By David Fleming
Page 2

On Saturday in Baltimore, the Colts can move one step closer to Super Bowl XLI in Miami, and I thought, you know, before the whole horseshoe hysteria sweeps the country (again) it might be fun to stop for a moment and reflect upon the huge "what if" that still surrounds this franchise like a guardian angel's halo.

I know, I know: it's a tired, old story and it's time for people to just let go already.

But bear with me, I'm a sucker for nostalgia.

What if the the Colts had been prevented from leaving Baltimore? Just imagine...

What if, on that miserably snowy and inky-dark night back in March 1984, the doofus lead truck driver from Mayflower hadn't locked his keys in his moving van after going back into the Colts' empty locker room to get his Van Halen cassette? What if the delay that one simple act caused hadn't backed up the moving vans and caught the attention of those Colts fans coming off the graveyard shift?

What if those old cronies, with their three-decades-old Johnny Unitas buzz cuts, hadn't run into their canned-crab factory and rallied their co-workers to form a human barrier in front of those moving fans?

What if that original throng of 18 men -- still honored each March 29 at Fort McHenry as the Colts' Mayflower descendants -- hadn't grown to a throng of 9,500 strong (which was about the same number of season-ticket holders at the time) and after 22 long and bitterly cold hours that crowd hadn't been able to force then owner Robert Irsay to abandon his plan of sneaking off to Indianapolis (of all places) in the middle of the night?

It blows my mind.

I mean, just think how much different Baltimore, the Colts and the entire NFL would be right now if that move had actually gone forward.

It wouldn't have been all bad. For starters, folks in Baltimore never would have had to suffer through those 33 straight losses during 1984-86. That would have been nice to pin on Indy. I bet looking back now there are folks who wish the crab canners had stepped aside that fateful night and let the Colts go right along their merry way.

At least then the city wouldn't have become so synonymous with losing in the 1980s. Gosh, remember when Reagan was shot and a few years later he joked that "the guy missed by a mile, so I told the Secret Service to check Colts practice ... ." Twenty years later that line is so harsh it still almost seems made up.

After the 11th injunction, Irsay was forced to stay in Baltimore. He was broke and he was bitter -- more so than usual, I'm told -- and he refused to spend any more money on the team or the stadium or the city that essentially held him hostage.

I understand the significance of the Colts' 1958 championship and the whole dawning of the NFL thing and all that. And you can't argue with the roster of all-time greats who played for Baltimore: guys like Unitas, Lenny Moore, John Mackey, Raymond Berry and Gino Marchetti. If they were ever listed in, say, the Hall of Fame as having played for the Indianapolis Colts, I mean, how ridiculous, disloyal and money-hungry would that make the NFL look?

But Irsay's point in all those antitrust lawsuits and congressional hearings was, shoot, if Baltimore loved the Colts so much, why were they playing in such a dump and in front of only 20,000 fans at the last home game? When Irsay wagged his finger at Alexander Haig during that Senate inquiry and talked about the Hoosier Dome and a potential crowd of 60,000 fans waiting for him in Indianapolis and the whole thing being like a bad Ayn Rand nightmare -- shouting "Who Is John Galt!" over and over again -- that was some pretty convincing stuff.

If the Colts actually had been allowed to leave, one would hope that in looking back two decades later Baltimore fans would own up to the fact that, in part, it was their naive lack of civic leadership and vision, and a Pollyannaish sense of entitlement to a sports franchise that nearly cost them their football team.

Luckily, the courts never saw it that way, and the third time Irsay declared bankruptcy and held that yard sale inside Memorial Stadium to finance the Colts' 1992 training camp, I actually started to feel a little sorry for the guy.

Now, I know that before the Irsay family sold to Daniel Snyder in 1998, things got pretty ugly. The L fell off the sign in front of the team headquarters and people started calling them the Cots. And when the city was able to raise only $827 to refurbish Memorial Stadium, the team tried to lure tourists to games by pretending the stadium was an exact replica of the Parthenon ruins.

Still, Irsay went too far on that "Monday Night Football" broadcast when, in a fit of blind rage, he asked why "Baltimore couldn't just steal an NFL team from some other city, like Cleveland or something...?"

We're all glad it never came to that, I think.

Because then everyone in Baltimore and around the NFL would have missed out on the pure magic and poetry of Daniel Snyder.

Out of nowhere in 1998, Snyder showed up with his "cash-in, hands-off and mouth-shut" management style. (The billionaire boy wonder had his eye on the Redskins, but, of course, by then they were halfway done with their deal with the city of Cleveland which, as you know, lost its team to Indianapolis when the Colts stayed put.)

Right away fans were skeptical about Snyder's idea for a Colts logo update. But putting his own face inside the horseshoe grew on people after awhile. And we all thought Snyder was this nerdy guy playing real-life fantasy football camp when he brought Don Shula out of retirement, but that was brilliant, too. As was Shula's decision to draft both Ryan Leaf and Terrell Owens.

I never figured a blue-collar, black high-top town like Baltimore would go for the rebirth of the run-'n'-shoot. Baltimore always seemed like a shot-and-a-beer, defense-first type of town, but what do I know? I never thought Shula's replacement, Rich Kotite, would outlast Memorial Stadium, either. But after the performance Leaf and Owens put on running Kotite's brilliant schemes in Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa, who cares?

Thinking about that game -- the safety as an offensive weapon? Freakin' brilliant, man -- I still get chills every time I cover a Colts playoff game at Daniel Snyder Field inside Snyder Stadium @ Daniel Park in downtown Baltimore.

Yes, I know everyone else thinks it's cool to call it the House that Leaf Built.

But I always say a silent prayer for those brave crab canners from long ago, the Mayflower descendants. Because just think for a moment about what an ugly mess this all would have become in Baltimore if 23 years ago those Colts moving vans had been allowed to leave for Indianapolis.

Can you even imagine?

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book was "Noah's Rainbow: a Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter." His next book, based on the controversial 1925 NFL Pottsville Maroons (ESPN Books 2007) has been optioned as a movie by Sentinel Entertainment. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.




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