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Festivus Ravenous!

THE BALTIMORE SUN

REMEMBER the purple glow that bathed Charm City for weeks? The auto antennas, city sidewalks and fire hydrants that sprouted purple banners?

It seems a lifetime ago, though it was just last January. Baltimore leapt back onto the national sports map. The disparate reaches of this community coalesced around a bunch of men in thick padding and shiny helmets. The Ravens were champs -- and so were we all.

"This is the greatest city in America, and we have the greatest football team in the world," exulted Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, hailing "our conquering heroes." Some 200,000 screaming fanatics rejoiced under fireworks at the rain-drenched rally at City Hall and swarmed the streets in celebratory parade.

The exuberance of Festivus Maximus swept over the region as the Baltimore Ravens decisively captured Super Bowl XXXV, reviving the civic spirits of a city and state desperately longing for respect in the high-profile world of professional football.

That heady triumph in January validated the return of a champion's mindset to Baltimore. It made us feel good again about where we live and who we are, and in some distant way made us believe in this place again.

The team's victory -- and the exuberant effect it had on this community -- earns the Ravens organization, collectively, The Sun's Marylander of the Year award for 2001.

It was a team accomplishment shared beyond the visible players and coaches. Executive leadership and behind-the-scenes personnel contributed to the ultimate success in bringing home the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The team, just 5 years old, surprised both the National Football League and its newfound hometown with a convincing march through the playoffs to the championship that left no doubts about the legitimacy of its claim.

The resounding victory balmed the psychic wounds of Baltimore, long suffering from the abrupt loss of the Colts franchise in 1984 and an agonizing series of rejections by the NFL in repeated quests for a new team.

It was for many a ringing vindication of the community's unflagging belief that this was a major league city worthy of a championship football team.

That buoyant triumphant spirit flowed far beyond the confines of (haplessly named) PSINet Stadium and the city limits.

In Carroll County, the swarm of visitors to the Ravens' training camp at Western Maryland College nearly tripled this summer. Baltimore County moved to lay the groundwork for a new Ravens year-round complex in Owings Mills. Anne Arundel County proclaimed Ravens Appreciation Month.

Maryland politicians in Annapolis eagerly embraced the winning warriors, emphasizing their part in building the new stadium that showcased the team's Sunday battles. "What a day to be a Ravens fan," exclaimed Gov. Parris Glendening, a longtime denizen of Washington Redskins territory.

In fact, it took a Maryland commitment of a quarter-billion dollars to prepare for and build the 69,000-seat football stadium downtown and pave the way for owner Art Modell to transplant his former Cleveland Browns here under a new name and colors.

After four seasons struggling to build an identity, and gain a winning record, the Ravens exploded with a breakout year that few could foresee even halfway through the schedule. The result was a contagion of local support and a shower of national media exposure for the city and state.

Baltimore took full advantage to parade its attractions, rejoicing in the display of a rejuvenated downtown and wildly proclaiming itself Comeback City.

Media attention was incessant in the traditional hype and prolonged buildup to the Super Bowl game itself. In the aftermath, the Ravens landed their first home game on Monday Night Football, a nationwide TV showcase for the host city, and HBO cable network produced a six-part series following the Ravens through summer training.

Local business boosters proudly pointed to the Super Bowl champions as a distinctive cachet in their efforts to lure new enterprises and conventions to the area. "The Ravens have been the ultimate door opener," the mayor said.

Economists would continue to argue whether the Super Bowl appearance of the Ravens had a positive economic impact on this region and whether taxpayers had paid too much for the stadium. But state Treasurer Richard N. Dixon had no doubts. "We wanted a football team in the worst way, and the deal was very lucrative," he said.

Initially, public reaction to the team's transfer from Cleveland in early 1996 was mixed.

Eager football fans and those expecting the reincarnation of the Colts embraced the new arrivals enthusiastically, ravenous for tickets and the chance again to rock Memorial Stadium on Sundays.

Skeptics worried that this was another temporary visitation of NFL nomadic mercenaries. The Browns were, after all, in disarray on the playing field and on the financial ledger. And in the rapture of reclaiming a pro franchise, some brooded that Baltimore had exhibited the same callous behavior for which it had endlessly condemned Indianapolis.

But the new team with unfamiliar players was NFL football. This was the real thing -- not the Canadian Football League or the United States Football League, other fleeting sojourners in the community.

A dozen years of negative energy -- against the smug Redskins in Washington, the haughty powers of the NFL, the perfidious Colts -- found a new, positive outlet.

Players and coaches came and went in the first years, as respectable mediocrity appeared the most palpable goal. But fundamental, deceptively unspectacular excellence was developing.

Personnel chief Ozzie Newsome craftily selected key players, in the college draft and in the market, to meld together as winners. Mr. Modell, who never had a Super Bowl team in nearly four decades as an owner, found new confidence and financial footing to direct the franchise toward a new level.

Brian Billick arrived as neophyte head coach in 1999, forcefully driving, inspiring and transforming the Ravens. Known for his offensive coaching, Mr. Billick shrewdly adapted the game plan to take advantage of a devastating defense forged by Marvin Lewis, coupled with a cautious offense.

Fan expectations and community involvement in the fate of the Ravens rose as victories mounted and unfamiliar hope took hold. Seldom the favorite, yet seldom outplayed, a low-seeded wild card in the playoffs, the Ravens conquered through the virtues of toughness and dogged persistence that seemed to mirror the community's self-image.

The 2001 Super Bowl triumph was singular. That victorious season is now solidly embedded in Baltimore sports history.

Yet the magic of the moment still reverberates. Everybody loves a winner, so the trappings of Ravens fandom proliferate. The label "defending champs" evokes proud hope in the current hunt.

Instead of getting a new museum, as the NFL commissioner once scornfully suggested, the community got a new football team.

Their championship was one for us all.

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