Post World War II, Baltimore used to be described as: “that marble-step city stuck on a railroad track between New York and Washington.” That changed, and the Baltimore Colts of the 1950s and early ‘60s were the first act in the transformation. And then under new owners, the Colts fled to Indiana in 1984.
So, as an old Baltimore Colts fan I write, as the Indianapolis Colts come to town this weekend to play the Ravens, to explain why we still have a right to get upset (“Ravens v. Colts scouting report for Week 3: Who has the edge?” Sept. 21). And do I have Colts bragging rights. I was there the first game with my Dad on Memorial Stadium’s wooden bleacher seats when our town’s Colts epiphany began.
It was Sept. 27, 1953, and our brand-new Baltimore Colts NFL team, built from a defunct Dallas, Texas, team, upset the mighty Chicago Bears 13-9. And we won on a desperate, last-minute field goal by defensive back Albert Daniel “Bert” Rechichar. He had never kicked one before. His 56-yard kick remained the league record for distance for almost two decades. And he immortalized it by telling the kick holder, “Get that ball down ‘cause I got to go to the bathroom.”
Hard to top that, but in only five years, the Colts, with their 1958 NFL Championship victory over the New York Giants, in “The Greatest Football Game Ever Played,” established themselves as the best anywhere, and many of the guys on the team lived and worked in our town. We teenagers doted on hamburgers from Gino Marchetti’s and Alan Ameche’s fast food shops.
And then came the icing on the cake, once again involving the Bears. In Chicago on Nov. 13, 1960, John Unitas, our quarterback and arguably the best in football history, was smashed to the turf by a Chicago forearm. Johnny U. had been clobbered in the face by the 6-foot, 8-inch tall, 260-pound Doug Atkins. The Bears were nursing a grudge: Several weeks earlier in Baltimore the Colts had humiliated them 42-7, and Unitas had thrown four touchdown passes.
His eyes swollen, his nose gashed open and broken, blood pouring down his white uniform jersey, Unitas somehow got to his feet. Watching on TV back in Baltimore, we were horrified by our wounded civic hero. He had become underdog archetype of how we then saw ourselves. Unitas’ father died when the quarterback 5. He was delivering coal off a truck at age 8, drafted after college and cut by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers. Unitas was working on a pile driver and playing semipro football for $6 a game when the Colts invited him for a tryout.
To stay in the Bears game, Unitas and one of his linemen grabbed gobs of grass and mud and stuffed them up into and onto his nose to staunch the spurts of blood. Not Hopkins medicine, but it worked. Time running out, a wobbling Unitas called a play the team had never practiced, backpedaled, double-pumped his arm and threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to halfback Lennie Moore, and the Colts won the game, 24-20. Even some of the Chicago fans had to applaud.
But then came a new absentee owner named Robert Irsay, and shortly after an airport news conference in 1984, during which he promised the city he would not move “the goddamn team,” they were gone, sneaking off to Indianapolis in the middle of the night, leaving Baltimore for 12 years without a National Football League franchise. In 1996, when a football team was finally found for Baltimore, Indy was asked to give back the Colts name. Oh, sure, they graciously said, for $25 million.
And this Sunday, 39 years after the team left Baltimore, its players will still wear the same uniform originated here: white helmet with blue horseshoe, and shirt with two shoulder stripes.
Despite all this, Baltimore will be hospitable this weekend. But to commemorate the number of years we have been without the Colts, we should beat them by a margin of 39 points.
— Stan Heuisler, Baltimore
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