MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

So I pull into the Sheetz on Virginia Avenue the other day, the side entrance (or whatever entrance it is), and I see there are several people in line to the registers. What immediately catches my eye, though, is a gentleman’s blue ball cap with the white horseshoe on the front of it, and I watch the front of that cap for about 10 seconds before I get out of the car.

The sight of that horseshoe still stings all of these years later.

I grew up in Cumberland, a Baltimore Colts fan.

There is a wonderful book that pulls at my heart and takes me back to a beautiful place whenever I read it, and I’ve read it many times and plan to read it again — William Gildea’s “When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore: A Father and a Son, a Team and a Time.”

In the description of the book, the publisher writes, “This is a story about the geographies of the heart; why something so simple as a team can arouse such emotional attachments, how a group of players with horseshoes on their helmets could have been part of a generational glue between a parent and a child.”

It’s true. I guess you had to have been here, but it’s just unreal the hold that horseshoe still has on so many of us 39 years after the Colts left Baltimore.

Naturally it affects the people who have lived in Baltimore for their entire lives, but don’t for a moment believe it still doesn’t have an effect — an almost hypnotic effect — on folks living all across Maryland.

A friend of mine spent the better part of a week in Indianapolis on business one winter. He said he liked Indianapolis and he liked the people of Indianapolis, but that he was unsettled the entire time he was there because wherever he turned, there was the horseshoe.

It pursued him, he said, and it taunted him.

“My hotel was across the street from the stadium,” he said. “Enormous horseshoes all over it. I couldn’t look out my window without seeing it. Every place you walked, every store you entered, it was there.

“It made me sick.”

My friend grew up in Frostburg, a Baltimore Colts fan.

From the time I can remember, all through the 1960s and for much of the 1970s, when the Colts played, Cumberland was a ghost town, and this was when our population was easily twice as high as it is now.

Seemingly half of us would be at Memorial Stadium in that splendid neighborhood of Waverly screaming our lungs out for the Colts.

The rest of us, it seemed, were locked in our homes, glued to the television set or the radio, watching Unitas-to-Berry and listening to Chuck Thompson call play-by-play.

Go to war, Miss Agnes!

The Colts belonged to Baltimore and the Colts belonged to the rest of us in Maryland, as well. As Gildea points out in his book, the Colts themselves were the Everyman of Baltimore when they weren’t playing — working, socializing and being part of everyday life in the city all year long.

Many of the Colts found their way here to Western Maryland as well, either at functions such as the Dapper Dan Dinner, high school award dinners, golf tournaments or, perhaps, to simply visit old friends, such as Jonathan Jenkins or John Rokisky, and throw down a couple of dozen wieners at Coney Island, the way one Arthur Donovan did again and again.

Things, though, began to change in Baltimore as well as in Western Maryland when creepy Robert Irsay entered the picture in July of 1972. The Colts, while still a playoff team into the mid and late ‘70s, began to become as erratic as the behavior of the man who now owned them.

Then on Dec. 23, 1972, Franco Harris made the Immaculate Reception and things changed forever — for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a franchise that had been beset by four decades of ineptitude, and for the demographics of NFL fandom here in Western Maryland.

The Steelers, the franchise that cut John Unitas in 1955, were still two years from going to their first Super Bowl, but on Saturday, Dec. 23, 1972, Cumberland, Maryland became a Steelers Town. I saw it happen before my very eyes.

Not long after, in a precursor of things to come, Irsay traded Unitas out of Baltimore, and the Steelers’ hold began to tighten.

Granted, Germany took Paris much faster than the Steelers took Cumberland. But if the communists, at the height of The Cold War, believed they would take over the United States without firing a shot, the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s took over Cumberland by winning four Super Bowls.

Well before the evening of March 29, 1984, when the horseshoe was moved out of Baltimore, Cumberland had surrendered to the Terrible Towel.

The Washington fanbase here grew through the successful Allen and Gibbs years, but has since been banished to the forest by a troll named Snyder.

The arrival of the Ravens in Baltimore in 1996, and the team’s two Super Bowl championships, have made the Natty Boh cold again (if you can drink it; I never could when it was made in Baltimore), yet the Steelers occupation of Western Maryland is about to enter its 51st year.

It has been said that you can never go home again, but for those of us who have tasted freedom, who have lived and loved with John Unitas, Bert Jones and the Colts, the Baltimore Resistance will never die.

Vive la Baltimore!

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT