When The Colts Bolted From Baltimore

Twenty-five years ago Sunday, the world as Baltimore Colts fans knew it ended. Even now, there are lingering wounds left behind after the Colts' midnight flight to Indianapolis.

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Sports teams move around all the time. Football's Raiders went from Oakland to Los Angeles and back again. Baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers also ended up in LA. And most of the time, fans are upset, but life goes on. It didn't happen that way in Baltimore.

The city went without a football team for 13 years after the midnight flight of the Baltimore Colts. The team's controversial owner, Robert Irsay, packed up without a word to fans and took off for Indianapolis in the pre-dawn darkness 25 years ago today.

We sent NPR's Petra Mayer to talk to a few Colts fans whose scars still ache.

Unidentified Man: The Baltimore Colts are gone. Moving vans pulled up to the Colts' complex in Owings Mills last night.

Mr. JOHN ZIEMANN (Deputy Director, Sports Legends Museum, Baltimore, Maryland): The next day, the sun came up. Baltimore's still on the map, but our heart was in Indianapolis.

PETRA MAYER: These days, John Ziemann is the deputy director of Baltimore's Sports Legends Museum, where a major attraction is the bed that legendary Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas was born in.

On that dark morning in 1984, Ziemann was the director of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band. He kept the band marching for 13 lonely years, until Baltimore got a new team, the Ravens.

Mr. ZIEMANN: I felt we had to do something, and what's a better rallying point than music?

(Soundbite of marching band)

MAYER: But music's charms could not soothe this savage breast. Baltimore fans are some of the most fanatic out there. Mike Gibbons is the executive director of the museum, and he says that although every city loves its team, in its golden years, Baltimore had something special.

Mr. MIKE GIBBONS (Executive Director, Sports Legends Museum, Baltimore, Maryland): Virtually all of the Colts had to take jobs in the off season just to make ends meet, and so they became part of the fabric of the community.

So while they were building a winning franchise, they were also having a beer at the corner bar with their neighbors.

MAYER: If the fans and the players were one big family, team owner Robert Irsay was the wicked stepfather, a figure of such evil in Baltimore mythology that he might as well have been twirling a waxed moustache and tying a helpless maiden to the railroad tracks.

Irsay had been shopping the Colts around to different cities for several years. Things came to a head in 1984. John Ziemann.

Mr. ZIEMANN: Well, he had this press conference, live, January 24, at Baltimore Washington Airport. All the press was there, the media, and he got up there, and he was cussing. But he says, I haven't been in Phoenix. Who says I was in Phoenix?

Mr. ROBERT IRSAY (Former Owner, Baltimore Colts): I give you my word of honor - I'm a good Catholic. I haven't been in Arizona. Where the hell does this all come from? Who started this? If you love the Colts, why didn't you treat me right?

MAYER: Irsay had been talking to Phoenix and Indianapolis, and two months later, the moving vans rolled out in the middle of the night. But like many tales with a wicked stepparent, this one does have a happy ending.

In 1996, the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore to be reborn as the Ravens. And don't worry, sports fans, Cleveland got a shiny new expansion team just three years later, and Baltimore seems to have fallen hard for the Ravens. Again, John Ziemann.

Mr. ZIEMANN: We love our Baltimore Ravens, and we have a storied history with the Baltimore Colts. And now I always say we're proud of our past, and we look forward to our future.

MAYER: How could the Colts' old bandleader say anything else?

Petra Mayer, NPR News.

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