Baltimore's past and present collide

OWINGS MILLS -- The ghosts of the Baltimore Colts are very much alive, and they're restless, angry and intent on revenge.

Nearly a quarter-century after the Mayflower moving vans rumbled out of town on a snowy night on March 28, 1984, sneaking away from the scene of the crime to Indianapolis, the emotions of that ultimate betrayal haven't relented.

Especially not for the men who blocked, tackled and ran for the old Colts, or the fans who idolized Johnny Unitas, Gino Marchetti and Lenny Moore, and, in many cases, lived right next door to their heroes.

Now, the Colts (13-4) are heading back to visit for the fourth time ever. The stakes have never been higher in this series as the Baltimore Ravens (13-3) will host them Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in an AFC divisional playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium.

"There's a lot of mixed emotions, but I would love to see the Ravens kick their butts," said Tom Matte, a former Colts star running back who lives and works in the area as a popular radio personality.

"All of the old ex-Colts, we're all Baltimore Ravens fans. They took away our name, our colors, the horseshoe, but you can't take away our city and our fans and our pride.

"Yes, that horseshoe still means an immense amount to me as a player. That's what we were all about."

The Colts were more than a local institution. They practically became a religion as they played here from 1953 to 1983, earning their way into fans' hearts with an overtime victory in the NFL championship in 1958 better known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played."

Plus, there were two Super Bowl appearances, including a victory in January of 1971.

Not to mention the passing artistry and guile of Unitas, the sure hands of Raymond Berry, the toughness of Mike Curtis, the intimidating tactics of Bubba Smith and Big Daddy Lipscomb, the graceful running of Lenny Moore, the comedy of colorful defensive tackle Art "Fats" Donovan, the individual excellence of Jim Parker, Marchetti and John Mackey.

While the Ravens defeated the Colts in 1998 in their first return to Baltimore since the infamous move to the Midwest, that isn't enough closure for many of the principals.

"When they came back for the first time and the Ravens won, that's when it was over for me, but I can't say the same for a lot of other fans," said John Zeimann, the amiable former Colts band leader who directs the Ravens' marching band. "I still get emotional when I see that horseshoe, but I definitely want the Ravens to win.

"Some people won't support the Ravens because they're still very loyal to the Baltimore Colts, and some of them called me a traitor. Nothing can erase the way we felt, but the Ravens have been embraced by this community."

The bittersweet aspect of the Colts' return for a playoff game isn't shared by all of the former Colts.

Bruce Laird, a former Colts defensive back who still lives and works in the area, said there's only one thing he's still angry about: the Colts' ownership of a tradition-rich history built in Baltimore.

"We got cheated out of our heritage," Laird said.

"The Indianapolis Colts should have started their own history. What happened in Baltimore belongs in Baltimore, but the NFL is a huge business. It's a shame."

One of Matte's Christmas gifts was a two-CD history of the Colts, an NFL films rendition that devoted one disc to the Baltimore Colts and another to their time in Indianapolis.

"It pisses me off that they took away our name and that every record says I'm an Indianapolis Colt and I wasn't," Matte said. "I'm proud to be a Baltimore Colt, and nothing will ever change that."

Meanwhile, there's a generation gap between those who celebrate Colts nostalgia, and the Ravens' roster. The disconnect is predictable as over half the roster was 5 years old or younger when the Colts departed Baltimore.

"It doesn't really mean anything to me," said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was 18 months old when the Colts moved. "We're in the playoffs, and our first game is at M&T Bank Stadium. That's all that matters to us."

Rookie safety Dawan Landry wasn't even aware that the late Unitas, who played for the Colts from 1956 to 1972, wasn't on the Colts team that left in 1984.

"That would probably be a big game for the fans, but for me personally as a player, you just have to take it as any other game," Landry said.

That lack of historical perspective apparently hasn't offended former Colts. They chalk it up to the free agency era, and the obvious element of youth.

"It's a whole different scenario now because these players don't live here, work here, get old here and die here," Matte said. "They don't know about the history personally, so you can't hold it against them. The only way they get to know who we are is from watching ESPN Classic sports."

For 12 years, Baltimore went without football. For that transgression, many people will never forgive Bob Irsay, the deceased former owner who feuded with Maryland politicians before packing up and leaving in a huff for supposedly greener pastures.

"Irsay was such a jerk," Matte said. "We had a great ball club and a great owner in Carroll Rosenbloom. Then, Irsay got the team and it all fell apart. It was terrible what happened to a storied franchise."

Romeo Valianti, 82, a longtime Westminster resident who was good friends with Unitas and several other Colts, said he hasn't switched loyalties.

"I'll still be rooting for the Colts," Valianti said. "Art Modell might not have taken the colors and the history, but he did the same thing that Irsay did. I don't blame Irsay. I blame the politicians. I do think the Ravens are going to win because they're loaded with talent."

Despite the Colts' exodus, football has blossomed again in Baltimore.

The AFC North champion Ravens have aspirations of winning another Super Bowl after claiming the Vince Lombardi trophy in the 2000 season.

It should be quite an atmosphere Saturday as Baltimore's football past that ended in pain collides with a present defined by passion.

"I feel it's going to be as loud a crowd as you've ever heard at M&T Bank Stadium," Zeimann predicted. "I always have confidence in my Ravens. They're going to make a lot of people very happy on Saturday."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.