There’s a story everyone knows about Baltimore. That we’re still collectively bitter and depressed. That we’ve never gotten over the incident from the wee hours of March 29, 1984, at the Baltimore Colts Complex in Owings Mills, when 15 Mayflower moving trucks—like a funeral procession—were loaded with the team’s equipment, books, and furniture and directed out of town to Indianapolis.
All told, it took a mere eight hours to move out a team that was here for 31 years.
“I was out there all night and it really felt like a burial,” recalls John Ziemann, a veteran member of the team’s marching band. “We were there until morning when Walter Gutowski, the team’s PR director at the time, came out, closed the gate, and said, ‘Go home guys, they’re gone.’”
This month marks 30 years since that ominous night, which, it should be noted, is almost the exact amount of time the Colts were in Baltimore. And, though they say that time heals all wounds, this is a gaping one.
But, have the past three decades—with the passing of nefarious owner Bob Irsay, the welcoming of the Baltimore Ravens, two Super Bowl championships, and an entirely new generation of football fans—been enough for us to grieve? After all this, are we finally over it?
Of course, initially, the Colts moving left most everyone in Baltimore distraught.
“You just cried and cried and couldn’t believe it,” says Antoinette Duda, 63, owner of Duda’s Tavern in Fells Point and a diehard Colts—and now Ravens—fan. “It was very hard. You cuss out Irsay, and you go through all of that.”
Undoubtedly, the gut reaction when it comes to thinking about the Colts varies by age.
“If you’re in your 60s and 70s, there is part of your heart that is missing. You’ll always feel slighted, cheated, and robbed,” says WBAL-TV broadcaster Gerry Sandusky. “The Baltimore Colts are to you what the Brooklyn Dodgers are to someone in New York.”
While there were plenty of tears to go around 30 years ago, there was also a sense of “good riddance” from some, as Irsay had already tainted the team and its reputation long before that night, and the fans had made their disappointment felt at the turnstiles. In 1972, Irsay got rid of 27 players; Crowds went from sellouts to upwards of 29,000, if the team was lucky.
“Of course the change was dramatic,” says Tom Matte, running back for the Baltimore Colts for 12 years. “But, by that time, everyone was so disenchanted with Irsay. I was happy that he left because he dismantled our team.”
For the city of Baltimore, as a whole, the Colts leaving town represented something much larger than a few Sunday games.
“A population becomes invested emotionally in a team because it defines that city’s sense of self,” says professor David Andrews, who studies the sociology of sport at the University of Maryland. “And when a team goes, what happens to that?”
The city was surely invested in the Colts, as players were ingrained in the community, hanging out at the same bars as fans and interacting often with the Colts Corrals, which were local fan clubs. Suffice it to say, it was more than just a game.
“Let me put it this way—I was 25 minutes late for my own wedding because a Colts game went into overtime,” says Duda. “I knew the players personally because they would come down to your bull roast, and they did a lot for small businesses.”
“When people remember the Colts, they remember them in the community,” says Marco Romanell, 29, a Ravens blogger for SouthBmore.com. “That’s why it was probably such a shock when the team left. Not only is the team leaving, but so are the people you conversed with or people you’d see every weekend. I think young fans relate by imagining what it would be like if the Ravens left tomorrow.”
Ziemann, who is now the deputy director of the Sports Legends and Babe Ruth Birthplace museums, uses this tactic a lot—especially when kids ask him why there’s an exhibit at the museum about the “Indianapolis” Colts.
“The only way I can relate it to the younger generation is to have them imagine they wake up one day and the Ravens are the Portland, Oregon Ravens,” he says. “Then they start to realize how sad it was.”
Like any mourning process, there are stages of grief. And the bleak 12 years without a team—the CFL didn’t cut it—finally ended in 1996, when Art Modell and the Ravens arrived from Cleveland.
“When we came to town, we had to overcome the fact that, in some fans’ minds, we had just ‘Irsayed’ Cleveland,” says Kevin Byrne, Ravens senior VP of public and community relations. “We knew that everyone here still loved their Baltimore Colts, so we reached out to the old players. The keys were getting Johnny Unitas and Lenny Moore out on the field for that first game. That kind of told the fans, ‘It’s okay to root for the Ravens.’”
Almost seamlessly blending the old guard and the new appeared to change the minds of a lot of skeptical Colts fans.
“Every game you go to, you see Johnny’s statue. Every time a Raven is inducted in the Ring of Honor, Lenny Moore is on the field,” says Sandusky. “That the Ravens were inclusive helped to close some of those wounds. They made a story that wasn’t two chapters, but softly blurred the lines—making it Baltimore football history instead.”
Of course, the concept of keeping the same marching band—one that was profiled in Barry Levinson’s ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The Band That Wouldn’t Die—was another way to bridge the gap.
“The Modells came in and said, ‘We’re not here to erase your history, we’re here to add to it,’” Ziemann says. “They had the statue built, adopted the band, recognized the Colt Corrals. That made it 100-percent easier to move on.”
Something else that has made it easier over the years? Well, that’s where the game comes in. Many close to the organization—and fans alike—are quick to point out that we beat Indy to the Super Bowl.
“The city was ecstatic and the fans were ecstatic,” says Duda. “Us oldsters will remember the way it was, and we’re going to compare it, of course. But it was so great for the city, and it certainly proved a point.”
Members of the younger generation, who admit that they have no personal attachment to the Colts, have grown up with the Ravens franchise, which turns 18 this season. They feel that winning Super Bowls in both 2000 and 2012 forged the team’s symbiotic relationship with the city of Baltimore.
“Winning one championship was okay, since we stuck it to the Colts before they did,” says blogger Romanell. “But winning that second championship, having a Raven in the Hall of Fame, and the fact that we now have a franchise quarterback, there is no reason to be bitter still.”
Clearly, younger fans seem to be over it, but where does that age divide fall?
“Every year, I try to figure out what the age line is,” says Sandusky. “There’s a line at which point the Colts are not your issue. Right now it’s around 55 years old.”
This generational rift is unique to Baltimore. With most sports teams, you are loyal to whomever your parents (or grandparents) rooted for. Because that can’t happen here, another interesting phenomenon is starting.
“I think now families are connecting again,” says Byrne at the Ravens. “Normally in sports, the generational love moves downward. Here it’s moving upward. Old Colts fans are being persuaded by their grandchildren to give the Ravens a chance.”
Judging by citywide purple Fridays and fans of all ages filling the stands at M&T Bank Stadium every Sunday, the transition seems to be working.
“Kids take their parents to the game now. It used to be that parents bought the tickets, but now that’s reversed,” says Duda. “To me, if you like football, you like football. And the Ravens are my team now.”
In essence, being a Baltimore Colts fan and being a Baltimore Ravens fan are not mutually exclusive concepts.
“These fans have a dual identity now,” professor Andrews says. “They have memories of their parents, Unitas, Memorial Stadium. But they are now wedded to a new team, which has become the new definer of Baltimore.”
The old Colts themselves have helped to bridge the 12-year gap between teams.
“Lenny Moore is a regular at our practices and has lunch at our cafeteria,” Byrne says. “Ray Rice and Lenny are friends. Stan White is on our radio broadcast. Kids rub the foot on Johnny U’s statue outside the stadium. All these things help our players and fans understand how meaningful the Colts were.”
One thing that has remained constant throughout the past 30 years (besides the band, of course) is the city of Baltimore. Byrne and others agreed that last year’s overwhelming Super Bowl parade underscored what we already knew—we are a great football town.
“If you put it all together, we’d be the winningest franchise,” says former Colt Matte. “Between the Colts, [CFL] Stallions, [USFL] Stars, and Ravens, every team we’ve had has been successful, and that’s because we have the greatest fans in the world.”
When it’s fall in Baltimore—no matter if it’s 1964 or 2014—the exuberance and passion for the game of football is obvious to this day.
“I’d say 99-percent of the people I know are diehard Ravens fans,” Romanell says. “It’s kind of hard not to get wrapped up in it, the energy, the purple Fridays, it’s hard not to embrace.”
But, have these great and loyal fans moved on and let go?
Truth be told, emotions still remain raw when talking about the Colts, but some of that anger and bitterness seems to have mellowed.
“The edge is definitely gone,” Sandusky says. “I don’t think people feel as compelled to drive a Mayflower truck off the road as they used to.”
Credit the Modells, the Ravens franchise, the Super Bowl rings, or the fans, but this much is certain: Our cynicism from 30 years ago now feels a lot more like optimism.
“I’ll never forget the good times, the pride I had in that horseshoe logo, and the name Baltimore Colts,” Ziemann says. “But my heart and soul now belong to the black helmet with the purple bird head.”