Ravens, win this one for Unitas

The Baltimore Sun

And so the Colts will have to return to Baltimore for a football game that really matters, and the dramaturge in all of us wants to see this as the biggest grudge match of the new millennium, the mother of all paybacks, the purge of all purges, a chance for Baltimore, once and for all, to beat the devil.

There's no dancing around it. A Colts-Ravens playoff in Baltimore next weekend - assured by Indianapolis' defeat of the Kansas City Chiefs yesterday - has all the makings of not only a great football game but also a massive emotional freak-out.

For many here, nothing would be finer than the Ravens knocking the Colts out of the NFL playoffs, 23 years after the Colts ownership dumped Baltimore for Indianapolis. They will be out for blood. For others, the clash of colors and emotions - the ole blue-and-white against Ravens purple - might be too much to bear. And a younger generation, holding no grudges, might crack back at their elders with a get-over-it-you-geezers shout.

Yes, the mixture of feelings spanning three generations could cause a disturbance in the universe.

But before we get too carried away, let me make this clear to the outside world, and Bob Costas: While we here hold dear the golden days of the Baltimore Colts, we don't spend a lot of time trying to make fine whines out of sour grapes. You won't find many group therapy sessions for heartbroken Colts fans anymore, hon.

Most of us have snapped out of it.

We have moved on . . . pretty much.

Some of us still have flare-ups of Unitas-and-Nostalgia, and some of us still feel an arthritic grudge deep in the bones, but they have a treatment for that now, and it comes in a little purple tube.

This is Ravenstown.

It has been for a while now.

Courting a city that had been NFL-deprived for 12 years - ending our long, regional nightmare - the Ravens spoiled us early and fast in the mid-1990s by doing something the Colts had stopped doing in the early 1980s: They won football games, four in their first season alone!

The state's prenup with the Ravens required us to build them a new house. We did (by 1998), and they won a Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., to top off their fifth season.

There was a victory parade on Pratt Street, with a marching band and 73 military-style Humvees carrying Ravens players past 200,000 screaming fans in an icy rain to City Hall. You had Art Modell in a topcoat next to the Baha Men singing "Who Let the Dogs Out?"

It was a beautiful thing.

So, the outside world needs to understand: The primary colors of the Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin are purple, black and gold, and have been for a while now.

We've gotten over that Colts-left-us thing.

Pretty much.

Pretty . . . much.

And I say "pretty much" because, you see, the matter hasn't gone away fully, and it probably won't for another generation.

It's like this big, family thing around here, an heirloom subject carted out and thrown open for discussion every now and then, as in this particular NFL playoff season, with the stars aligned as they have never been before.

And, when you get into this discussion, watch out! It's like a call to supper.

Each member of the extended family - the Baltimore professional football Diaspora - piles back into the room, and they sit at the table, or on the soft chairs and couches, and on the arms of the soft chairs and couches, and suddenly there are all these generations arguing: The old-and-gray, who grew up bleeding blue-and-white; the middle-aged, who grew up in the Unitas Church of 33rd Street, but who might now own PSLs at M&T; and the 30-somethings, 20-somethings and teens, who reserve their passion for the Ravens and to whom the Colts mean nothing but a formidable foe.

The young ones are Ravens fans. They might hear their elders speak reverently of the bygone Baltimore Colts, but to them Johnny Unitas is a statue. They listen politely to all the sentimentality about The Greatest Game Ever Played - as their parents once listened politely to World War II veterans speak of the Battle of the Bulge - but they are pretty much impatient with all that. Generally, with the 30-somethings and 20-somethings and teens, the attitude is, "Get over it."

There are exceptions.

"I was two years old when the Colts left," a young man named Chris Merriam wrote to the Random Rodricks blog. "But I still hate them, on the level of the Yankees and Duke."

"I'm only 23, but I do still feel a bit of animosity towards the Colts organization," wrote Tim Horwath in an e-mail to WBAL Radio last week. "Because of the move [to Indianapolis] I grew up without a team. It was so bad I even stooped to rooting for the Cowboys for a while. Today, I am a huge Ravens fan and would love to see them beat the crap out of the Colts."

Still, most of the 20- and 30-somethings seem to hold no ill will against the Colts. They might even admire Indy quarterback Peyton Manning for not only his football skill but also his ability to make many millions of dollars with TV commercials.

Some were kids in the late 1980s and early 1990s and became attached to other teams while waiting for Baltimore to get a new franchise.

"I'm 22 years old, born and raised in Baltimore by parents who were not sports fans," Ethan Renner wrote in an e-mail to the radio station. "No one taught me to hate the Colts. I was left to fend for myself and as a result, I grew up a huge John Elway/Denver Broncos fan. The old, blue horseshoe means nothing to me, and I wouldn't take extra pleasure in a Colts loss to the Ravens.

"I'm of the generation that looks at sports as a business, just another form of entertainment, and I had no problem even shifting my loyalty to the Yankees when my favorite baseball player Mike Mussina left town."

Then there are those in midlife. They straddle both Baltimore football eras.

The 40- and 50- and 60-somethings are more likely to experience emotional trauma over the whole Colts-Ravens thing.

Their parents made them read from the Colts catechism every week, and their attachment to the Unitas-Moore-Mackey days runs through memories of childhood.

Those emotions run deep, no doubt.

But a person has only so much emotional energy for football, and the Ravens get most of it now. Some of the mid-lifers will wish the Irsay-owned Colts nothing but failure, and savor their every defeat - particularly one at the hands of Ray Lewis & Co.

But some aren't so caught up in Indy ire anymore.

"Bob Irsay is dead," Hal Laurent wrote in the Random Rodricks Sun blog the other day. "There's no longer any reason to hate the Colts, other than for fun."

Some might acknowledge Manning as a great quarterback, and they might consider Tony Dungy, the Colts head coach, a nice guy. They have some deep-seated affection for the Colts.

But don't worry - they still want the Ravens to win.

As for the proud Baltimore Colts generation, those who lived and died by the ole blue horseshoe back in the day - they hold the biggest cache of bitterness, and it rests deep in the bones.

They have enjoyed watching the Curse of the Colts play out every year, with Indianapolis blowing great chances to advance to the Super Bowl, and nothing would make them happier than to see the Ravens extend the Curse.

They will always hate the late Robert Irsay for destroying the Colts and then pulling them out of Baltimore.

They will always hold a grudge against Paul Tagliabue, the sneering NFL commissioner who said that Baltimore should build a nice museum instead of a stadium to attract a new football team.

All those old, bad feelings come out when this subject comes up, as in this charmed NFL post-season.

"Yes, we still hate the Indy Colts, but we are not alone," Alan Hess wrote in a Random Rodricks posting. "The football gods also hate them, and will never let that team reach a Super Bowl until the Baltimore Colts' name and logo is retired, and Jim Irsay stops living off Baltimore Colts' history. . . . If the Ravens are to be the instrument of the football gods this season, so shall it be."

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Hear Dan Rodricks from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays on The Buzz on WBAL Radio (1090 AM).

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