As we've said for over a week, the Super Bowl is not a very fan-friendly event. Yet, most of the league people and reporters I spoke to during the game at Sun Life field last Sunday told me the fans at Super Bowl 44 were some of the loudest they'd ever seen. Whether they were bandwagoners, or true, longtime Saints fans, the "Who Dat!" nation was well represented at SB 44. In a way, this kind of softened the blow of losing a Super Bowl. Saints fans, by in large, were pretty cool. Indeed, most of the fans I spoke with in my travels to and around Miami were very fun to chat with.
One such fan was Charles from Maryland, a longtime Baltimore Colts fan who was stuck in Richmond with me during last week's blizzard. We met in a diner off exit 83B and started talking football. I told him I was an Indianapolis Colts fan and he started telling me about the old days in Baltimore when Johnny U was slinging the football.
Now, before you roll your eyes and say, "Oh God! Not another friggin Baltimore fan whining about 1984 and Mayflower trucks," let me say that Charles was anything but whiny. In fact, one of his stories from back in the day really opened my eyes to just how close Baltimoreans are with the Colts. In fact, Charles was very much an admirer of Peyton Manning and the current Colts. We both agreed that how these Colts have carried themselves, and how they have shown appreciation and respect for the old Colts, has helped heal the massive, gaping rift, so to speak, between Baltimore and Indianapolis fans.
You can check out Charles' story after the jump.
The above image was taken from the River City Diner during the big snow fall last week. I imagine the place doesn't look all that much different right now, what with YET ANOTHER snow storm blasting through the region. As I was thawing out my feet and hands after digging out six or so cars that were trapped on the 83B off-ramp from I-95, I met Charles of Maryland. We sat in the diner, eating scrambled eggs, crab cakes, and life-generating coffee, and we talked about the Colts. I told him I'd read "The Greatest Game Ever," and enjoyed it. We both discussed the Barry Levinson documentary for ESPN. I told him Raymond Berry was my favorite all-time wide receiver, even though I never saw him play.
BBS: He could tell that the yard marks were off just by running a practice route.
BBS: I mean, wow. That's one precise friggin route.
The conversation turned to the old Colts and how they connected with the citizens of Baltimore in a way rarely seen in modern sports. To illustrate his point, Charles told me a story from his teenage years. It's the early 1960s. Beehive hairdos are in style. Charles is a teenager hitchhiking with a buddy near Baltimore. They have no car, but very much want to attend an event at Johnny Unitas' bowling alley. It's a bit of a trek, but it's worth it. All the Baltimore Colts players will be at this bowling alley, including Johnny U himself. While hitchhiking, they finally get a car to pull over for them. It's a white, 1959 roadster; an impressive looking vehicle. It pulls off the road, onto the shoulder, and asks them where they are headed. They say Johnny Unitas' Bowling Alley. He tells them he is heading thee as well for the event and offers them a ride. Charles and his friend say sure and get in.
Small side note: For us modern day people, this is the part of the story where the driver of the white roadster takes them to some secluded house in the middle of no-where and tortures them to death with a chainsaw and a barrel of WD40. However, back in the early 60s, hitchhiking was common and much safer than it is today. So, for you horror fans out there, sorry to disappoint. This story does not involve chainsaws, and actually has a pretty nice ending.
Back to the 1960s, Charles and his buddy settle into the roadster. The drives exits the shoulder and they are on their way to Johnny U's bowling alley. While in the car, Charles can't help but think there is something familiar about the driver. He has a plain way of speaking, and wears a gigantic ring on his right finger. Charles glances up at the driver's face and notices his haircut: Flat top, crew cut. Charles looks away, thinks for a minute, and then seemingly does a double take.
The man driving them to Johnny Unitas' Bowling Alley IS JOHNNY UNITAS!
Charles asks the driver for confirmation of his theory, and the driver does so. He is John Unitas. The two teens nearly lose their minds in excitement. Unitas takes them both to his bowling alley. There, they have a grand old time, seeing then-current Baltimore Colts players and their families. It's a fan's dream, and for Charles of Maryland, it's a memory that is very vivid for him nearly 50 years later.
As the event at the bowling alley winds down, Charles and his buddy decide to head home. However, out of courtesy, they aren't going to walk up to Unitas and ask him for a ride back. He's an NFL quarterback; the best in the league. He doesn't have time to drive kids home. They're lucky he bothered to pull over and take them to his bowling alley.
The two hit the road again, thumbs out, looking for a ride back. After a while of walking, a car pulls over to the shoulder. It's a familiar ride: White roadster. The driver with the flat top and their big ring rolls down the window and tells the boys he can take them home. Again, giddy with excitement, the teens accept. They get taken home by the greatest QB to ever play the game. Charles offers John Unitas some coffee at his parents house as a thank you, but Unitas cannot accept. It's late, and he's got to get home. He says his goodbyes to Charles and his friend and drives off into immortality.
Almost 50 years later, Charles from Maryland is sitting with me in a diner in Richmond, VA, telling me this story with a big grin on his face. All the animosity about the Irsays, Baltimore, Indianapolis, and Mayflower trucks melt away. It's the kind of story that makes you really appreciate the players who came before; the relationships and bonds they built with their communities. It also gives you a window into a bygone era, a time that allowed for such fan interaction. Today, things are just too different. But, that doesn't matter. Charles' story was one of my favorite chats I had with anyone during my trip to and travels around Miami. When he was telling me about meeting Johnny U, we were not rival fans fighting over the current and past legacies of the Baltimore and Indianapolis Colts.
We were just two football fans smiling over a great story. That, my friends, is the truly awesome power of sports.
Days later, Charles emailed me this article from the Baltimore Sun. It compares the great Colts from Baltimore to the great Colts of Indianapolis. It's a nice article with some good things said about Jimmy Irsay, a man who has worked hard to heal the open wound with Baltimore. Many thanks to Charles from Maryland for sharing his great story and for sending me the article link. Always fun to talk Colts football with great Colts fans.