As thousands of Ravens fans journey to Indianapolis on Friday and Saturday, my thoughts begin drifting toward the significance of Saturday’s game in Baltimore football lore. While the outcome will ultimately determine it as triumph or bitter disappointment, Baltimoreans making the trip to the home of the stolen franchise—presumably the first time for most—is significant in and of itself.
Being 26 years old and belonging to a generation too young to remember the Colts playing in Baltimore—I was a mere five months old when the Mayflower vans left Owings Mills in the middle of the night—but having a father who lived and breathed that mystical era and educated me over the course of 21 years, my appreciation for our city’s football heritage cannot be overstated—it was all I had as a kid.
After all, while fans older than me had the memories of Johnny Unitas, Big Daddy Lipscomb, Bert Jones, and Mike Curtis in their hearts and minds, my generation grew up in a town full of cherished stories but void of first-hand experiences. To us, professional football was what they played in other cities while Baltimore desperately held the stories of yesteryear and an undying hope of the NFL eventually returning to the Charm City.
Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s while Baltimore pursued expansion and courted the Cardinals and Buccaneers, the mere mention of the city of Indianapolis made my father’s blood boil, and as a result, his impressionable son quickly adopted the same mentality, even without fully understanding why.
The notion that a team—your team—could pack up and leave town in the middle of the night was something I couldn’t begin to comprehend. For a 9-year old boy who absolutely lived and died with the Orioles (the only professional team in town), the possibility of them ceasing to exist in Baltimore was comparable to the sun not rising in the morning.
It wasn’t because of the people or the city itself—I knew nothing of them nor did I want to—but the fact that it became the residence of a team that so deeply mattered to my father, grandfather, and millions of others. In my youthful eyes, Indianapolis stole the birthright that was supposed to belong to me, an opportunity to witness and enjoy professional football and create many more memories with my father on fall Sunday afternoons.
I didn’t care about or understand the political or financial reasons for the move; all I knew was a devil-like man named Bob Irsay had stripped us of the horseshoe, the blue and white, and the record book that so naturally belonged in Baltimore—not Indianapolis.
It was a helpless feeling.
But, thankfully, we can fast-forward to the present.
The Ravens are again the toast of the town as they have been for the last decade. The city has another Super Bowl championship in its trophy case, a beautiful football stadium, and committed, local ownership. After 12 years in professional football purgatory (with no disrespect meant to the USFL Stars or the CFL Stallions), our city has quickly regained its place as one of the best football towns in the NFL. Just ask the fans in Foxborough last weekend.
While the bitterness and scars of the Colts leaving remain and it’s completely justified despite the ignorant remarks of less-educated fans to “get over it,” Baltimore has come out of that hardship better than ever. One can only point to the city gaining another team after 12 years and still winning a championship before Indianapolis earned its first ring as perfect justification.
Unquestionably, Saturday’s game between Baltimore and Indianapolis is first and foremost about winning and advancing to the AFC Championship. And that fact alone shows just how far this city has come since late March of 1984. Baltimore is far more excited about another playoff run than the chance to beat Indianapolis for the first time since 2001. Knocking Indy out of the postseason would simply be the icing on the Festivus cake.
Despite the excitement of the playoffs and a chance to return to the conference championship, this road trip to Indianapolis conjures up memories of my father and those empty Sundays during my childhood. While the Ravens gave us countless memories—including a Super Bowl title—before his passing in 2004, the long wait to create those football memories was frustrating, adding extra significance to this trip.
For that reason, I strongly feel his presence this week as we travel to that slimy city to prove how passionate Baltimore fans are about their football team and illustrate that Irsay may have abandoned the city and its fan base for another, but he never replaced—or even came close to matching—the passion that exists in the Charm City.
Indianapolis fans will witness thousands of Baltimoreans invading the city that stole its professional franchise 26 years ago.
Honestly, it’s no longer about the hate, the pain, or the bitterness, though it still exists in the hearts and souls of many.
This weekend is not only about winning a playoff game but also demonstrating to Indianapolis—and the rest of the NFL—that Baltimore is the far superior football town and always has been.
A Purple invasion and, hopefully, a win at Lucas Oil Stadium will prove it.
A victory may not erase 12 years without football and the empty Sundays of my youth, the January 2007 home playoff loss, or the scars of old Baltimore Colts fans, but it can finally cause something else to happen.
It might just give Baltimoreans a reason to smile when they think of Indianapolis.