The Maryland Terrapins men's basketball team made a triumphal return home early yesterday, as scores of adoring fans rose before dawn - or stayed up all night - to cheer the team's reaching the Final Four for the first time and to speak of demons exorcised.
A small crowd gathered at Baltimore-Washington International Airport to greet the team's charter flight at 6 a.m. An hour later, more than 100 people were waiting in the cold in College Park when a bus delivered the groggy players to Cole Field House.
"I'm obviously mentally deranged," said Joe Wickers, who woke up at 3:45 a.m. so he could drive to BWI from his home in Tysons Corner, Va. "I always looked at people who showed up at airports and thought they were losers. Here I am."
For many fans, the Terps' drubbing of Stanford on Saturday to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament did more than make history. In a sense, it also erased history - former coach Lefty Driesell's unfulfilled pledge to turn Maryland into the "UCLA of the East"; the cocaine-overdose death of star Len Bias in 1986; the crippling sanctions imposed under former coach Bob Wade for NCAA rules violations.
Not to mention the countless close games that have gone against the Terps - such as the team's last-minute fold in January against the Duke Blue Devils, Maryland's opponent Saturday in Minneapolis.
"Every hard loss this program has endured - that's all washed away," said Jon Miller, a 20-year-old Maryland junior from Elkton. "I'll name my son Gary Williams," he added, referring to the team's coach of 12 years.
The players appreciated the enthusiastic welcome. "It's great to see everybody come out this early in the morning," center Lonny Baxter said as he moved his 6-foot-8 frame through a sea of much shorter people.
"Amazing" was the word backup center Mike Mardesich used to describe the scene. "It's early, and it's cold," he added, as if anyone needed a reminder.
The players weren't shy about attaching great significance to their victory over Stanford. "We made history," Baxter said. "It puts us on another level," Mardesich declared.
Like die-hard fans everywhere, those who showed up yesterday were nutty about their team. With the sky still dark, a pumped-up Nick Clarke strode into BWI.
"The Terps are going to win it all!" he shouted, drawing looks from bleary-eyed travelers. "And Duke's going down, hard-core!"
His excitement did not subside even after a state trooper told him the players would not be entering the terminal for high-fiving. Instead, their bus would pick them up in a freight area closed to the public and whisk them away.
As bands of pink and orange streaked the brightening horizon, Charles Rupp, a 1975 UM graduate from western Howard County, stood near the chain-link fence outside the freight area with nothing to see but much to say. He had hardly slept, he said, fearful he would miss the chance to welcome the team home. He felt he owed the squad a thank-you.
"Maryland's been breaking my heart for 30 years," he explained.
Nearby, a Baltimore County police officer, Tom Reagan, idled in an unmarked cruiser. He was on duty but took off long enough to drive to the airport. He was ready to offer the bus a police escort part of the way home, if need be.
At Cole Field House, about 50 mostly red-clad fans had assembled by 6:30 a.m. The crowd spanned the generations - from infant to elderly. More students might have attended, but the dorms did not reopen from spring break until later in the morning.
People came from all over. Steve Reese left his overnight shift early to make the hourlong drive from Hagerstown. The Wright family - parents Jaime and Thadine and their three children - slept in Terps attire to speed their early-morning getaway from Charles County.
Others spent the night partying. Morning found Mike Norris, a 21-year-old senior from Greenbelt, still awake. After the game, he danced with scores of others on U.S. 1, then turned to Krispy Kreme doughnuts and coffee for a jolt.
"It's just like staying up for a midterm, only more fun," he said. "You don't feel anything, just euphoria."
Jon Miller, the junior from Elkton, was a little wobbly from fatigue. He warned that he was having trouble forming coherent thoughts, then observed, "I've been following this team virtually since before I was born."
As 7 a.m. crept closer, the crowd eclipsed 100. Floating above them were red helium-filled balloons and hand-held signs saying "Dreams do come true" and "Punch us - we're dreaming!"
Then at 6:56, the bus rolled into view and the crowd went wild. "Let's go, Maryland!" they cheered. "Let's go, Maryland!" That was followed by: "We want Duke! We want Duke!" Then as Williams stepped outside, the mantra became: "Gary! Gary!"
Williams, wearing his new "2001 NCAA Regional Champions" cap, seemed exhausted. "I've got my keys," he muttered to an assistant and opened the field house door. He waved faintly, like someone who'd just given one quart of blood too many, and stepped inside.
Fans gave individual players rousing welcomes as they stepped off the bus, before finding another refrain: "Final Four! Final Four!" Once the players had disappeared inside Cole, that cry gave way to: "We want breakfast! We want breakfast!"
Within minutes, players and coaches began filtering back out of Cole and toward home. Players patiently signed anything thrust at them - newspapers, stuffed terrapins, fans' shirts.
Ten-year-old Bethany White of Hyattsville, sporting red M's painted on each cheek, showed off the autographs she got - Baxter, Mardesich, Tahj Holden, Byron Mouton, Steve Blake and Williams.
"I feel like I should wear gloves," she said. "Can't get fingerprints on it. It's magic."
A few feet away, a television reporter had asked Williams, "How do you feel?"
"It feels great; I'm looking forward to this weekend," the coach replied before climbing into his black Toyota 4Runner.
Jeff Weaver has followed the team since moving to the Washington area in 1965 after college. Yesterday, he wore an old army helmet painted to look like a terrapin shell, with a toy terrapin head stuck on the front.
As he walked away, he couldn't help but get misty-eyed. "So many years of just waiting and waiting," he said. "It's like it's a dream."
But anyone who thought the whole region is pulling for the Terps should have been at the Dunkin' Donuts on U.S. 1. There sat Chris Holder, a 24-year-old microbiology graduate student at Maryland.
He wore a Duke T-shirt and Duke shorts. He knows he should be more careful about what he wears this week.
"The real problem will come next weekend if Maryland wins," he said. "Then I'll have to really watch my back."