xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

‘It’s like being back home’: Ravens fans embrace return to full M&T Bank Stadium for the first time in almost two years

Early Sunday morning, Chuck Bryant slipped into his Ravens gear and loaded up his car with everything except the kitchen sink. The Baltimore City native then headed for Russell Street to mark his 20th year of tailgating in a commercial strip across the street from M&T Bank Stadium — and his first since the coronavirus rearranged life.

“It feels good and it feels right,” the Baltimore City Sheriff’s deputy said. “It’s like being back home.”

Advertisement

For the first time in nearly two years, Baltimore City is hosting one of its most anticipated events — a full-capacity Ravens game — after the pandemic rolled across Maryland, shuttering businesses, restaurants and sports venues. And the team, and its fans, could not return in a brighter spotlight: a prime-time game against a Super Bowl contender, the Kansas City Chiefs, featuring two former league Most Valuable Players in Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

After being told to stay home and watch football games from the couch last season, fans clad in Jackson jerseys said Sunday that they mostly missed the camaraderie. They missed the ability to high-five a stranger after a touch down. They missed grilling outside and playing drinking games with their friends. And they missed the cheering, yelling and chanting.

Advertisement
Advertisement

But mostly they missed the ability to look at someone next to them and know they had something in common.

M&T Bank Stadium holds over 71,000 people and hasn’t had a sellout game since a divisional-round game against the Tennessee Titans on Jan. 11, 2020.

The Ravens opened the 2020 season without fans.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, then loosened restrictions, allowing 250 people to be at outdoor venues. At the time, the Ravens allowed family members of coaches, players and other team personnel.

Advertisement

In October, the Ravens received approval from Hogan and former Baltimore City Mayor Bernard “Jack” C. Young to have 10% capacity for the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 1. The Ravens had 4,345 fans in attendance that afternoon.

About two weeks later, citing rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the team again barred fans from attending games. Spectators never returned to the stadium last season after that.

Earlier this year, coronavirus restrictions loosened as vaccines helped contain the spread of COVID in Maryland and allowed people to return to normalcy, including attending sports events.

Neighboring Camden Yards opened the 2021 baseball season in March at 25% capacity but by the end of May was allowed to sell its more than 45,000 tickets available for each game. So far, the Orioles most-attended game was July 24 when nearly 31,000 spectators showed up for Jim Palmer bobblehead night.

The Preakness Stakes was capped at 10,000 spectators in May in hopes of keeping transmission of the virus low.

At the end of August, the 2021 BMW Championship marked the first PGA Tour event to the region in almost 60 years, and it brought more than 100,000 people to Baltimore County’s Caves Valley Golf Club over the course of four days.

But Sunday night’s Ravens’ game is the first time the city has hosted a full-capacity main event.

Yet, signs of the pandemic were still visible. While masks aren’t required in most parts of the stadium, fans are required to wear them in indoor areas, such as bathrooms.

Last week, Maryland surpassed the 10,000 mark of residents who have died of COVID-19 as the delta variant has contributed to an uptick in cases and hospitalizations — though to a much lesser degree in Maryland than elsewhere around the country.

Ellicott City resident Tim Fisher said he couldn’t wait to get inside the stadium again but was frustrated about the requirements to don a mask. But the 51-year-old said he would do it if it meant he could cheer on the Ravens again.

“It feels like its been five years since we’ve been here,” said Fisher, who’s been tailgating in the same spot along Ostend Street for 10 years. “It’s so great to be back.”

Maalik Hutchinson traveled from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for a game the 31-year-old said he couldn’t miss with two of the top quarterbacks in the league playing.

Hutchinson said he has “no issues” attending the game even with the risk of COVID.

“I’m vaccinated, I believe people will take care of their health and deciding what’s best for them,” Hutchinson said. “What we’ve been through over the year, I think this is opportunity to everyone needs — football brings joy.”

José Garcia was elated to be back serving up his usual tailgate spread that included chili, tacos and beer, among other items, to the Hispanic community — and others passing by on Russell Street.

Garcia, 48, who is originally from Mexico City and now lives in Rosedale, was hosting four Ravens fans who live in Mexico for their first official game and tailgate. And when he spotted a couple in the opposing team’s jerseys and found out they had recently moved from Kansas City to Bethesda, he welcomed them with open arms.

The tailgate connoisseur said he couldn’t wait for the game and to cheer on his favorite players.

“Kansas City is fire on the grill,” Garcia said with a laugh, referencing the city’s famous barbecue, “but the Ravens are fire on the field.”

Having led the R-A-V-E-N-S” chant with his shirt off at home games for 23 years, Dan Granofsky — known as “Real Fan Dan” — will feel at peace when he sits in section 532.

Granofsky wasn’t in the stadium last year, but his “Real Fan Dan” spirit remained. The Ravens had cardboard cutouts of him shirtless and chanting placed in the stands.

But it makes his official return, that much sweeter.

“It’s like Thanksgiving dinner, man,” Granofsky said. “When you come home and your family is all there and you embrace each other because you haven’t seen each other for a while.”

Alexander Falcon traveled almost two hours from Woodbridge, Virginia, in his Mahomes jersey for his first NFL game.

The 21-year-old said he he’s been following the young quarterback’s career from the beginning and knew he wanted to see him play in person. To do it at the home opener after almost a year off from fans and in the third row, adds to the excitement.

“I can’t wait to see all of these incredible players play in person,” he said.

While some may prefer watching sports from the comfort of their home with the affordable beer and ability to freely use the bathroom, Baltimore resident Vanessa Payne said she “felt lonely” and couldn’t wait to get back inside the stadium.

“When it lights up tonight, it’s gonna be shaking like the Super Bowl,” the 57-year-old said.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement