I was at a 6 year old’s birthday party this weekend. As 15 children screamed, made crafts, got all hopped up on cake, and generally wrecked the place, I took refuge in my buddy’s basement. Which also happened to have a bar. And a TV. And as guy conversation tends to do, especially when talking about sports and football, the topic of the Eagles (the host is from Philly, and his dad was holding court at the bar) and the Ravens came up.
At some point, I felt the need to interject the awesomely forlorn, yet undeniably resilient, tale of the Colts marching band. It was one of the first ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries. I saw it years ago, and I wept.
Since the Colts left in 1983 when I was 6, I really didn’t watch NFL football growing up. And having gone to the college football powerhouse of Gettysburg (where every Saturday morning one year when I lived near the stadium, I was awoken to the announcer yet again saying, “And the extra point is no good,”), I didn’t really have a taste for football until I went to my first NFL game in 1999.
As a staunch loyalist to Baltimore, I have lived and breathed NFL football ever since. And once having played Johnny Unitas in a parent/child tennis tournament, I try to learn about the history of football in our fair city.
Back to the Colts marching band…..
When the Colts left in 1983, you would think that the band would have, pun intended, disbanded. They did not. They stayed together and continued to march in parades, civic events, and even during halftimes at OTHER NFL team’s stadiums! You want to talk about loyalty and fortitude? You better start with the Colts marching band.
I say this because at that girl’s 6th birthday party, while we were hard at work at the bar away from the children, I brought up the synopsis of the documentary on my phone. Academy-award winning director, and another Baltimore loyalist, Barry Levinson, was behind it.
I read his overview of the film. It so elegantly captured everything about Baltimore that folks who grew up here have come to love about the city:
When I was growing up in Baltimore, the Colts were not just a team that played in the city. It was part of the city. Football players didn’t make close to the money they make today and most took jobs in the off-season. Some were mechanics, others worked at furniture stores, and you could find them drinking at a neighborhood watering hole.
When Johnny Unitas came to Baltimore from a semi-pro team, he was a perfect fit for the city: a working-class guy, in a working-class town. And when he rose to legendary status, all of us were proud. The Baltimore Colts weren’t just a football team to us. They were our team. Then on one snowy, early spring morning, Robert Irsay shipped the Colts to Indianapolis in Mayflower moving vans, and the team was gone.
When I came across the story of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band, and how it continued to march despite the loss of its team, I found something uniquely Baltimorian about it. Here was a band that played on without a team, marching at civic events, Thanksgiving Day parades, and half-time shows for other NFL teams, keeping football alive in Baltimore. None of them were paid, yet the band held a membership of 150 strong for the 12 years Baltimore didn’t have an NFL team.
They didn’t stop until 1996 when Baltimore got the Cleveland team and renamed them the Ravens, after the Edgar Allan Poe poem. Poe didn’t grow up in Baltimore, but according to folk lore, he died drunk in a gutter there. Baltimore will take its heroes any way it can get them.
The last line struck me the most. I would much rather be part of the underdog than come to expect glamour and glitz. When hometown boy Mark Texeria (name misspelled on purpose) chose to go to the Yankees over the Orioles, the city reacted as it should have. As is customary, at that year’s Thanksgiving dinner, the wine and sports debate flowed. When the topic of Texieria came up, someone in my family made a very incendiary comment about wanting him to come down with some sort of affliction that a previous Yankee first baseman had.
At a particular wedding, I was honored to be asked to do a reading. It was a reading to recognize those who have passed…”And we want to remember so-and-so…and so-and-so”.
I had a written list of the family members I was supposed to recognize. But I wrote my own ending. Since it was the year Earl Weaver died, I thought it only appropriate that we also recognize his passing. So at the very end, I said, “….and we want to remember Earl Weaver.” Which elicited stifled smiles from one half of the church, and stifled outrage from some others. I was told after the fact that it wasn’t looked upon so well from various members in attendance. And that same family member from Thanksgiving came over to me at the reception during dinner. He bent down, and whispered into my ear, “You know, some people weren’t happy with the Earl Weaver comment. You know what I say to those people?”
“What?” I said.
“F— ’em,” he replied.
Times like that I will always remember as some of the proudest moments of my life.
I write all of this because Michael Phelps is on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated. While I respected him and loved watching him represent our city and country as he became the most decorated Olympic athlete in history, I didn’t like him. Stories emerged about how much of a jerk he was. And while I typically give a pass to people like that since they’re products of Charm City, I outwardly loathed him.
But the article was about his “rehabilitation.” Sure, it went into detail about, literally, his stint in an Arizona rehab clinic for drinking. But to me, it was more a rehabilitation of his mind. His perspective. His commitment to his sport. And if the article holds water, he’s going to wreck house in Rio. At age 30.
And living and loving this city as much as my family, friends, and I do, you learn to take the good with the bad. Cal Ripken was a Godsend. No pock marks on his record from a national perspective. Ray Lewis? Not so much. Ray Rice? Not so much. Rafael Palmeiro? Roberto Alomar?
So, I’m giving Phelps another shot. We’re not New York. Or D.C. Legends aren’t a dime-a-dozen in Baltimore. They almost have to work just as hard to win us over as we do in finding them.
As Levinson said, we’ll take our heroes any way we can get them.