[REPRINTED FROM THE BALTIMORE SUN, FEBRUARY 3, 2013
The spectacular playoff run that brings the Ravens to this week’s Super Bowl rightfully has the City literally and figuratively aglow in purple. Of course, there are those who will assert that it is only a game, and there are far more pressing issues that should rightfully occupy the local headlines. It is true that it is just a game. As in many ways game day is just another afternoon. But sometimes it is more than could have ever been imagined.
Consider Christmas Eve 1977. On that Saturday, the Baltimore Colts and Oakland Raiders met at Memorial Stadium in an epic and exhausting double overtime playoff game that featured seven consecutive lead-changing scores. In the second overtime quarter, the assembled congregation rose to its feet in unison, holding its collective breath as Colts’ receiver, Raymond Chester, slipped behind the Raiders’ secondary. The pass from quarterback Bert Jones, hobbling with a toe injury and struggling to set his feet, fell just beyond Chester’s grasp. As the ball landed harmlessly on the mangled turf, the crowd sunk back into its seats, having endured yet another of that afternoon’s many juxtaposed moments of euphoria and chagrin.
It all ended suddenly and stunningly when Raiders’ quarterback, Ken Stabler, connected with Dave Casper for a ten-yard game winning touchdown. As the disappointed throng filed out of the stadium late that afternoon, the holidays waited to embrace us and sooth our sorrow. And we had the further comfort of feeling assured that there would be other days when we would have the chance to rejoice in the winning score. After all, the Colts had been in playoffs three straight years, and seemed to be maturing together in time to embark on long run of success. We maintained our pride and our hopes. Except, of course, that it was not to be. There would not be such a day again for a very long time.
The story is well known. Ownership that never understood the sanctified place the Colts held in the psyche of Baltimore drove a wedge between the team and its fans, and mismanaged it into a winless laughing stock that was rejected by its own number one draft pick. The hostilities culminated in the unannounced departure of the team – the colors, the logo and the history all disappearing under cover of the darkness of a snowy March night in 1984.
Of course it is just a game. But the twelve years that followed without football in Baltimore were devastating to a region that has long battled its inferiority complex as the train stop between Philadelphia and Washington. A city with identity issues. One that was held under martial law during the Civil War, but was truly neither northern nor southern. A hard scrabble working town in the shadow of its sophisticated neighbors. The Colts had given us recognition on the national stage, and we had embraced them with the fervor of one who longs to have reason to hold his head up high and to believe in his possibilities. They were an extension of who we were as a community. Colts’ games were like Sunday services were worshipers gathered in a horseshoe-shaped cathedral. We expressed our character as Colts fans, and they were our inspiration, not just as a sports team, but for what we could be as a people. It was more than just a game that was taken away.
That Saturday in 1977 was another Christmas Eve; another football game; another roller coaster of playoff excitement. And it was the last time it would happen for a generation. It would be 23 years before the next playoff game was played in Baltimore. Nearly a quarter century without our football team on the national stage. Without a day of that unique shared pride, anxiety, glee and anguish that we so cavalierly expected to soon enjoy again that long ago December.
We grabbed onto the Ravens in 1996 like a poor wretch lost at sea who, in flailing desperation, finally latches onto a piece of floating scrap; hanging on mightily and praying that somehow it will take them back to the life they once knew. And as they led us back to dry land, we embraced them and made them ours. The Ravens have certainly done their part — nine playoff seasons, including that last five in a row, and a Super Bowl Championship. That they play for another this week is more than news. It is an opportunity to nationally reaffirm the special bond that historically exists between this town and its football team. It is hard evidence of the hope that we once had and lost, and found anew. It is a time for an exhibition of the depth of our passion for the players that represent the aspirations of this place. The Ravens carry with them the hard earned scars and medals of a town that forever feels itself the outsider facing stacked odds. Always fighting for a modicum of respect for all of our hard work. It is more than just a game. It is nothing less than a community again being able to hold its head up and believe in its possibilities.