL. His staff practically signed bodies off the street.

"The coaches had a contest - whoever recruited the most players would win a million-dollar prize. We decided he would get a dollar a year for a million years," Matthews said. He has long forgotten the winner.

He does remember quirky sidelights, like the team practicing on run-down Kirk Field while a bum slept in the press box. And a killer stretch in which the Stallions had to play three games in 10 days, a schedule Matthews calls "inhumane."

No one squawked back then.

"Nothing bothered anybody; we never made an issue of anything," said Matthews, the winningest coach in CFL history. "That team had a mission. They felt it was their destiny to win the Cup."

When the Stallions went north, Matthews veered to Toronto and won back-to-back championships in 1996-97. Now head coach at Edmonton and a veteran of 12 Grey Cup appearances, he still marvels at the attitude, the atmosphere surrounding that Baltimore club.

"A coach can do little things, but the players determine the outcome of games," Matthews said. "They took me on a ride, and I was happy to go along."

Forgotten, the Stallions are not. A bevy of Baltimoreans were to trek to today's Grey Cup game, as they've done every year, displaying banners and jerseys that celebrate their old team.

"I still get birthday cards from Stallions fans," said Brigance, a mainstay on the '95 club who is now a Ravens linebacker. At 31, he returned here this year after four seasons in Miami.

The lone reminder of Baltimore's CFL entry, Brigance has provided closure, of sorts, for fans of the old regime.

"People come up to me all the time saying, 'I really enjoyed the Stallions' games and everything you guys did for this city,' " he said. "When I see them at Ravens games, in Stallions T-shirts and hats, it brings a smile to my face.

"Five years ago, I hated to leave Baltimore - that team had so much talent - but as it turned out, the game that kicked me out of this city wound up giving me another job here. God's hand is on everything."

Now, Brigance said, fans are serving up another scenario: "Hey, O. J., we've got the Grey Cup - how 'bout a Super Bowl?"

The thought makes Brigance grin.

"Man, I'd love to be the bridge between those teams."

Where they went

Here's what happened to a majority of the 45 players on the 1995 Grey Cup champions (37 active each game).

Quarterbacks

Tracy Ham: MVP of the Cup, played four seasons with Montreal, retiring before the 2000 season.

Shawn Jones: Former Georgia Tech standout never played again.

Dan Crowley: Third-stringer with Montreal in '96. Spent two seasons in Italy (semipro) before returning to the CFL as the backup in Edmonton the past two seasons for coach Don Matthews.

Running backs

Mike Pringle: This year, the RB for Montreal was a finalist for the Most Outstanding Player award, which he won in '95 and '98. In '98, he became the fifth pro player to rush for more than 2,000 yards. He is second on the CFL's all-time rushing list.

Robert Drummond: Shared the FB spot. Went to Toronto with Matthews, where he starred for three seasons. Spent the past two seasons with the B.C. Lions.

Peter Tuipulotu: Other FB. Played the '96 season in Saskatchewan, but the CFL's rules limiting the number of non-Canadians on rosters ended his career. Assisted Towson University in '97.

Receivers

Chris Armstrong: Played four more seasons in the CFL, mostly in Montreal (also spent time in Winnipeg). Retired before the 2000 season

Gerald Alphin: Late pickup during the season (cut by Winnipeg in cost-cutting maneuver). Never played another game after the victory over Calgary.

Shannon Culver: Spent the past five seasons in the Arena League with several teams.

Robert Clark: Retired after the season and has been a guest coach during training camp with Matthews while he was in Toronto.

Offensive line

Shar Pourdanesh: In his second season with the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers (he's the third tackle) after starting for the Washington Redskins for three seasons.

Mark Dixon: Played two more seasons in Montreal. In his third season as the Miami Dolphins' starting LG. Possible Pro Bowl pick.

Neal Fort: Still the RT for Montreal, playing in all but four games in his seven-year CFL career.

Mike Withycombe: CFL's top lineman in '95. Spent '96 season in Montreal and '97 with the B.C. Lions.

Nick Subis: Center was victim of Canadian quota rules in '96 and never played again.

Defensive line

Elfrid Payton: Sack specialist plays for Winnipeg. Played in Montreal ('96-99). Failed in an NFL tryout with New Orleans in '96 before returning to the CFL.

Grant Carter: Strong-side end is MLB for Don Matthews in Edmonton. Also played with Montreal and Winnipeg since leaving Baltimore. Also failed in an NFL tryout with San Diego in '97.

Jearld Baylis: Star NT played briefly for Ottawa in '96 and the Arena League in '97.

Demetrious Maxie: Plays in Saskatchewan after stops in Montreal and Toronto. Named to CFL All-Star team for second straight year.

Willie Whitehead: The fourth DT (active for just two games in two seasons in Baltimore) is a reserve DE for the NFL's New Orleans Saints.

Linebackers

O. J. Brigance: Leads the Ravens in special teams tackles. Had 82 special teams stops in four seasons with the Miami Dolphins. Pro Bowl alternate in 1998.

Tracy Gravely: Still in Montreal. Led the Alouettes in special teams stops (no longer a starter at strong-side linebacker).

Matt Goodwin: The '94 Rookie of the Year failed in a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys in '96. Became a lawyer.

Reggie Givens: Brigance's backup at MLB spent two seasons in Toronto with Matthews, then played two seasons on special teams with the San Francisco 49ers. Played first 10 games this season with the Washington Redskins, then was released.

Ken Benson: Spent time with Montreal, Toronto and Saskatchewan. Injuries ended his career before the 2000 season.

Alvin Walton: Big-time special teams player (and former Redskins standout) never played again.

Defensive backs

Irv Smith: Star corner (Maryland and Poolesville High grad) still in Montreal, where he made the CFL All-Star team for the sixth time in seven seasons.

Lester Smith: Spent three seasons with Matthews in Toronto before returning to Montreal for the past two seasons. League's best FS.

Charles Anthony: Spent '96 season in the NFL with San Francisco (IR) and Tampa Bay. Returned to the CFL in '98 (Toronto) and '99 (Edmonton) with Matthews. Retired before this season.

Ken Watson: Played four more seasons in the CFL with Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton. Retired before this season.

Doug Craft: Played four more seasons in Montreal. Retired before this season.

Specialists

Carlos Huerta: Kicked for the Bears and Rams in '96, went to camp with the Bills in '97, but has spent the past three seasons in the Arena League. Sells real estate in Las Vegas.

Josh Miller: In his fifth season as the Steelers' punter. Pro Bowl alternate in 1999.

Rob Davis: In his fourth season as the Green Bay Packers' long snapper after snapping for the Chicago Bears in 1996.

Chris Wright: Returner tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the first practice in Montreal in 1996 and was never the same player, though he played in Montreal through the '99 season.

Coaches

Don Matthews: Spent three seasons in Toronto ('96-98) where he won back-to-back Grey Cups with Doug Flutie. Just finished his second season with Edmonton (where he began his CFL coaching career as an assistant in 1977). Candidate for the Saints coaching job in 1997, but they hired Mike Ditka. The winningest coach in CFL history, with 183 regular-season victories.

Bob Price: Took over in Montreal when Matthews moved to Toronto and led the Alouettes to the first of five straight trips to the Eastern final. Left after a year. In his fourth season at the University of Virginia (coaching DBs).

Steve Buratto: Didn't coach again until this season. Now head coach with B.C. Lions, who upset Matthews' Edmonton team on the way to a berth in today's Grey Cup against Montreal.

Marty Long: In his fifth season as the University of Arizona's DL coach.

Others

Jim Popp: Player personnel guru in Baltimore. Now in his fifth season as the GM in Montreal

Brad Melland: Equipment manager. Now in his fourth season with the NFL's Seattle Seahawks

Jeff Jacobs: Video coordinator. Now in his first season with the NFL's New Orleans Saints

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