30 years later: Baltimore football's darkest day revisted

John Ziemann said he felt like he was punched between the eyes.

Mike Gibbons called it the darkest day in Baltimore sports history.

Tom Matte said the heart of the city was pulled out and stomped on the ground.

That was the immediate response from those associated with the Baltimore Colts when asked to reflect on that snowy night on March 29, 1984 when Bob Irsay had the team packed up on those infamous Mayflower buses and snuck off to Indianapolis.

“I just remember watching grown men and woman crying that day,” said Matte, a former Baltimore Colts running back from 1961-72. “That jerk Irsay ripped the hearts out of the fans. He had no decency with how he handled that situation.”

For many Baltimoreans, it’s hard to believe it has been almost 30 years since the Colts did what many thought was impossible. Before that day, cities believed sports teams belonged to the community. There was no way Irsay, despite rumors for years and trips to other cities seeking offers to move, would actually take the Colts away.

The Colts and Baltimore were synonymous with each other. It was the Baltimore Colts that put the NFL on the map with the “Greatest Game Ever Played” when Alan Ameche scored in overtime of the 1958 championship game against the New York Giants.

It was the Baltimore Colts that turned names like Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Artie Donovan and Raymond Berry into legendary figures.

“This town had a love affair with the Colts – almost like a religion – and it was destroyed by a devil of a man in Bob Irsay,” said Gibbons, the longtime executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Sports Legends Museum. “He broke down that franchise for the pure purpose of moving the team; almost from the time he took over ownership [in 1972].”

Ziemnann, who was the longtime president of the Colts Marching Band, just remembers doing whatever he could ensure Baltimore didn’t lose its heritage and history along with its beloved Colts.

This included going to great steps to keep Irsay from skipping town with the band’s uniforms.

As luck would have it, Ziemann said the band’s uniforms were at the cleaners on the day of the move and the company’s owner let the band take his cleaner’s van “for a ride.”

Ziemann said they hid the uniforms for at least two months, including at a cemetery until the Colts said they could keep them.

“That jerk Irsay already took the team,” said Ziemann, a former longtime employee at WMAR. “We were not going to let him take our uniforms.”

That victory was a small, but significant, win for Baltimore’s football community. It would also represent one of the few wins over the next 12 years in Charm City’s effort to get back into the NFL.

 

Dark years

In the wake of the Colts leaving, Baltimore took legal action in hopes of getting the team back.

The case was eventually thrown late in 1985 in federal court, but Baltimore did get to keep the Vince Lombardi Trophy the Colts won in Super Bowl V. Gibbons said it was around that time that the museum became the official curator of Baltimore Colts history.

Still reeling from the Colts’ loss, Baltimore got back into professional football in 1985…sort of. It was that year in which the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars – the league’s 1984 champions – moved to Maryland.

The Stars wanted to play in Memorial Stadium, but the Colts blocked that, forcing them to play at the University of Maryland’s Byrd Stadium. The Stars went on to win the USFL championship that season right before the league folded.

“It was football, and championship football at that, but it wasn’t the NFL,” Gibbons said.

Over the next decade, Baltimore took several different approaches to return to the NFL. In 1987, then-St. Louis owner Bill Bidwill explored moving his team to Baltimore before opting for Phoenix. Other teams, including the Rams and Bucanneers were also linked to Baltimore, but nothing ever fully developed.

By the 1990s, Baltimore reached out to the NFL about gaining a potential expansion team. Maryland’s General Assembly had passed legislation to utilize lottery funds to finance a new stadium at the Camden Yards complex and multiple ownership groups expressed interest in the initiative.

Then there was Ziemann and the Colts band. The band stayed together and played at other NFL games, parades and anywhere else they could perform.

“We tried to be the pulse of the Baltimore football community,” Ziemann said. “We wanted to show the world that Baltimore is an NFL community and deserves a team.”

“Give Baltimore the Ball”

Baltimore rallied around Ziemann and others pushing to show the NFL that Baltimore is as rabid of football town as any in the country.

Arguably this was never more evident than on Aug. 27, 1992 when 60,021 fans packed Memorial Stadium and offered a glimpse of what made the venue the “world’s largest outdoor insane asylum” during an exhibition game between the New Orleans Saints and the Miami Dolphins.

The game was secondary to the fans. Many waved signs reading “Give Baltimore the Ball.” The highlight of the evening

was when the late Colts tight end John Mackey received his Hall of Fame ring with more than 70 former Colts by his side.

“Baltimore was teased so many times during that time with the hopes of getting another team,” said former Colts safety Bruce Laird. “We were used by other owners to get a better deal elsewhere…

“From 1958 to 1972 the Colts were one of, if not the, premiere franchise in all of sports, not just the NFL. Then Irsay ran the franchise into the ground and took everything away from Baltimore without any concern over who he hurt in the process. Us as players were left without a home.”

Despite the effort, Baltimore was once again left on the outside looking in when in 1993, Charlotte, N.C. and then Jacksonville, Fla. were granted expansion teams. Then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue even suggested that Baltimore use its stadium funds to build another museum.

“It was really awful how the NFL used Baltimore during those years,” Matte said. “We put together the strongest expansion package and got turned down twice. Time has proven that was a mistake on the NFL’s part.”

Bridging the gap

Once the expansion process ended, it appeared unlikely Baltimore would ever get a team of their own.

Enter businessman Jim Speros

In 1993, Speros was granted an expansion team: for the Canadian Football League.

Speros’ original plan was to call his team the Baltimore Colts, to the point of utilizing blue and white in the uniforms. The NFL sought legal action and prevented the team from using the Colts name.

But, that didn’t stop them from developing a championship team. In 1994, the “Baltimore Football Club” advanced to the CFL’s championship game – the Grey Cup – and averaged a CFL-best 37,347 fans a game.

Renamed the Stallions in 1995, the team defeated the Calgary Stampeders 37-20 to win the Grey Cup. That accomplishment made Baltimore the only city to lay claim to an NFL championship, a Super Bowl title, a USFL championship and a Grey Cup.

“What other city can boast such a championship tradition,” said Matte, who was a part-owner of the Stallions. Baltimore is synonymous with championship football and those seasons solidified that Baltimore could support an NFL team.”

The Ravens are born

The Stallions had no real opportunity to celebrate the championship.

One week before the Grey Cup in 1995, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell announced his intentions to move his team to Baltimore. They would play two seasons at Memorial Stadium before moving to a new stadium at Camden Yards.

Not long after the announcement, the Stallions – along with other U.S. CFL teams – would be no more. The Stallions would soon be rechristened the Montreal Allouettes while Baltimore was ready to move on to a new chapter with the NFL.

Former Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag said that period in his life was stressful as he knew what was at stake.

“I was highly skeptical we would ever get an NFL team until I started to do my homework and learned there were a lot of interested owners in coming to Baltimore,” said Moag, who served as chairman from 1995 to 1998. “We had in-depth discussions with at least four teams before honing in on the Browns. It was a very intense couple of weeks between us and Art Modell.

“Mr. Modell was in an extremely difficult position as he had to uproot his family and leave a city he loved in order to save his team.”

Longtime Ravens vice president of public and community relations Kevin Byrne said Modell moved the Browns with a heavy heart as his inability to get a new stadium in Cleveland left him with little choice if he wanted to keep the franchise.

Byrne also knew there would be many fans in Baltimore that would be uncomfortable taking over a team that belonged to another city.

“There were people in Baltimore who felt we ‘Irsayed’ Cleveland,” Byrne said. “That’s why it was important for us to get out there and have Mr. Modell tell his story. That was also why we left the Browns colors and history in Cleveland and pushed to ensure they got a team again.”

Also, Byrne said it took several years to help educate Baltimore what it meant to be an NFL city again. This was evident in the first couple of seasons when Pittsburgh Steelers came out in droves to root on their team against their newest rival.

“We had to learn how to sell our Steeler games and not to sell to ZIP codes that weren’t friendly,” said Byrne, who stressed that the team has sold out every game in Baltimore since 1996. “That was remarkable to us. Obviously that’s not the case anymore.”

Byrne added that it was important for the Ravens to get the blessing and support of the former Colts, especially Unitas. This was on display during the Ravens first game in 1996 when the former Colts took the field wearing their old colors before switching over the Ravens purple.

“That was a sign that the old Colts were ready to embrace us and told the fans it was OK to move on,” Byrne said. “We could not have made the transition without them.”

A winning tradition

In the years that followed the

Ravens’ arrival, Baltimore returned to being a championship city.

Since 2000, the Ravens have made the playoffs nine times, been to four AFC Championships and won two Super Bowls.

The team’s first Super Bowl following the 2000 season came as the Ravens were still training at the old Baltimore Colts facility, a far cry from the Under Armour Performance Center – known to many as “The Castle” – where the team’s operations are today.

That old facility, which was where the Colts packed up and left from, was purchased recently by Stevenson University.

The former Villa Julie College transformed the facility into its athletic complex including the $6 million, 3,500-seat Mustang Stadium that is home to the school’s Division III football, lacrosse and soccer teams. The lockers are even the same ones used by the Ravens.

“We wanted to expand and grow and the community and the Ravens have been a great help in us accomplishing that goal,” Stevenson Athletics Director Brett Adams said. “As a center for learning, it’s important for our student-athletes to understand the history behind the complex.”

Gibbons, of the Sports Legends museum, wants everyone to understand the history of the facility and what transpired three decades earlier.

This is why Sports Legends, in conjunction with Stevenson, will host “From Under the Cover of Darkness...30 Years Later,”   from 6 to 8:30 p.m. March 26 at the Rockland Center on the  Owings Mills Campus of Stevenson University.

The program will include a panel discussion, with Matte, Ziemann, longtime Baltimore columnist Michael Olesker and “The Dean of Baltimore Sports” Vince Bagli among those discussion that fateful night and the event over the past 30 years.

Moag, the former stadium authority chairman, said it took him years after he left his post to truly appreciate what the Ravens brought back to Baltimore.

“The impact of what we were able to accomplish didn’t hit me until after I was out of office,” Moag said. “It was during the parade following the Ravens first Super Bowl win and I saw a community united. There were whites and blacks, executives and secretaries, rich people and poor people hugging each other and giving each other high fives. It was an impressive sight.”

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