Howard Brothers settles into his living room in Baltimore on a Sunday afternoon in the fall to watch the Baltimore Ravens play on television.
After the Baltimore defense forces another punt, the network telecast breaks to highlights of another game. The studio analyst announces Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has just broken another franchise passing record, eclipsing Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas.
Brothers, 75, gets that familiar twinge in his stomach. Not because he dislikes Manning. He actually admires the quarterback’s play.
The problem is his hero Unitas never played a down in Indianapolis.
The trouble is seeing that old horseshoe and the blue and white uniforms.
The sting is hearing the name “Colts.”
Twenty-five years after the Colts played their last home game at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, these feelings continue to resonate with Brothers and many Baltimore fans over the age of 30.
“It makes me feel lousy really," he said. "[Manning] may set franchise records for Indianapolis, but not for the Baltimore Colts. That’s ridiculous. It should be a separate [history].”
Baltimore fans bristle at the notion that they should let these hard feelings go. How callous is it to tell someone to get over something that brought numerous hardened, blue-collar men to infant tears on the morning of March 28, 1984 when owner Robert Irsay and the Colts skipped town in the middle of the night?
For many, it would be like telling them to forget about the death of a family member. These are scars that will never fully heal no matter how many Super Bowl rings the Ravens may win or how many games Indianapolis might lose.
“It was a shock,” said Brothers. “Even though you knew something was coming, it was just a big shock when you lose a team that you rooted for all that time. You couldn’t believe it. They showed the moving van with the snow coming down [on TV]. It was terrible really, a terrible time to lose something like that.”
Older Baltimore fans still remember their Colts fondly, recalling how it brought the community together every Sunday. Players lived locally and worked there in the offseason. Even the demigod Unitas could be seen mowing his lawn or playing catch with the local children of his neighborhood.
Quite a difference from today’s players.
“There was nothing like the old Colts," said Brothers. "It was like a religious experience every Sunday…That’s what you lived for the whole week. ‘Come on Sunday.’ It was amazing.”
The NFL has changed dramatically since Unitas and the Colts dominated the late 1950s. In Baltimore’s 12-year NFL hiatus, from 1984-1996, the NFL introduced free agency, the salary cap, and personal seat licenses for season tickets.
Though the scars of the Colts’ departure remain, Brothers adopted the Ravens as his new team when they arrived in Baltimore in 1996. His sense of civic pride and devotion to Baltimore sports enabled him to embrace the NFL once again, though it’s not quite the same.
Many fans that experienced losing the Colts were at first hesitant to embrace the Ravens, given the circumstances surrounding their move from Cleveland. It just did not feel quite right, though Baltimore had tried to secure an expansion team when the league awarded teams to Jacksonville and Charlotte in 1993.
“I was thrilled when they came here,” said Brothers. “Of course, the way they got it was the same way that Indianapolis got the Colts. [Cleveland] griped and all, but at least they kept all the Browns’ records and everything. We didn’t get anything from Indianapolis.”
His disgust with the NFL and his belief that the league made Baltimore jump through hoops to secure another franchise was the final straw for him.
“The move was the biggest point, but then realizing that the state of Maryland was using my dollars to dance with the NFL, it just helped legitimize my position. [The league] broke their rules to do what they wanted and to just say to the [city] that really made this team what it was, we don’t [care]…I guess I was really just done with the NFL. The Colts name doesn’t belong in Indianapolis. If you’re going to do that to us, then I’m done with you.”
The 12-year absence of football in Baltimore has created an interesting dichotomy in the Baltimore fan base. While older fans can remember the Colts playing in Baltimore, younger fans are unsure where the history of the old Colts fit with today’s Ravens.
Though younger fans were not around to experience the glory days of the Colts and their subsequent departure, this does not prevent many dedicated younger fans from embracing their city’s rich football tradition. The younger fan’s sense of tradition and appreciation of the Colts stems from oral histories passed down by previous generations.
Michael Guss, a 26-year old Ravens fan from Wilmington, Del., embraces the history of the Colts despite only being a baby when the team left town. Not only does it allow him to connect with his Baltimore roots but also with his family.
“My grandfather had season tickets to the Colts, and I have heard many stories over the years of going to the games [at Memorial Stadium],” he said. “You definitely feel a sense of appreciation when you see old videos like the 1958 championship game.”
Guss believes serious Baltimore football fans, regardless of age, should make the effort to learn their city’s football heritage.
“It is very important because without those players and teams, the NFL would not be like it is today,” he said. “It’s harder for the [younger] fan to appreciate it all due to the disconnect created by the move. Almost a whole generation of football fans was lost by that.”
While some younger fans feel this strong connection with the past, the absence of football for 12 years created a generation gap for many younger fans that failed to have a Baltimore football upbringing. Many of these younger fans grew up rooting for other NFL teams or simply not watching professional football.
Justin Milesky, a 25-year old Ravens fan from New Freedom, Pa., acknowledges what the old Colts accomplished in Baltimore but does not feel a connection with the city’s former team. He believes the influence of family has the greatest impact on whether a younger fan will embrace the history of the Colts.
“I didn’t grow up with the strong Baltimore Colts, Baltimore sports fans in my family, so I didn’t have that appreciation drilled into me and learn the history until the past couple years,” said Milesky. “Your dad, your parents, your grandparents are the biggest influence on who you’re a fan of.”
Perhaps the most effective way for younger fans to feel a connection to the city’s rich tradition is the Baltimore Ravens.
December 28, 2008 will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. Baltimore won 23-17 in overtime, ushering in the explosion in popularity of professional football in America . The Ravens play at home against Jacksonville on that day and plan to honor the living members of the 1958 team, including Lenny Moore, Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti, and Raymond Berry.
“This city will really see that in the coming months,” said Guss. “The Ravens will do a great job like always with events like this.”
Though the name, colors, and records remain in Indianapolis, the Ravens have embraced the city’s football history, placing the Baltimore Colts’ Hall of Famers in their Ring of Honor and erecting a statue of Unitas in 2002. The rubbing of Unitas’ famous high top has quickly become a ritual for Ravens fans passing the statue as they enter M&T Bank Stadium.
Despite the Ravens' attempt in preserving Baltimore football history, one issue commonly agreed upon by the different generations of Baltimore fans is a belief that the NFL failed miserably in protecting the legacy of the Baltimore Colts. Where was the NFL in 1984 when Irsay was allowed to not only move the franchise but also take the team’s colors, name, and records? While the NFL learned from their mistake in preserving these for the city of Cleveland in 1995, how does this help heal the wounds of long-time Baltimore fans?
Does it make any sense for Unitas, Moore, and other Colts legends to be honored in the Indianapolis Colts wing of the Hall of Fame despite never playing there or having any ties to the present franchise in a different city?
“I think it’s one of the worst things associated with the move, how [Indianapolis] was able to keep the logo and records all of this time,” said Guss.
A compromise would be to separate the history of the Baltimore Colts (1953-1983) and Indianapolis Colts (1984-present) into separate displays at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Fans have been clamoring for the NFL to do this for years.
Even if the NFL can work out a satisfactory compromise for both Baltimore and Indianapolis, will Baltimore fans ever move on completely from the Colts and eventually view them just like any other NFL team? Some will, others refuse to, and some cannot move on, even if they really wanted to. It still hurts that deeply, even 25 years later.
Critics point to the fact that Baltimore has now had a second football team for 13 seasons and even won a Super Bowl title six years before the Indianapolis Colts were able to. To put it in proper perspective, the Colts have now played in Indianapolis only six fewer years than they did in Baltimore.
“As much as it has been written and opined to ‘get over it,’ it really cannot be the case for many people,” said Guss. “The people that say and write those things are not the people that lost an NFL team. While it may be okay for the younger crowd to think that, it definitely will never go away from the fans that were here in 1984, even if they had stopped going to the games years before that.”
While time and the budding love for the Ravens may continue to dull the sharp pain of the Colts leaving town, the pain in losing their football identity continues to linger in the hearts of many Baltimore football fans. Older fans lost their team, and all Baltimore fans lost a legacy that should have remained, even if the franchise did not.