Colts Mania Doesn’t Just Live in Indianapolis

The horsehoe stirs Baltimore’s passion for old-time players

 

By Childs Walker

 

Baltimore Sun, December 9, 2007

 

 

Raymond Berry hasn’t caught a pass for the Baltimore Colts in 40 years.

 

But to this day, when he travels the country, people approach him to talk about the perfect routes he ran on Sunday afternoons at Memorial Stadium.  If they don’t come in person, they write letters, sharing memories their fathers and grandfathers passed down about Berry and John Unitas and Lenny Moore.

 

Tom Matte still lives in town, so he gets it even more.  What was it like, people want to know, replacing Unitas in a pinch, having to read the plays off a wristband during the 1965 stretch run.

 

The passion and specificity of the recollections touch the old Colts.  And never are the memories of Baltimore’s football past recalled and shared so vividly as when the blue horseshoe returns to town, representing the Midwestern city that nabbed it under the cover of darkness in 1984.

 

Yes, when the Indianapolis Colts come to play the Ravens, as they will tonight, it’s always a little more than a football game.

 

“No doubt about it,” Matte said.  “When you see that blue horseshoe, it takes you back.  People’s lives were so affected..”

 

What stands out for ex-Colts and their fans is not lingering bitterness over the franchise’s move to Indianapolis, but the intensity of positive reflections on the great Baltimore teams of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.

 

“I’m amazed how many people still have memories of those teams like it was yesterday,” Berry said from his home in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

 

“For me, I go out and watch them and see No. 32 and think ‘Mike Curtis,’” former Colts safety Rick Volk said.  “And, of course, it’s not Mike Curtis, but seeing that horseshoe out there spurs a lot of feelings, a lot of memories, that are good.  When the Colts come, maybe everything goes back to the old days.”

 

Some old Colts, such as Berry, say they bear their Indianapolis namesakes no ill will.  But if fans want to treat Colts-Ravens games as chances to remember good old days that never should have ended, the players are happy to participate.

 

It’s one of the great pleasures of my life,” Berry said of reminiscing about his Colts experiences.  “As players, we had no way of knowing that 40 or 50 years later, people would still give a flip about us.”

 

People give far more than a flip, as Richard Ellenson can attest.  He greq up in New Jersey as a New York Giants fan, but in 1996 he started a Web site, Baltimore Colts Mania, to collect the football memories of his Mount Washington-bred father.

 

Ellenson’s inbox has since become a collection point for fan testimonials about the old days.

 

“It’s very intense,” the Ellicott City resident said.  “People remember every little detail from games that happened in  1974.  I mean, I’ve gone to a few football games in my life, and I can’t remember the details.  I am overwhelmed by the stuff I get.  To call it passionate is almost selling it short.”

 

His site’s traffic will double this week and reached its second-highest level ever during the run-up to last season’s Colts-Ravens playoff game.

 

“It definitely stirs people when they come back,” he said.

 

The city’s love for the old Colts only deepened when owner Robert Irsay moved the franchise in 1984.

 

“Without a team, people could only live with their memories,” Matte said.

 

John Ziemann helped keep the past at the forefront by keeping the Colts marching band alive during the 12 years without football.

 

“All of a sudden, they were yanked away from us,” he said.  “But the feeling was ‘You can take our team, but you can’t take our heritage.’  So we kept the home fires burning.”

 

Ziemann is a passionate Ravens fan, but he still does a double take sometimes when he sees the blue horseshoe.  And the sight of Peyton Manning, repeating Unitas’ hunched walk and overhand throwing motion, gives him chills.

 

“It stirs the good times, but it also stirs the pain of losing the team,” he said of seeing the Colts in Baltimore.  “That blue and white was in our blood, and it doesn’t come out easily.”

 

Berry sometimes looks at the phenomenon from a business perspective.  He has tried to sell plenty of different products over his lifetime, but only customers of the Baltimore Colts approach him 40 years later, yearning to say how much they loved spending their money to watch his work.

 

“It feels pretty wonderful, really, to realize there are all these satisfied people out there,” he said.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

 

Berry credits former Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom with forging the powerful bonds between Baltimore fans and the team.

 

“He was a great person,” Berry said.  “He wanted to put the best product out there because he knew the fans were the ones who made it work.  And he encouraged the players to always be out in the community, going to functions and such.”

 

Asked whether that was unusual, even for the more intimate NFL of 1960S, Berry said yes.

 

“You cannot plan to be at the right place at the right tiem with thright people,” he said.  “In most careers, that’s not ever going to happen.  But we had that in Baltimore.”

 

Matte said young Ravens fans can’t understand the wonderful paradox of the Colts, who had every person in the city clamoring for a ticket on Sunday but who seemed like regular neighbors and coworkers during the  week and in the offseason.

 

“We were part of the community,” Matte said.  “A lot of us stayed.  We could identify with the steelworker, because that’s the kind of money we made.  It was a great time in sports that will never happen again.  Its like the old National Bohemian beer sign used to say: a completely unique experience.”