The 20th anniversary celebration of the Stallions' Canadian Football League Grey Cup championship, which took place at Towson University July 26, rekindled memories of one of the greatest and most unlikely stories in Baltimore sports history.
Former Stallions owner Jim Speros, along with public relations director Mike Gathagan, organized the reunion event to coincide with the filming of a "30 for 30" style documentary on the team by the Toronto Sports Network honoring the Stallions as the team of the decade. More than 200 people attended the event, including 20 former players.
The Stallions won the 1995 Grey Cup in only their second season and recharged football-starved fans around Charm City. But they were pushed aside as they reached the pinnacle of their success by the Cleveland Browns' move to Baltimore for the 1996 NFL season. On July 26, though, the night belonged to the Stallions.
"This is our night," Speros said. "This team caught lightning in a bottle and never got the send-off it should have. It's a dream come true for me."
A former Washington Redskins assistant and entrepreneur, when Speros took over the Stallions he assembled a "dream team" in the front office and on the field in just six months. In the public relations "office," Gathagan and Bob Leffler worked the phones, trading season tickets for apartments, cars, athletic tape, liniment and bedding for coaches.
"It was crazy. We didn't know what we were doing," Gathagan said. "We didn't have desks or computers in Memorial Stadium -- every day was something new."
Speros and Co. designed a franchise to thrive playing Canadian-style football. He hired longtime CFL coach Don Matthews, who couldn't attend the anniversary celebration because of illness. General manager Jim Popp found players the NFL had overlooked.
"We found the best football players available," said Popp, now general manager of the Montreal Alouettes. "Sometimes, mistakes are made by NFL teams. Not everybody gets it right all the time."
In 1994, the team played its first season without a name. It was the CFL Colts, the Baltimore Football Club, the CFLers and, simply, "Baltimore" before it became the Stallions in 1995. The crowd yelled "Colts" on the announcer's cue so the NFL wouldn't sue them.
"You try and call 23 games for a team without a name," said Fox45 sports director Bruce Cunningham, who was the team's radio play-by-play man. "It's not easy structuring every sentence with ‘Baltimore.'"
On June 29, 1994, professional football returned to the city.
"To see the community back in all its diversity and the Colt band playing, it was something I'll never forget," former Mayor Kurt Schmoke said. "I gave Jim keys to the stadium, and he gave me a Grey Cup."
The team featured two sets of twins and a mammoth All-Star Iranian left tackle in Shar Pourdanesh, while O.J. Brigance played defensive end. Hall of Famers like defensive lineman Elfrid "SWAC" Payton, quarterback Tracy Ham and running back Mike Pringle -- arguably the greatest ball-carrier in CFL history -- helped win a championship in 1995.
"I've blocked for them all," Pourdanesh said as he lifted Pringle off the ground in the lobby of the West Commons building at Towson, "but you were the greatest of all time."
During their two-season run, the Stallions went 32-10 and won 13 straight games in 1995. They defeated the Doug Flutie-led Calgary Stampeders, 37-20, to win the Grey Cup in 1995. They drew better than any other team -- averaging more than 30,000 fans a game -- and were voted the best franchise in 1995.
The NFL took notice.
"Jimmy [Speros] was a victim of his success," said John Ziemann, whose Colts band played at the games. "Who is this guy saying he's going to put a team on the field in six months? He created a dynasty in two years. The NFL didn't want the CFL that close. The Stallions proved that Baltimore was a viable football city again."
During the reunion, the players shared stories and enjoyed each other all evening.
"Instead of celebrating the Grey Cup, we had our final exit meeting," said defensive back Irv Smith, who played for the Maryland Terps before joining the Stallions and is now a fireman in the Washington, D.C., area. "Half of us went to Montreal, half to Toronto and the others retired. I'm a local guy. It really hurt. This party feels good. These bonds can never be broken. We can close the book now."
Cunningham emceed the dinner, and Brigance led the prayer.
"We were upstarts. We were foreigners, and we were interlopers, and the team thrived on that," Cunningham said. "The [players'] smiles had a bit of surprise behind them tonight. They were delighted and thrilled that finally someone, anyone, wanted to honor and remember them."