The Day the Colts Left Town

By Dean Smith, director, Project MUSE

During a snowstorm in the early morning hours of March 29, 1984, fifteen Mayflower moving vans arrived at Baltimore Colts headquarters in Owings Mills. Marcia Luria, on her way to work at WCBM radio station,  saw the convoy of trucks headed down Reisterstown Road.

“I got in and called my business manager right away to tell him,” said Luria, who now works as a receptionist for D&J Auto. “It was chaos and sadness all day at the station.”

Scott Van Horn woke up in his home in Towson’s Campus Hills neighborhood. Van Horn had been a fixture at Colts training camp when it was at Goucher College. There, he chased down punts and field goals in the woods; once, quarterback Bert Jones rode his ten speed.

“I locked myself in the bathroom and refused to go to school,” Van Horn said. “It was one of the worst days in my life.”

Johnny Unitas had once lived in Van Horn’s home. It was the place Unitas returned to after the 1958 championship game. Colts running back Alan “The Horse” Ameche and defensive end Gino Marchetti had also lived in the neighborhood.

“Those were the good old days,” said Van Horn. “I wish [Irsay] would have left us the name.”

Owner Robert Irsay had staged the pre-dawn move to avoid an eminent domain law passed one day earlier that may have saved the team from moving. He wanted a new stadium and a fresh start. The Baltimore Colts’ fate had been sealed long before.

“The NFL owners voted to approve the move a year before,” said John Ziemann, president of the Colts’ Marching Band and now the Marching Ravens. “The NFL held a gun to our heads and cocked the trigger.”

One of the most definitive accounts of the Colts’ demise was written by Ted Patterson in his book Football in Baltimore: History and Memorabilia from Colts to Ravens, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. One chapter, “The Decline and Fall,” chronicles the last fifteen years of a once-proud franchise. Patterson, whose poignant radio voice captured the essence of the Colts in the 1970s, relays the story of how he pieced together the torn fragments of a letter that Bert Jones had written to Irsay after the owner tried to fire head coach Ted Marchibroda. Irsay, a crude and often inebriated man, knew little about running a football team. After a close Colts defeat to the Dallas Cowboys in 1977, Irsay appeared in the locker room.

“We were crushed by the 3-point loss,” explained former linebacker Stan White. “Irsay was drunk and introduced a friend of his who did one-handed push-ups.”

John Ziemann, who had started in the Colts’ band in 1963 at the age of 16 and, by 1984, was working for Channel 2 News in Baltimore, was summoned to Colts headquarters to cover the move.

“I was auditioning drummers for the band and I got the call,” he said. “I stayed out there all day with little sleep. When I got home, my son Chris said, ‘Daddy, I’m sorry the Colts hurt you.’ That’s when I lost it.”

 

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As the moving trucks pulled out of the Colts facility, they were missing the band uniforms. As depicted in Barry Levinson’s wonderful documentary The Band That Wouldn’t Die, Ziemann and his cohorts  played in NFL stadiums in the years after the move and refused to give up on an NFL team coming to Baltimore. The original Colts Corral fan clubs stayed together for 12 years, eventually becoming Ravens Roosts.

The day the Colts left town was a watershed moment for a city that helped put the NFL on the map. It signified the end of an era when the players lived and worked among us and the game was about more than greed and licensing fees. Those new mercenary rules of engagement helped bring us a team 12 years later—gutting another once-proud franchise.

pattersonDean Smith is the coauthor, with Ted Patterson, of the second edition of Football in Baltimore: History and Memorabilia from Colts to Ravens. He covers the Baltimore Ravens and the Orioles for the Baltimore Brew, and his sportswriting has appeared in Press Box, Fan Magazine, Baltimore City Paper, Patch.com, and the Midnight Mind Review. He is the author of Never Easy, Never Pretty: A Fan, A City, A Championship Season, an engaging account of the Ravens’ march to Superbowl XLVII.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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