Allegany Radio Corporation Sports
While watching #NFLTheTVShow last week at a local public house, a highlight was shown of the streaking Indianapolis Colts hammering the suddenly faltering Buffalo Bills and one of the older gentlemen seated at the bar (not me) began to spew unprintable unpleasantries about the Colts (okay, it was me).
“Why the (unprintable unpleasantries)?” a younger gentleman who was wearing his ball cap backwards asked. “What do you have against the Colts? I’ve heard that a lot around here.”
A few of us just looked at one another …
George Bernard Shaw was right – youth is wasted on the young.
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: 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, too, 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, nearly 38 years after the Colts left Baltimore, the hold that horseshoe still has on so many of us.
Naturally it affects the people who have lived in Baltimore 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, including out here at the final outpost, Western (still part of) Maryland.
For several years, a friend of mine spent a week in Indianapolis on business. 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, understandably, 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.
Not long ago, I pulled into the Sheetz on Virginia Avenue, the side entrance, and I could see there were a few people in line to the register. What immediately caught my eye, though, was a gentleman’s blue ball cap with the white horseshoe on the front of it, and I watched the front of that ball cap for about 10 seconds before I got out of the car.
I grew up in Cumberland, of course, a Baltimore Colts fan.
From the time I can remember, all through the 1960s and for much of the ‘70s, when the Colts played, Cumberland was a ghost town, and this was when our population was easily twice as high as it is now.
Half of us seemingly had gone to that splendid neighborhood of Waverly, almost three hours away in those pre-Interstate days, yelling our lungs out in Memorial Stadium.
The rest of us were locked in our homes, glued to the television set or the radio, watching Unitas-to-Berry, and listening to Chuck Thompson call the 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. But many Colts found their way here to Western Maryland, as well — either at functions such as the Dapper Dan Dinner, high school award dinners, 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 a Mr. Arthur Donovan did from time to time.
Things, though, began to change when a Mr. Robert Irsay (Rosenbloom’s Revenge) entered the picture in July of 1972, not only in Baltimore, but here in Western Maryland as well. 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 owned them.
And then on Dec. 23, 1972, Franco Harris made the Immaculate Reception, and things changed forever — for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a franchise cursed by four decades of ineptitude, and for the demographics of NFL fandom here in Western Maryland, which I like to refer to as Two Hours from Everywhere and The Land of the Reversible Sports Team Jacket.
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 had become a Steelers Town.
Not long after, in a precursor of things to come, Irsay moved 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 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 Football Team fan base here grew through George Allen and Joe Gibbs, but has been banished to the forest by Dan Snyder. The arrival of the Ravens in Baltimore, and their two Super Bowl championships, has made the Natty Boh cold once more.
The Ravens have been great for professional football fans in Maryland and, yes, in Western Maryland. The gap has closed quite a bit, but the Steeler occupation of Western Maryland is entering its 50th year.
It has been said you can never go home again, but for those of us who have tasted freedom, who have lived and loved with Unitas and the Colts, the Baltimore Resistance – to Steelers fandom and, particularly, to Indianapolis — will never die.
Mike Burke writes about sports and a lot of other stuff for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. 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 follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT