Under a misty Saturday-evening sky, more than 50 men are spread out along the Kenwood High School track in East Baltimore, undergoing a transformation. They are pulling on pads and plastic armor, yanking at tabs and webbing straps, lowering helmets over their heads. They are construction workers, barbers, mechanics, painters, bouncers, and salesmen. But within half an hour, they will become something else entirely. They will become the city's pre-eminent semi—professional football team. They will become the Baltimore Bears.
A loose circle has formed, and a graying, heavy-set man in a black shirt and zebra-striped pants enters it and bends on one knee. He looks up into the ring of tense faces, and begins to speak, low and earnestly. The circle pulls in close to hear.
"You guys are gentlemen," Bears Head Coach Bill Roselle begins. "You know what to do now. You can go out and have a hell of a night against these guys." A few beats of silence go by, filled with the trilling of cicadas. "You've come a long way . . ." he says, and leaves the sentence open-ended.
From one side, another coach clears his throat to break the reverent silence: "Just knock their dick-strings loose."
And the Bears kneel to pray.
In a city starved for gridiron action, the Bears are the closest we've come to the Colts since the NFL team hightailed it for points west. Reigning champions of the seven-team Mason-Dixon League—which includes the Prince George's County Stallions, the York Lions, and the Peninsula Poseidons—the Bears have won more than 70 percent of their games in the last six years. Yet the club toils away in relative obscurity, playing each autumn weekend before 250 or so fans at their home field—Patterson High School off Route 40 in East Baltimore. And most Bears followers are players' families, friends, girlfriends, former or future team members, or any of dozens of semi-official hangers-on. The only dependable coverage they receive is in the weekly newspaper The Avenue which, not coincidentally, is operated by Bears' general manager Ken Coldwell.
The Bears take the field in their silver, black, and white livery, their shadows cross-hatching the fresh-cut grass. Bill Roselle stalks the sidelines, already swearing steadily. The players start their calisthenics, screaming and clapping rhythmically, big and ungainly and scary and graceful in the anonymity of their outlandish outfits. The pregame tension comes pouring out now, and the players are catching passes and diving on their faces at the coaches' whistles. They are high-fiving and knocking helmets. They are slapping butts, cruising on adrenaline. They are preparing to risk grievous injury, and they are happy to do it.
Tonight the team plays an exhibition game against the Baltimore Rams, another semi-pro team, this one from the Continental Interstate Football League. The Rams are all black, the Bears about equally mixed black and white. The Rams have won the toss, and on the Bears' sideline, the war cries start: "Ay deFENSE! Get ready to THUMP SOME HEADS!"
The kickoff received, the Rams come to the line of scrimmage, and their quarterback shouts the night's first cadence, a rapid Choctaw of jock-speak: "Blue Ninety-NINE! Blue! Ninety-NINE! HUT—HUT-HUT!" The linemen in the trenches slam together and a machine-gun chorus of grunting rises. A runner escapes into open ground but the freedom lasts only an instant as the Bears' Keith Mundy administers a vicious hit, the crack of pads tearing a hole in the night. "Ay buddy, ay BUDDY! Yessss, KEITH!"
The quality of play has none of the slow fumbling which fans of high-school ball might expect; these are, after all, semi-pro players, and many of them veterans of other semi-pro gigs. There's an intensity here: rage loosed at the workweeks end in tooth-rattling hits, in slashing runs, in passes spiraling sweet and true as arrows into taped and outstretched fingers.
The Bears take the Rams apart, 56 to 6.
It is a Tuesday night after practice, and five Bears sit reduced to human proportions in their civvies at Cheers Pub on Route 40. Officially it is Meet-the-Team Night, but the gathered Bears don't appear to have met anyone but friends of the team who are always hanging around anyway. The Bears don't seem to mind: all of their events end this way, with players and fans invited to the bar-of-the-night afterwards.
They are Mike "Smitty" Smith, 25, a linebacker; Mark Eberhardinger, 27, a wide receiver; and Fabio "Fab" Ferrara, 24, a running back. Smitty paints cars for a living. Fab calls himself a "hair technician." Mark, who's been with the team for six seasons, sells Michelin tires.
Like most Bears, Eberhardinger nurses a simmering, flame-in-the-belly dream: one day his time on the team will pay off, and he'll make it to the big time, The Show. Indeed, one index of a player's talent appears to be the number of scouting contacts or tryouts he has had with pro teams, whether the NFL, Canadian Football League, World League, or the arena football teams (which play an indoor, scaled-down version of the game).
Players love to recount their tryout histories, and the conversations can be as labyrinthine as discussions of lineage with an English baronet. Whoever the speaker, somehow, the impression emerges that before you sits the rightful king. Mark, for instance, has tried out for the Ottawa Bootleggers, the Washington Commandos (an arena team), and an experimental Baltimore arena team, the Claws, which rose and fell without playing a game.
"My family is behind my playing, because they know it's just a matter of time until I make it," he says.
His ball cap is perched on the back of his close-cropped head, and he's talking the talk, the confidence in his voice so real that for a moment you forget how far the distance is from Cheers Pub to a spot on an NFL roster—a goal that most of the guys rarely have the guts to admit out loud.
Smitty, who played for Harford Community College, has a theory about why the Bears are Bears and not rubbing pads with Rypien and Kelly.
"I'd say about 50 percent of our starters have a legitimate shot at being pro," he says. "But they haven't had the breaks. In Mobile, Alabama, they play high school football games before crowds of 15,000 because the only thing they have going there is the football team. Guys who play football in places like that get known. We get nothing."
Smitty also bemoans the thought that players are judged by standards other than athletic. "A guy might have a 3.0 [grade point average] at Maryland and the Bear had a 1.0 at Harford Community College, and that's the only difference. A lot of our guys had athletic talent equal to players on any Division One team, but they didn't have the grades or intelligence."
Other grievances now bubble to the surface around the table: the $200 or more each player coughs up to fit himself out with new equipment (neither players nor coaches are paid and the Bears provide only uniforms), the other expenses that nickel-and-dime them during a season—like the $20 each player had to pay to get to the championship game last year. And then there's the omnipresent threat of The Injury.
Anyone who is hurt playing has to depend on his own health plan, or on his family's support. The team has been known to throw fundraisers for the wounded, but the several hundred dollars collected is a drop in the bucket next to the cost of knee surgery. Some players are not insured through work, so they risk physical and financial ruin every time they strap on the pads.
"I'll do this until I can't do it any more," says Smitty, explaining what keeps him going against these odds. "People go through life, they say, 'I could've, I should've, but I didn't. . . .' We do it, man."
Ken Coldwell, a bespectacled, heavyset, bearded man with a tiny gold football helmet hanging on a gold rope around his neck, got involved with local semi-pro ball back in 1976.
That's when his stepdaughter started bugging him to bring her to see the Wilson Point Big Blue games—"'Dad, there's all these cute guys on the team. . . .'" He soon became a supporter himself, traveling with the squad and walking the sidelines. In '86, after a stint as president of one local franchise, he assembled the remains of three programs and created the Bears. The result was a regional powerhouse: 56 wins, 22 losses, and one tie, with two league championships represented by the drainpipe-sized rings on his fingers.
At five bucks a seat, you might look at the crowds and think the Bears are generating a decent chunk of revenue. That would be true were it not for the fact that each home-team player gets a pass that admits his personal entourage of four. The average gate is around $500, and a concession wagon brings in $700 a night. Add in some revenue from Bears Sportswear, a catalogue operation that supplies schools and rec councils, and there is barely enough to cover the $20,000 or so it costs to run the team each season.
Coldwell will be the first to tell you nobody goes into something like the Bears for the money. Why they allow themselves to get wrapped up in this curious game is a little harder to explain.
"There was one [newspaper] story on the final game of the season, the championship game," Ken reminisces. "The lead was, 'There was Ken Coldwell, running down the sidelines screaming "I love you, I love you, I love you. . . ." ' That's what it's all about."
It is a bright, brassy Sunday afternoon at Patterson High, and the Bears are facing crosstown rival Arbutus. A grudge match.
Seven Arbutus players jumped ship to join the Bears this year, including their best talent: quarterback Joe Baker and Gary Oaks, a wide receiver as tall as his last name suggests. (He and the also-lofty Mark Eberhardinger are known as "The Twin Towers.") Bill Roselle and the other coaches have been milling among the dressing players, admonishing them over and over again: "Keep it clean."
The national anthem begins, and a coach screams "Hats off!" There's no flag, so everyone just faces the blaring loudspeakers.
Last instructions from Coach Roselle: "The refs are gonna be very, very strict. Any of you guys get kicked out, William B"s gonna be pissed. You know who William B is?" He glares and taps his chest significantly.
The Bears win the toss and Smitty is smelling blood. He tells defensive lineman Gary Sollers: "I wanna see some paralyzed mothers out there today, babe."
The offense marches down the field but can't convert: a field goal attempt fails when the holder can't find the handle.
Now the defense takes over and in short order there's an interception. The players are crowding the whistle, keeping the hitting going as long as they can. The ref admonishes as a heap of tacklers and tackled sorts itself out: "You gotta play it better than that. . . ."
Ken Coldwell turns away from the play, scans the stands, and says proudly, "This is triple the amount of people we had last year."
Back on the field, tight end Bill Grauer pulls in a high pass and an Arbutus defender chops him at the knees, sending him head over heels. The crowd surges up and bellows.
The score is 9-0 Bears just before the half, and Bears defensive back Martell Betters is stalking an Arbutus defensive back who's lined up near the Bears sideline: "You lookin', weak, baby, you lookin' weak!"
"No, man, I'm lookin' strong," insists number 23, the defender. "You see me here now; you'll be seein' me on the tube, though. . . ." Martell, exasperated, calls out: "Would somebody please beat him?!"
The Arbutus player shoots back, "I got some speed, man," but the timing of the boast couldn't be worse. Bear Steve Williams shoots past him and breaks free for a score.
"Ayyy baby, speed that!" Martell jeers. The Bears put 13 more points on the board during the third quarter and breeze to a 22-6 victory.
But as the clock ticks off the last seconds, the day's drama isn't over: An oval of players and coaches is still on the field, stooped over a prone Arbutus player who has gone down on the final play. There's blood soaking through a white towel held to his left shin, where the shattered tibia projects through the skin. Droplets of blood speckle his arms, his throat, his jersey. Two teammates are holding his hands. Bear lineman Wayne Defrancesco, who is a Baltimore firefighter, has stripped off helmet and shoulder pads and is already cutting a splint to fit, working smoothly with the ambulance attendants.
To the side, someone mutters the dreaded words "career-ending injury."
Back at Cheers, the parking lot is packed. The Bears and their fans have converged for the postgame celebration, and more are arriving as time passes. The win has rendered quarterback coach Wayne Paul philosophical: "[Football] is glamorized by the media, but it's just a magnification of life. See, these guys play the game for the violence. There's no other reward. They don't get paid, they don't get to do commercials. All they have, all they take with them, the rest of their life, is what those hits feel like, and the glory they get while they're doing it."
He rucks up a zebra-striped pantleg. "See this?" He has the familiar athlete's scar snaking around his knee. "I took a hit, and they couldn't even find my kneecap. That young man who got his leg broken today was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And he's living his worst nightmare now. He'll never play again."
Smitty, too, is brooding about the injury at the game's end. "That poor guy layin' on the field," he says, shaking his head and puckering a bruised brow. "You have to ask yourself 'Hey, is it worth it?"lt can happen to anybody, anytime."
At last the buffet is laid out: meatballs, macaroni salad, barbecued chicken, and potato salad to go with the pitchers. The chafing dishes are decimated within minutes. At the linemen's table the volume is deafening. They're shouting each other down, ranking on each other, banging the table, shoving each other, bragging, and feeling good.
Someone cranks up the big-screen TV: Channel 2's evening sports program is on, and a storm of shushes quiets the bar, riveting attention on the broadcast. Finally, after an eternity of golf and tennis coverage, the Bears get their 50 seconds of glory. The Footage shows linebacker Kevin Rowley pulling in an interception and he's back in the spotlight again, soaking up the moment. He's on his feet now, shouting, fist pumping, exultant. "Who's that?! Who's that?! Who's that?!"