BALTIMORE —I used to be a fan of the Baltimore Colts. Note I said Baltimore, not Indianapolis. And fan is too weak a word. For those those there at the beginning we were not just fans. We were adherents in a secular religion where devotion was expected, and attendance at the services was mandatory.
My grandfather was an executive of MeCormick & Co., and a civic servant, including Chairman of the Parks Board. He was part of a group of men who bought the new franchise to town with 10 players from the St. Louis Browns in 1953. They were a poor team. Y.A, Tittle, quarterback of the previous incarnation of the Colts, was also unsuccessful in completing passes and winning games.
As Tittle said with sad self-awareness, “You can’t complete many passes flat on your back with a lineman on your chest.” Then came Johnny Unitas. For the 90-cent cost of a long distance call, Baltimore acquired this gangly, crew-cut quarterback from a semi-pro team in Pittsburgh.
Cut to the chase. I’ve seen magic on the football field. I was there in 1958 in Yankee Stadium when the Colts played the Giants for the championship. With 1:42 to go in the game, the Giants led by three points. They were stopped on their own 42 with a yard to go. They decided, logically, to kick the ball deep into Baltimore territory. On that stop, defensive tackle Gino Marchetti’s leg was broken. He refused to leave the field until the game was over.
In that final drive to tie the game and send it into overtime, four times Unitas completed passes to Raymond Berry. Here’s how that was done: Berry went downfield 10 yards, turned straight toward the sideline. At the line, he fell forward like a cut tree, just his toes in bounds. Unitas put the ball in his hands on the way down. There was no defense. In overtime, the Colts stopped the Giants, and marched down the field to win on a touchdown by Alan Ameche.
Even bad results are still memorable. In a down period for the Baltimore Colts, we were at Memorial Stadium in December in the snow when the Chicago Bears came to town. The Bears beat the Colts 60-0. We stayed to the end. As my father said, “You do not desert your team.”
Child psychologists will tell you that events in adolescence, for getter or worse, burrow in and stay in the psyche for life. I was 15 when the Colts beat the Giants in overtime in “the greatest game ever played.” It was also a great game for the future of pro football. The nation saw the broadcast of that first, overtime championship game.
Then came that horrible day in March, 1984, when the air-conditioning magnate from Indianapolis, Robert Irsay, snuck the Colts out of Baltimore in a snow shower in the dead of night. For decades after that, I would see the “Colts” on television and get a shudder to see those white helmets with blue horseshoes, but on the wrong heads and in the wrong place.
Were we supposed to root for these strangers in a strange land? Still, they were the Colts, weren’t they? As time passed, the various sports reporters and announcers ceased their occasional Freudian slips in calling the team the “Baltimore” Colts.
This year’s Super Bowl was finally the turning point. I was able to watch a group of men, wearing those ever-so-familiar blue and white uniforms, lead by a quarterback who had the ability to perform miracles with a football, and yet be dispassionate about the results.
From a sense of poetry, this year’s crown belonged to the Saints. No one gave it to them. They went out and took it, with hard work, and with great heart. I have affection for New Orleans. I had my chance to go there for college. Full tuition, board and expenses.
But going to college that close to the French Quarter, with the music, food and lifestyle that I so love, it would have taken me at least seven years to complete a four-year degree. But that’s a story for another day.
Politics are my game, as you well know. One last comment about the difference between football and politics. As my wife said yesterday, several times, “Why take that seriously? It’s only a game.” True enough.
Imagine what politics would be like if it were run like football. Six cameras with playback and slow-motion capacities on you at all times. A team of honest referees watching every move. Under those circumstances, how many men would be doing time in the Big House rather than “serving” as Members of Congress?