“Sorry about your football team!”

I was walking through the halls of my middle school in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, minding my own seventh-grade expat business, when some kid whose name I don’t remember extended condolences to me. I had no idea what he was talking about. My native city and I were still high on the previous year’s Baltimore Orioles World Series win, and I was probably obnoxious about it. (Seventh-graders are already obnoxious, and if you add a sports win to it, they’re absolutely insufferable.)

But this kid informed me the Colts had left town in the middle of the night, although he wasn’t sure to where. I remember him kind of sneering about it, but maybe I just imagined that part, because what a terrible thing to say! I called my dad at work the minute I got home to confirm that indeed the team had absconded to Indianapolis, and the next morning, local daily The Arab News carried a grainy photo of a Mayflower moving van headed out into the snowy dark. When bad news like that makes the front page of a paper approximately 6,700 miles away, where most people couldn’t identify Baltimore on a map, one’s sports and civic humiliation is complete.

That pain came flooding back Sunday, watching the Indianapolis Colts beat the Baltimore Ravens during my kid’s birthday party. It was the suckiest present of all. The blue horseshoe helmet hasn’t been associated with the city in 39 years — 13 years before the average NFL player was born — so I had to explain to some of the children present the Colts’ history in Baltimore. The response was like, “Oh, OK, so when y’all cutting the cake?” Little cretins. Gimme my cake back.

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To many of the adults present, including myself, the response is stronger than a shrug and more like abject sadness — another picking of the scab that comes from a morose mélange of betrayal, embarrassment and helplessness. Fans never like losing, but facing the Colts, who have defeated the Ravens 11 out of 18 meetings, feels like your ex’s new wife coming back to your house in your wedding dress and kicking your butt. That horseshoe used to be ours, dagnabit! And now it keeps hitting us in the face.

My Colts fandom was always more geographical than score-based. My parents were both raised in Prince George’s County, so my grandparents and uncles were fans of Washington’s football team. But the Colts were part of the firmament. I grew up about a mile from Memorial Stadium. The Colts Marching Band was a highlight of local parades. I remember sipping dainty Shirley Temples over family dinners at Johnny Unitas’ Golden Arm, the famed quarterback’s restaurant. The loss of the team was more than just not having someone to root for on Sundays. It was a loss of our soul.

Johnny Unitas jersey from the Baltimore Colts.
Leslie Gray Streeter still has her husband's Johnny Unitas Baltimore Colts jersey. (Kirk McKoy/The Baltinore Banner)

I married a huge football fan, who planned his fall around Ravens games, no matter where we traveled. Scott wanted to paint our Florida condo purple. (That was not a thing.) But I soon learned that as devoted as he was to the Ravens, his first football love was the Baltimore Colts. He wore an exquisite throwback Unitas jersey, as well as a purple T-shirt that read “Beat INDY!” because the new Colts were his nemesis. He used to yell at the TV whenever Peyton Manning appeared.

“It’s not his fault,” I said once. “He was like 8 when the Colts left Baltimore.”

“I still blame him,” Scott answered, and because I know that fandom is not rational, I shut up about it. It wasn’t the first time I was reminded of Baltimoreans’ long memories when it comes to their first team. In 1992, my dad was hired by a national company to run school bus operations in Cincinnati. It was eventually known as Laidlaw, and then First Student, but by the time the company’s moving division came to help relocate our family to Ohio, it was known as … well, you know.

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Some time later I ran into one of my old neighbors. “Haven’t seen you since we moved!” I said.

“Yeah, in a Mayflower van,” he said, as if somehow we’d stashed Johnny’s cleats in the back between the couch and our fondue pot. Awkward.

I don’t necessarily hate Indianapolis, and I know how much it sucks to be blamed for stuff that happened in your city that you had nothing to do with. A former newsroom co-worker in York, Pennsylvania, originally from Cleveland, yelled at me when the Browns came to Baltimore to become the Ravens. “I don’t even live there anymore!” I said.

“But you did,” she spat. I know how Peyton feels.

Despite last week’s loss, I am hopeful that the Ravens rebound and show that spark they’d displayed until the Colts thing. But, even if they win every single game for the rest of the season, that one’s going to stick in our throats like a chunk of snow falling on a Mayflower van hightailing it out of town.

leslie.streeter@thebaltimorebanner.com

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop... 

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