“Go Back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself; but know whence you came.” – James Baldwin (likely not a football fan) from his book “Go Tell It On the Mountain”.
“It’s only a game.” – said by countless people who were also not football fans going back to that sacred moment when the first pig sacrificed his skin to give young men an excuse to knock each other silly and have people pay to watch them do so. This phrase is generally not well received by the football fans who are the targets of this pseudo-wisdom, with the results varying depending on the personality types and volume of alcohol involved at the time.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
And with those apparently incongruous quotes, I begin my second season as a writer with Baltimore Sports and Life.
I had the pleasure of covering the 2017 Big Ten football season for BSL, then wandered off not to be heard from again until now. Today I bring you my first column about the Baltimore Ravens, those fine feathered gridiron warriors who capture our attention and our hearts on Sunday afternoons in the fall, and increasingly into the winter.
I led with the James Baldwin quote to set the tone for the pieces I will be writing for BSL. I will be focusing on that which has come before in Ravens and Baltimore football, examining all, or at least most, of it, then testifying about it-no singing (you’re welcome) or shouting (save that for the stadium).
I have two goals here (beyond fame and fortune, those are givens, right?). First, this is for fans who have been there with the Ravens since they first flew in and perched in Baltimore since 1996. For those of us who have been emotionally connected and, if you are a season ticket holder, financially invested with the team, I’m presenting an opportunity to relive some of the great and not-so-great but interesting and important events and stories that have made up the 25 years of Baltimore Ravens football.
Sometimes, I’ll travel even further back in time to some of the Colts great moments and personalities, and there were plenty of both. It was the Colts and their relationship with the people of Baltimore, how they became interwoven in the very fabric of the city, that laid a foundation for the old Cleveland Brown franchise to build on and soar to new heights (sorry, couldn’t resist another bird analogy).
No, I’m not going to be the crochety old man who acts like the game was better when players wore leather helmets and played on black-and-white TV. There was greatness with the Johnny Unitas Colts, hints of greatness with the Bert Jones Colts, defensive greatness with the 2000 Ravens, great big-play excitement and drama with the 2012 Ravens, and the enticing potential greatness of the Lamar Jackson Ravens.
I take the approach that eras are different, not better or worse. With that, I hope to reach my second and most important goal with these columns; encouraging understanding and preservation of this great history among younger fans, and help all fans appreciate how these people and events shaped the 2021 Ravens’ organization and its fan base.
Younger generations will always have what is called recency bias-meaning they will naturally attach more significance to what they have witnessed vs. what they can only read about or watch in old videos. In my humble (but correct) opinion, there cannot be a clearer example of this than the people who have anointed Tom Brady as the GOAT of quarterbacks. Sure, his accomplishments are impressive, but let’s not forget number 19 and the magic he performed on 33rd Street back in the day. For those of you who do not understand that reference (and prove my point), number 19 is former Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas (check out his statue at M&T Bank the next time you drop by) and 33rd street was the location of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, where three World Champion Colts teams played.
I believe in any part of our society, we gain more appreciation and understanding about current day culture when we take the time to appreciate and understand, to examine, roads that have been traveled before. I have spent much of my time since 2017 immersed in that type of examination of various parts of American culture and history, but in recent months I set my sights on football.
I believe now as much as ever that football is a great game. It is a dangerous game driven at the highest levels by the unquenchable thirst for more billions of dollars from wherever it can be acquired. It is also a game populated by some amazing athletes and amazing people, on and off the field, and I believe a disproportionate amount of them wear the Ravens’ purple and black. Although I thought the Ravens’ organization handled the Ray Rice situation in 2014 very poorly, and some players have had very notable and public legal issues, for the most part I have found the Baltimore Ravens an easy team to root for.
The Baltimore Ravens will never be the Baltimore Colts. Times are much different, the game is much different, the city is much different, and the players are much different. When the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996, they had to initially work at the same complex last seen with a Mayflower truck pulling away in the darkness of a snowy March morning, hold training camp at the same location the Colts did, and play in the same stadium the Colts had made so many wonderful memories in with many of the fans who witnessed them refilling the stands.
It was vital that they move to their own facilities. PSI Net Stadium, now M&T Bank Stadium, opened in 1998, and their training facility, now the Under Armour Performance Center (aka The Castle) opened in 2004. This enabled the Ravens to establish their own brand, their own identity; no longer the Browns and not the Colts, but, like a phoenix rising from the ashes left behind by Robert Irsay (can you believe yet another bird reference?), they are the Baltimore Ravens. Not better or worse than the old Browns (obviously lots better than the new Browns) or Colts. Different.
The path to the 2021 Ravens started with the Baltimore Colts in 1947 when they joined the fledgling All-American Football Conference, a league ironically dominated by the Cleveland Browns. After three seasons, those Colts became the first team Baltimore lost, to be followed by Irsay’s pilfering in 1984. Baltimore is a resilient city, and its football fans are a resilient lot, not to mention the band that WOULD. NOT. QUIT. They have been rewarded with championships, Hall of Famers, and lifetimes full of memories.
Is Ravens’ football “just a game?” Of course not! It’s far too important to the city and the fans to be brushed off once the final whistle blows. It’s part of our lives, an important part. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I don’t know what offensive or defensive philosophy Socrates would have had, but I bet it would have made geniuses like Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick look like amateurs.
I hope you will join me as I travel back through Baltimore football history, to relive and examine the memories some fans treasure as important events in their lives, while others will be learning about them for the first time. Oh yeah, let’s have some fun too.
Coming next: This year is the 20th anniversary of the Ravens appearing in the first “Hard Knocks.” I’ll revisit that cinematic treasure in my next column.
You can keep up with me on my fledgling blog at footballturfwars.com, and on twitter at @jimjfootball. Let’s talk it up on the BSL message board too.
And that’s the way it is…no, that was Walter Cronkite.
Remember, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars…no, that was Casey Kasem.
Well, whatever, have a great week and soar with the eagles (not the Philadelphia ones) and I hope you don’t think this column laid an egg.
Jim Johnson is a passionate sports fan and a proud University of Maryland alum. Prior to joining BSL, Jim wrote about Terps and ACC hoops and football across the Internet, adopting the moniker “The Courtmaster” and becoming a frequent “expert” guest on Bob Haynie’s old WNST show and other sports radio stations across the country. With BSL, Jim previously covered Maryland and the Big Ten. Back with BSL for a second run, Jim will be providing some historical look back articles, with a particular focus on the Ravens / Steelers rivalry.