When the Denver Broncos head back East this weekend to take on the Baltimore Ravens, my mind’s eye will see not just the opponents in their purple and black in their beautiful state of the art stadium, but another opponent, another era, same city.
Baltimore’s pro football history began not in the National Football League, but in the old All American Football Conference, which sounds like a college “conference” but which was in fact the first significant rival pro league. The AAFC played for four years and the Cleveland Browns won the title all four seasons.
Then, on December 9, 1949, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell announced a merger agreement in which three AAFC franchises — Cleveland, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts — joined the NFL and began play in 1950. In this year of celebration for the AFL, I thought it was at least worth a shout out to the AAFC, which no fan today has ever heard of, even though it spawned three of the franchises still considered legendary today.
That’s how Baltimore got into the NFL, and they were the Colts, not the Ravens.
Of course, the Broncos have been tied to Baltimore by our all-time great Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, who was acquired by Denver from the Colts in 1983.
The Broncos played at Baltimore that year, and the game will always be memorable to me.
First of all, it was in old Memorial Stadium, which was, to be very kind, way past its functional years and especially so as the NFL headed full speed into a future that would include the most spectacular stadia in North America.
The crowd was a sellout, Baltimore always one of the most rabid fan bases in pro football, and their energy level and anger toward John Elway was palpable.
The game was played on the baseball infield, still in place because it was week two of the regular season and of course the Baltimore Orioles still were in full play.
The Orioles, by the way, had migrated to Baltimore from St. Louis, where they began life as the St. Louis Browns — the original Baltimore Orioles moved to New York City very early in the last century and became the New York Highlanders, early predecessors to the most successful sports franchise of all time, the New York Yankees.
I remember the dirt swirling on the infield and the fans barely containing themselves in their seats while their emotions were completely unrestrained, all aimed at Elway, the young guy who did not want to play for Frank Kush but who was too polite to say that, opting instead to just say he would not play in Baltimore. Honest, but not well received by the locals.
Elway came out at halftime and Steve DeBerg played the second half of an eventual Bronco win, with the crowd setting down considerable after Dan Reeves chose to take Elway out of the game.
This might have been the most intensely negative home crowd that I have ever seen our Broncos play before as visitors in my 32 NFL campaigns. We just wanted to win and get out of there without incident.
Since then, the Colts went to Indianapolis, the original AAFC Browns went to Baltimore as the Ravens, where they won a world championship much celebrated by great Baltimore fans and original Colts like Hall of Famer Art Donovan, maybe the only guy ever to write an autobiography and give it the title, “Fatso.”
This Sunday’s game is all about the Broncos and the Ravens, two fine teams pushing toward the goals that 2009 has before them. But there was an earlier time of a baseball infield and badly kept grass, a decrepit stadium that is no more and a franchise that moved along as sometimes happens in sport.
But still Baltimore, still great fans and another titanic struggle that stands as routine in the NFL.