Ravens fanatic

Bruce Raffel holds up his Matt Stover (left) and Kyle Boller bobbleheads while posing in his basement, which has purple carpeting and yellow walls as a tribute to the Ravens.
Bruce Raffel holds up his Matt Stover (left) and Kyle Boller bobbleheads while posing in his basement, which has purple carpeting and yellow walls as a tribute to the Ravens. (Sun photo by Lloyd Fox)
The thoughts tug at Bruce Raffel's mind and tumble his guts.

Yet another Sunday night passes with little comfortable sleep. And as he tries to shift his mind to work on Monday, he just can't let go of the previous day's happenings.

What if he had been able to tell Brian Billick to run on third-and-short instead of calling another fruitless pass? Might the Ravens have held on instead of crashing to another dispiriting loss?

If you're wondering, Raffel doesn't work for the Ravens or any other NFL team. He's not a scout. He never played football above the recreational league level. At age 49, he has spent most of his working life making sure that elderly people have comfortable beds and healthy meals.

But on Sundays, and really every day because his passion can't be contained easily, Bruce Raffel is a football fan.

That sounds simple, like saying your buddy plays the standing bass or your grandmother collects porcelain dolls. But it's not.

As it does to many Americans, football has crawled inside Raffel and lodged itself as something more than a hobby and slightly less than an obsession.

Why does the game so possess this trim, friendly father of three, who runs two assisted-living homes and says he "loves to take care of old people"?

Football, Raffel says, offers a unique chance to be immature and mature at the same time. On Sundays, he gets to dress in purple camouflage pants and bellow in common purpose with 70,000 other nuts at M&T Bank Stadium. But as he runs through the games in his mind, he gets to apply critical thinking skills built up over a lifetime.

Of course, that part of it can get a little out of hand. After the Ravens' sloppy Monday night loss in Cincinnati to open the season, Raffel said he had to pace up and down his driveway just to burn off the frustrated energy.

For road games, he doesn't like a big crowd in the house because "I want to dissect every bit of it, talk to the TV, yell.

"Sometimes, it's best for me to be alone," he surmises.

For the past few years, Raffel has unleashed his daily football musings on BaltimoreBeatdown.com, a Google blog that gets a few thousand hits a week. He loves that people care about his opinions and believes that many of his pronouncements are prescient.

"Brian Billick would do very well to read my blog," he says.

As a manifestation of his inner love for football, Raffel has transformed his basement into a very outward tribute to the Ravens. From the tree-lined driveway to the basketball hoop outside to the barking dogs at the door, Raffel's Reisterstown home screams stereotypical suburbia ... until he opens the door to the lower level and reveals the first glimpse of plush purple carpeting and bright yellow walls.

The color scheme persists throughout the basement, and Raffel's attention to detail is astounding. From the life-size cutout of Ray Lewis bursting from one wall to the Ravens' light-switch covers to the purple-clad Santa statue on top of the television, this super fan has every angle covered.

Some objects have odd stories. There's the nesting doll of Vinny Testaverde, ordered special from Russia through a shop in Juneau, Alaska. There's the light-up Ravens sign, which Raffel won on eBay for 99 cents only to pay $29.99 to have it shipped from China.

"I just always try to have an eye out," he says.

If you're thinking his family members must be horrified by the decor, they're not.

"I think it's pretty cool," says Raffel's college-aged daughter, Melanie. "My friends like it, too."

"If you had seen the before, you'd know why I'm fine with the after," says Raffel's wife, Lisa. "I actually love what he's done."

Lisa Raffel always has supported her husband's passion for sports. They joke that he knew he had found love when he saw a basketball in her trunk on their first date.

"I just like to see him happy," she says. "And I think he's happiest when he's talking about sports or writing his blogs. He's the biggest fan I've ever met."

Raffel grew up along the Liberty Road corridor in Baltimore County and graduated from Milford Mill High School. His dad wasn't much of a sports fan, but Raffel came of age in a golden era for Baltimore teams, with the Colts, Orioles and Bullets all contending year after year.

In the summer, Raffel and his friends donned their leather mitts and dived after ground balls, pretending to be Brooks Robinson. Come autumn, everybody wanted to be Johnny Unitas, tossing touchdown passes in two-hand tag games along neighborhood streets.

Even then, football fit both the analytical and emotional sides of Raffel's being. He memorized statistics and guessed how plays were designed. But he also loved that the Colts felt like regular guys from a million different backgrounds, united by a single purpose.

He watched live as Unitas tossed his last scoring pass for the Colts and cringed as he watched the hobbled master end his career in San Diego. His fandom waned as he went off to college in Connecticut and the Colts' fortunes fell. But the team's departure in 1984 still felt like a gut punch.

If he has any regret about those years, it's that he failed to apply for a job at a little-known cable station he and his college buddies watched - ESPN.

"I could've been Dan Patrick," he says wistfully.

Raffel returned to the Baltimore area and rooted for the city's substitute teams - the Stars of the U.S. Football League and the Stallions of the Canadian Football League. In fact, he still sounds a little miffed about a call that went against the Stallions in their first stab at the Grey Cup.

"There's no question in my mind that they just didn't want a team from Baltimore winning the Canadian league championship," he says.

But the real fire of his football fandom was ignited by the Ravens' arrival in 1996. Raffel found it a little disquieting to pull for a Baltimore team that didn't wear the blue and white, especially given that the Ravens were lifted from another longtime NFL town.

He and his brother-in-law bought season tickets from the start, however, and after a couple years, loving the Ravens felt right. When the team got to the Super Bowl in January 2001, Raffel flew to Florida without a ticket. He even appeared on Channel 13 holding a sign that said he would trade his wife for entry to the game. Eventually, he paid $1,500 for his seat.

Raffel knew it was worth it when, as the Ravens pulled away, Baltimore fans gathered behind the team's bench and he found himself beside an elderly couple, embracing and weeping with joy.

The collective emotion of the moment embodied much of what he loves in the game.

That's why, come any given Wednesday in the fall, Raffel already is counting down to Sunday. He knows that he and his brother-in-law will stop by Mark's Deli for sandwiches, then drive down so they can stand in the parking lot and down beers with fellow fans. Then, it will be up to the club level for his weekly fix.

"I don't know the people in my section. I don't know what they do for a living or what they're thinking about all week," he says. "But I know that for three hours on Sunday, we all bleed gold and purple. In a world full of terrible things, there's something very reassuring about that."