By Michael Gibbons, Sports Legends
As Baltimore fans gear up for another NFL season, hopeful their Ravens can continue to be one of the league's elite franchises, it is worth a look back to the early years of pro football in Charm City, when the Colts were soaring to national prominence on the golden arm of Johnny Unitas.
After a couple of false starts, the Colts finally played for keeps, starting in 1953. Like most fledgling franchises, they struggled early on, going 3-9 in 1953 and '54.
The next two years they hit paydirt in the college draft. Players like L.G. Dupre, Alan Ameche, Dick Szymanski, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Ordell Brasse, George Preas and Unitas joined with veterans and future Hall of Famers Art Donovan and Gino Marchetti to form a championship nucleus that would forge one of the league's first great dynasties.
(From the Collection of John Ziemann)
From Unitas' first full season as a starter in 1957 until 1977, a period of 21 years, the Colts were the winningest franchise in the NFL. Playing home games at the "world's largest outdoor insane asylum" on 33rd Street, the Horseshoes claimed three world titles and appeared in 17 post season games, a lofty number considering that for a large chunk of that era the NFL postseason consisted of only a championship game.
But it wasn't just star players and winning that made the Colts so special. Baltimore was responsible for a handful of NFL firsts -- the first team to have cheerleaders, the first to feature a mascot, the first to put its logo on the side of the helmets and the first to have fan clubs.
Colt Corral No. 1 cranked up operations in 1957, to be joined by dozens more over the years. The love affair between the team and its fans was all-consuming and pristine, exuding the kind of passion that can come only once in the sports-life of a city.
Dixie, the mascot, was a real Baltimore Colt. She was later replaced by a more traditional mascot, two fans dressed to look like a horse's head and hindquarters, attached in the middle.
(Photo Courtesy of Sports Legends)
Then there was the band. Though not the first in the NFL ( the Washington Redskins claim that honor), the Baltimore Colts Marching Band became the most celebrated, contributing mightily to the unique game-day experience that gave Baltimore the league's number one home field advantage.
More importantly, the band later came to symbolize how important NFL football was to Baltimore. When owner Robert Irsay moved the team to Indianapolis, it was the band that kept the city's football spirit alive.
The band was living proof that while the team may have left, Baltimore's pigskin passion had not. The band became the face of this city at a time when the NFL needed convincing that Baltimore deserved another team, a second chance.
One might think that all the winning and collegiate-style hoopla associated with the Colts would have been enough to secure their place as an all-time NFL franchise. But there was something else. The blue and white played two football games that continue to serve as the foundation for the league's success.
The first was the 1958 overtime championship victory against the Giants at Yankee Stadium. Called the greatest game ever played, it is also credited with putting the NFL on the path to becoming the most popular sport in America.
The pure magic of Unitas orchestrating a long drive for the tying field goal as time expired in regulation and then mirroring the feat in overtime for the winning touchdown caught a national television audience by such surprise that it never let go.
The other game, though an embarrassing loss for Baltimore, was of equal importance for the NFL. This game was the Super Bowl III fiasco in which a superior Colts squad was upset, 16-7, by the cocksure Joe Namath and his New York Jets.
That win, coupled with Namath's pre-game prediction guaranteeing a Jets victory, created enough stir to put the upstart American Football League on equal footing with the NFL, leading to the two-league, 32-team format of today.
When you add Johnny U., the "outdoor insane asylum," Dixie the mascot, Colt Corrals, the marching band, cheerleaders and the greatest game ever played, you end up with one of the greatest franchises in pro football history and one of the reasons Baltimore continues to foster such huge passion for today's gridiron heroes, the Ravens.
Issue 1.20: September 7, 2006