It wasn’t as cold as the week before, when a fresh snow had fallen shortly before game day and a wind-whipped Memorial Stadium had hard-packed ice beneath each seat.
Still, despite the just-above-freezing temperatures that Sunday afternoon, David Booze and his father left their house in Arbutus with plastic bags slipped into their boots for insulation and old newspapers tucked beneath their arms. The papers served as a barrier against the cold, placed under their boots and atop the wooden seats, protecting father and son on an afternoon that is forever implanted in Booze’s memory.
This was a treat.
Tickets to a Baltimore Colts game — particularly a playoff game — were hard to come by. Booze, then 13, had gotten lucky twice. His father’s friend at the University of Maryland hospital managed to get them tickets two weeks in a row, first to the victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the divisional round and then to this.
The day was Jan. 3, 1971. Yet, for those who have waited 53 years for such an occurrence in Baltimore again, it could be yesterday.
Booze was there when the Colts beat the Oakland Raiders in the AFC championship game — the last time Baltimore has hosted the sport’s semifinal. He sat in the nosebleeds above where home plate would have been when Memorial Stadium was in baseball configuration. The field was dirt. The stands were packed. Johnny Unitas was under center, throwing long to Ray Perkins, who, 68 yards later, celebrated in the end zone.
And there was a boy with his dad, way high up, experiencing one of the most memorable days of his life.
“The place just exploded,” Booze said, “and I know I exploded with my dad, because he was a big fan too. It was a moment you just don’t forget if you’re a big sports fan and you’re a 13-year-old like I was.”
In the 53 years since that day, the world has changed in more ways than it has stayed the same. Booze, for one, grew up. He attended pharmacy school, met his wife, bought a rowhouse in Arbutus across from the one he grew up in, raised a child, moved west to Ellicott City. His father, Ron, died at age 68.
He remembers much of that January day in 1971 — the weather, the Unitas throw to Perkins — but nothing is so distinct as who sat next to him: his dad. In 53 years, that is one thing that has stayed exactly the same.
Not everyone remembers the exact details of the game. But they all remember with whom they watched, celebrated, screamed and yelled and cried tears of joy.
On Sunday, when the Ravens face the Kansas City Chiefs at M&T Bank Stadium — a different team in a different stadium in a different part of the city — Booze will be there to see the second AFC championship game played in Baltimore. He’ll also be there with his son, continuing the Booze family legacy, all these years later.
“I can’t believe, No. 1, that I had the chance to go to those two games right before they won the Super Bowl,” Booze said. “And No. 2, here I am, 50-some years later having the same opportunity to do it with the Ravens and with my son. It’s sort of like déjà vu all over again, passing the torch, whatever wording you want to use. It’s really a generational thing.”
On that same January day in 1971, when Booze and his father sat on their newspapers and exploded along with a throng of other Colts fans when Perkins reeled in the late touchdown, there sat other kids with their family members and friends. Frank Kolarek and Vince Cascio, both in their late teens, made it to Memorial Stadium for the game. So did Steven Gordon, who remembers sitting with his dad for years at games and finding the secret to why Colts fans could be so raucous: the empty liquor bottles under seats once the clock hit zero.
And there was Gerry Sandusky, the 9-year-old youngest son of offensive line coach John Sandusky, sitting just beyond the rickety plywood cover on the dugouts in what became the south end zone at Memorial Stadium.
Football was Sandusky’s life — and, as the Ravens’ play-by-play radio announcer, it still is. His dad was on the Colts’ practice field when he was born. June McCafferty, the wife of coach Don McCafferty, moseyed onto the field to deliver the news: “You’ve got a fifth lineman.” Gerry Sandusky was John’s fifth child.
So, on that brisk January day, the younger Sandusky experienced a sense of nerves underlying his excitement. The Colts’ results dictated the mood of the house throughout the week. And, even as linebacker Ray May sealed the game with an interception, Sandusky’s mind returned to Super Bowl III, two years earlier, when his dad’s Colts stumbled in the championship to Joe Namath and the New York Jets.
This time, Sandusky didn’t need to worry. He watched Super Bowl V from Baltimore with his family — the Colts left extended families at home, bringing only partners for a business-trip atmosphere — and he reveled in the celebrations around a football-obsessed city.
But first it was that game against Oakland. He sat with his mother and brother. His three older siblings were in seats on the other end of the stadium. There are plays that stick out in his mind, but his fondest memories go to those right next to him to experience it.
That’s what makes Sunday so special. It has been 53 years since Baltimore hosted the AFC championship game. That also means it has been 53 years since Sandusky watched one, emotions riding on each play, with his family in the stadium.
When the Ravens beat the Houston Texans last week to continue their path to another Super Bowl, Sandusky’s children called. His daughter lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His son is in Nashville, Tennessee. They’re both flying up for the game, during which they’ll sit with Sandusky’s wife. Before kickoff, Sandusky knows he’ll find his family in the crowd and make eye contact, a little signal acknowledging how remarkable this all is.
“It’s a legacy thing,” said Sandusky, who gave each of his children a Super Bowl ring for Christmas. His daughter received her grandfather’s ring from Super Bowl V. His son received Sandusky’s own ring from working Super Bowl XLVII in 2013.
“Here’s the thing that hasn’t changed: Whether it’s January 1971 or January 2024, the most significant part of it all is who you experience it with,” Sandusky said. “Fifty-three years later, I remember sitting with my mother and brother, Joe. Everybody that goes to this game, 53 years from now, they’ll remember who they sat with and who they shared the experience with. To me, that’s the power of it.”
For Gordon, it was always his dad. They began going to Colts games when Gordon was 11, finally old enough, his dad figured, to handle the boisterous crowds at Memorial Stadium. He was 22 for the 1971 AFC championship game and just recently turned 75, yet in all that time, he fondly recalls the obstructed-view seats between third base and home plate.
They were underneath the overhang. Two concrete pillars, holding the grandstand above them, were in their sightline. Whenever a team found its way into the south end of the horseshoe, everyone in the section leaned for a better view.
Kolarek was in the upper decks with Cascio, who bought a ticket from his uncle for $10. There wasn’t a 24-hour sports news cycle in 1971, but Cascio and Kolarek remember the buzz around the city every weekend when the Colts played. And, 53 years later, they feel it once again.
Kolarek went on to play minor league baseball, then served as a coach and scout for several organizations, including the Orioles. Gordon took over the corner store in West Baltimore from his father and ran it for 40 years. Cascio moved out of Southwest Baltimore to Harford County. Sandusky left Baltimore, following his dad’s coaching career, before returning for his dream job as a sportscaster in his hometown. Booze envisions bowing out of future Ravens games someday, opting to let his young grandchildren go with his son, Chris, once they’re older.
For all of them, for as much as life has changed in 53 years, there’s still an unwavering constant.
On Sunday morning, Booze and his son will drive to Locust Point. They’ll park, grab a beer and lunch at Wiley Gunters, then walk to M&T Bank Stadium for a second AFC championship game in this city, nearly a lifetime after the first. It will be father and son again — and maybe an old newspaper tucked under their arms, to ward off the cold of the concrete.
It will be as if time stood still.