Airport reception hails NFL conquering hero

It was a celebration 12 years in the making.

And it started as soon as Art Modell stepped out of Gate E at Baltimore-Washington International Airport last night.

Modell kissed his grandchildren Breslin, Arthur and Collier, who greeted him with white balloons. He hugged Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Then he was greeted by several hundred enthusiastic football fans, who were having a party.

Multicolored confetti covered everybody's clothes. A trumpet and trombone provided music worthy of a presidential campaign rally. This time Modell was the victorious candidate.

After several months of vilification in Cleveland, he had arrived in Baltimore a hero.

Many of the fans held up signs of all shapes and sizes. A small blue-and-white sign read: Baltimore + NFL = a smiley face in the shape of a football. A large purple-and-yellow sign played off a popular beer commercial: "Hey Art, we love you man."

Deborah Reese of Bel Air, who works for the Browns' Baltimore-based advertising agency, made the signage a family affair. She hung one around the neck of each of her children: Ethan, 5, Brianna, 3, and Mackenzi, 10 months.

Ethan's said, "Thanks Mr. Art." Brianna's said, "For Giving Us." Mackenzi's said, "The Ball."

"We've been without football for a long time," Deborah said. "This is like a dream come true."

It was a sentiment shared by football-starved fans around town.

"I didn't believe we would actually get the team until last [Thursday] night," said Norm Stumpf of Brooklyn Park, a Baltimore Colts season-ticket holder for 10 years. "I just hope I can afford the games, but I'll be a fan whether I have to do it from my TV or out at the stadium."

Jim Phillips, the president of the Colts Corral, has no doubt where he will be when the team takes the field at Memorial Stadium next season.

"Section 12, upper three, seats eight and nine," said Phillips, a member of the Colts Corral since 1963. "Those were my seats and I just can't wait to sit there again."

Since the Colts left town in 1984, the Colts Corral has supported the USFL Baltimore Stars and the CFL Baltimore Stallions. For a while, there was no team to support, but the group remained intact.

"We enjoyed the Stars and the Stallions, but we were always hoping for an NFL team," Phillips said. "I'm tremendously elated. I've been an avid Baltimore Colts fan since 1956, and I'll be the same with the Baltimore Whatevers."

The Special Teamers, the volunteer booster group that organized the Save Our Stallions season-ticket drive, is turning its attention to Baltimore's NFL team, as well.

"This is going to be our team and the Special Teamers want to support them and get involved," said Special Teamers coordinator Lucy Kelly. "I enjoyed the two years with the CFL, but I'm an NFL fan. I'm excited."

Even Len "Big Wheel" Burrier is warming up to the NFL.

Burrier, who has led sideline cheers for the Colts, Stars and Stallions, had vowed never to attend an NFL game here if the Stallions left.

"I won't completely close the door, but we have to have a little mourning time," Burrier said. "I put my heart into the Colts and they ripped it out when they left. I put my heart into the Stars and when they left, they ripped it out. We had another winner with the Stallions, and now they're gone.

"I think this is great for the people that wanted an NFL team, but I think this should have been done 10 years ago."

Said former Colt Tom Matte: "I'm very happy for Art Modell and very happy the NFL finally realizes that Baltimore deserves an NFL team. It's bringing a tradition of winning football back to Baltimore, which is something our fans deserve, and Modell will make an effort to have that happen."

Finally, Baltimore Colts Hall of Famer Art Donovan offered his unique perspective.

"I'm happy to see Baltimore get a football team, but I feel sorry for the poor people of Cleveland," Donovan said. "Indianapolis did the same thing to Baltimore, so who knows? I don't really know anybody on their team, except for [Vinny] Testaverde. I never rooted for the Browns. I never rooted for anybody."

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