Twenty-eight years later, I am back in New England.
As I write this, there is a fresh coating of snow from overnight. The air is crisp and cold. It reminds me of the winters I spent here which seems a lifetime ago. In reality, that was probably several lifetimes ago.
I came to Boston in the Fall of 1984 as a college freshman. The Baltimore Colts were playing games in some place called the Hoosier Dome. Bob Irsay was hanged in effigy in my hometown (or at least should have been). As I adjusted to living away from home for the first time, trying to make new friends and handle my independence, I remember clearly the taunts and laughter of the locals. And no matter the counter-arguments I would make, that Irsay was a lousy drunk who hated Baltimore, who never wanted to keep the team there, who alienated a loyal and passionate fan base and didn’t give a damn about the history and tradition of the Colts, it always fell on unsympathetic ears.
These were Patriots fans, Giants fans, even Bills fans. There was history and dislike from years of gridiron battles with Baltimore. There was a sense of delight and superiority in their taunts; nothing like that could ever happen to their teams, and Colts fans were laughable, and even worse, accountable for the loss of their beloved team.
It’s a difficult and inexplicable feeling even now.
No wonder most people couldn’t understand.
Sports and being a fan and memory are inextricably linked. The notion of losing a beloved franchise is foreign to most. Professional sports franchises may be owned by individuals or corporations, but when they are properly operated and successful, they become a public trust. People become a true community, united by a joy that only a winning team can produce. Those bonds are strengthened through the years, through the good times and the bad. All it takes is a taste of victory to create a lifetime memory.
This has been a very interesting week to observe the effects and passions a winning team can create. Listening to sports talk radio and reading message boards and columns and blogs has provided an in-depth view of the psyche of Baltimore and people’s passion for the Ravens. It’s a special thing, this time we’re living and enjoying. It’s not something to be forgotten or taken for granted.
Baltimore is a special place. It holds an incredibly rich football history. Locals know the highest of highs and can recite those chapter and verse; 1958, 1959, 1971, 2000. Two NFL franchises, four championships, and men who don’t need to be known by their full names to be recognized. I’ve said it and written it many times before: Baltimore is uniquely fortunate in the scheme of the league’s history.
In my lifetime, the only comparable run of success to this current one is the mid-1970’s Colts. Three straight playoff trips, each ending in failure. But those were exciting teams and times. I may not have been fortunate enough to see the legendary Colts of Unitas and Moore and Donovan and Mackey, but I had my link, my generation, watching Bert Jones and Lydell Mitchell and the Sack Pack. They carried on the tradition and the pride and the legacy. Maybe they never reached the ultimate goal, but they succeeded in creating another generation of fans.
Until 1984, of course.
This is truly a golden era of Baltimore football. For all the glory of Super Bowl XXXV, that team never made four consecutive playoff appearances. All of us, as Baltimoreans and Ravens fans, need to take a few deep breaths in these last few days before kickoff, and reflect and savor what we’re living through. It’s special and memorable. There are countless other fan bases throughout the league that would happily exchange places.
Never take success for granted: it can be fleeting and difficult to sustain.
Throughout the course of this wonderful Ravens season, the thought has been lurking: Indy. Super Bowl. Revenge. Comeuppance. Vengeance. Justice. Finality. Admit it, you’ve thought it and felt it all along, especially after that season opening thumping of our most hated rival. The pieces began falling into place that day and continued throughout the year. The thought moved closer to the front of my mind. More than likely, it did in yours too. The wonder of sports, the way it can create dreams and hopes and memories, has a hold of me again.
When the Ravens won last Sunday to advance to the AFC Championship Game, I knew I had to come back to New England. Call it fate, call it destiny, call it coincidence, I don’t care. Personally, I have no interest in ever setting foot in Indianapolis. I’ll leave that to many others who will be more than happy to represent Baltimore in two weeks. I would much rather come back to a place where I knew pain and anguish and ridicule, to watch my city’s team play in front of those fans and provide them a new and heartbreaking memory that they can carry for the rest of their lives.
This time, I won’t have to explain to them what true loss feels like.