Before the Ravens could fully bond with Baltimore, they had to reckon with the legacy of the Colts

Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore’s new football franchise could not run away from the blue horseshoe if it tried.

A new chapter in the city’s pro football history began on Nov. 6, 1995. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a signed contract in hand,” Gov. Parris Glendening boomed into a microphone, set up on a parking lot at Camden Yards. “The Browns are indeed coming to Baltimore.”

For more than a decade, the city’s football fans had wrestled with feelings of hurt and emptiness after their beloved Colts fled town on a snowy March morning. They raged at Colts owner Bob Irsay and bristled at the NFL’s cold shoulder regarding talk of a new team. Now, the hole in their hearts would be filled by a new owner, Art Modell, who pledged to “make you proud of us and make you enjoy having us.”

But that effort would not be simple. To win Baltimore’s undying affection, Modell’s franchise would have to navigate a fan base’s fraught relationship with its former team. Twenty-five years later, it’s difficult to convey how heavily the Colts' legacy loomed when the former Browns arrived.

“You had people my parents' age who were saying, ‘I’m not buying into this,’” recalled John Moag, who as chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority negotiated the deal with Modell. “There was still anger out there. … It hung in the air politically. It hung in the air in terms of getting the deal done and skepticism toward the NFL. It was prevalent.”

The Ravens will travel to Indianapolis to play the Colts on Sunday, just two days after the anniversary of Glendening and Modell’s announcement. For current players and coaches, the old bitterness means little. It’s just another game between AFC teams with playoff aspirations.

“I think it’s an individual thing,” said Colts coach Frank Reich, who understands the history because he was playing quarterback at Maryland when the franchise left Baltimore. “People have different views and different roots and beliefs, so I just know here in Indianapolis, [we have a] great fan base, and Baltimore is also just such a great sports city. Obviously, for me, having grown up fairly close to Baltimore and going to school at Maryland, really loving the city of Baltimore and knowing what a great sports city it is, that’s what I take away from it more than anything.”

Baltimoreans carried less benign feelings a quarter-century ago. Their nameless team would begin play in Memorial Stadium, where memories of Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore and Gino Marchetti still danced vividly in the minds of many fans. Modell understood; he even tried to buy the Colts name and logo back for $5 million. The team’s longtime executive vice president of public relations, Kevin Byrne, was sitting in Modell’s office when he made the call to Jim Irsay, who’d taken over the team from his father. Irsay took some time to think on it and called back with a counter: $25 million. Modell said no thanks.

But Modell took seriously the mission of winning over former Colts fans and, especially, former Colts players.

“It was a huge factor for us,” Byrne said. “We put Art everywhere and he was willing to do it, so people could get a sense of who he was. And then along with that, we embraced the Baltimore Colts who still lived in the area. We recognized they were such a part of the fabric of the community. In the heyday, they lived in the neighborhoods where fans lived and they had part-time jobs in the offseason. So we couldn’t recapture that, but we wanted to show we cared about it.”

Byrne and later Modell met with a Colts alumni group and encouraged the city’s past football greats to make themselves at home around the Ravens facilities. If Moore wanted to visit practice or Unitas wanted to stand on the sideline with his kids, great.

“They gave us a home,” said Tom Matte, who played 12 seasons and made two Pro Bowls as a halfback for the Baltimore Colts. “We had no home to go to after Irsay dumped us like hot potatoes.”

As his first Ravens head coach, Modell hired Ted Marchibroda, who’d led the Colts through their last glory years in Baltimore.

Thirty nine former Colts showed up for the team’s home debut against the Oakland Raiders, donning Ravens jackets to greet a new generation of Baltimore players. The Marching Ravens (aka the renamed Baltimore Colts Marching Band) blasted out the Colts fight song. Unitas pulled on his old No. 19 jersey to carry the game ball to officials.

“It made the hair on your arms stand up,” said Moag, who took personally the quest to reunite his hometown with the NFL. “They could not have done a better job of getting acquainted with Baltimore, of taking the temperature and embracing the old Colt players. They did that immediately. It’s why they were at the top of my list.”

Byrne felt the embrace from figures such as Unitas and Moore told fans: “It’s OK to like these guys.”

The Ravens did not wait long to confront Baltimore’s pro football past on the field. They traveled to Indianapolis for their sixth game of the 1996 season. “A score to settle,” read one game-week headline in The Sun.

“This is it!” a Ravens fan named Henryk Wisniewski told The Sun as he boarded his flight to Indianapolis for the game. “We’re finally going to avenge the robbery!”

They didn’t, losing 26-21 to a Colts team led by quarterback Jim Harbaugh.

They first hosted the Colts on Nov. 29. 1998 at what was then known as Ravens Stadium at Camden Yards. Harbaugh again led his team to victory, but this time, it was the Ravens, with a 22-year-old Peyton Manning tossing passes for the opposition. Manning recalled his bewilderment as one Baltimore fan screamed “Give us our trophies back!” over and over. Afterward, Harbaugh handed the game ball to Unitas.

Contests between the teams continued to carry a special intensity for Baltimore fans, never more than on Jan. 13, 2007, when the 13-3 Ravens hosted Manning and the Colts in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs. In a nod to Baltimore pride, they trotted out Cal Ripken Jr. as their honorary captain.

“I’ve never heard the stadium more thunderous in a pregame,” Byrne said. “The stadium was still relatively new at the time, and it had never moved that much.”

For the most part, however, Byrne felt love for the Ravens eclipse enmity toward the Colts after the franchise won its first Super Bowl in 2001. In the early years, he’d feel envious when he glimpsed Orioles stickers on cars. “We are so far away from being part of the fabric of his community,” he’d think to himself.

Winning forged the bond and dulled lingering obsessions with the Colts.

“The fans here needed somebody to root for and when they got it, they finally accepted that,” Matte said.

Manning traveled to Baltimore last year for his ESPN series “Peyton’s Places” and spoke with old Colts fans about the anger that had seemed so strange to him in 1998.

“We just talked about Unitas and Lenny Moore and Marchetti and what those teams and players meant to that community,” he said in a 2019 interview. “They were very friendly. One guy was a little hesitant, kind of saying, ‘I don’t really like anything about the Indianapolis Colts.’ … But that was important to me, to give them a voice and tell that story. Because even though that team doesn’t technically exist anymore, those fans exist. That was a bitter time, going back to 1984 and it took a long time to get over, even when the Ravens came.”

Bob Irsay, the most vilified figure in Baltimore sports history, died in 1997. His son, Jim, who still owns the Colts, is 61. Only one current Raven, punter Sam Koch, was alive when Baltimore lost its team.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson was 13 years from being born when the Mayflower trucks rolled out of town. “I did hear about it, but not really,” he said of the city’s animosity toward the relocated Colts.

In other words, this all happened a long time ago.

But for those who lived through it, emotions still rise when purple and black meets blue and white.

“Oh, I still want us in Baltimore to kick their ass,” Matte said, laughing. “Just because of Irsay.”

RAVENS@COLTS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Ravens by 2 1/2

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