March 28, 1984. Everybody was devastated. We were victimized. We didn’t deserve it.
I remember watching in dismay as Mr. Irsay shopped the team around to other cities. And I was stunned to see on the TV, them pulling out of town in the Mayflower vans.
It was such a shock to everybody because nothing like this had ever happened before in the National Football League; where a team leaves in the middle of the night, takes everything. Everything!
There was nothing I could do. I mean it wasn’t like [Irsay] was doing anything criminal. I couldn’t prosecute him.
It certainly was a really sad day when all that happened, but Irsay was clearly looking for the best deal he could find, and he did it, and I guess the politicians failed in Maryland. The one thing Irsay did teach the state of Maryland was a way to protect their teams from leaving.
I remember sitting at Memorial Stadium with my dad seeing Johnny Unitas throw his last touchdown pass as a Colt. It’s such a great rich history.
The Colts were more than an institution. They were a religion. There was no replacing the Colts, there was no getting over the Colts.
“Baltimore was broken in spirit over the loss of the Colts. The cleated heroes, in blue and white, were gone...There was so much wrong about the defection that hope lingered that something would certainly be done to quickly amend the situation. A belief existed that the league couldn’t do without Baltimore.”
— “From Colts to Ravens” by John Steadman
The idea of getting an NFL team back, we were always hopeful.
In 1985 there was a Baltimore group that wanted to buy the New Orleans Saints and move them to Baltimore. The NFL basically came and said, “Hey, look, don’t do this. Leave the Saints in New Orleans and we’ll look out for you for an expansion team.” Well they didn’t look out for us if you know what I’m saying.
[Washington’s NFL franchise owner] Jack Kent Cooke was another guy who kept the NFL from expanding to Baltimore. He was a major player. He may have been the major player. He made an impassioned speech at one point to say his brothers, his brethren in the NFL, could not allow another team to come into what he considered his territory; even though he didn’t get a fan from Baltimore. It’s politics.
The Cardinals were gonna come here. Again, we were more or less used by [St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill] Bidwell. It was like a rollercoaster. But we never gave up.
[Bidwell] was able to use Baltimore’s wonderful offer to prop up the Arizona offer. That’s all he wanted in that deal.
In 1993 the NFL expanded to 30 teams. Baltimore, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Charlotte and Memphis all bid for the two new franchises. Baltimore and St. Louis, having previously hosted their own NFL teams, were considered the favorites.
On October 23, in an unexpected decision, Charlotte was announced as the first recipient. The people of Baltimore grew anxious, but did not lose hope. “Surely,” they thought, “the NFL won’t screw us over again.”
Everyone got crazy when Charlotte got the team and said, “Baltimore’s got to be next.” Charlotte was happy of course and no one ever thought Jacksonville would get a team.
The NFL had just shafted Baltimore, twice. Giving it to Charlotte — which was okay, Charlotte has actually made it as an NFL team. Jacksonville is a horrendous NFL team. They should not have the franchise. That was where Baltimore got jacked.
After a while when you see Jacksonville and the other football teams, and we still don’t have anything, it’s like, “What’s happening? Someone’s missing the boat here.”
I think it wasn’t until we actually got into the process many years later when the league was expanding and they turned us down in favor of Jacksonville and Carolina, that’s when kind of a gloom started to set in that people began to think that it might not happen.
I don’t know if there’s even a word to explain — rejection, frustration. They’ve been left at the altar. It was just a terrible situation for these people and this city that really thought they were gonna get a team back. So I came in with a new fresh idea, I played off what had happened.
In 1985 Baltimore was granted a United States Football League franchise for one season. But the Baltimore Stars didn’t actually belong to Baltimore, practicing in Philadelphia and playing in College Park. Jim Speros, a Baltimore businessman from Potomac, Md., who’d played football at Clemson University, saw an opportunity to bring football back to the city.
We had a young man named Jim Speros who was a tremendous entrepreneur. And Jim, his dream was to get a football team into Baltimore.
I said, “You know something? Here’s my plan: I want to go to Baltimore, because Baltimore to me is an NFL city and I will be able to swoop in there, drop a team in there, and give them football.”
At the time the CFL really was in financial trouble. And traditionalists of course didn’t agree with the idea that the Canadian game should try to sell itself in the U.S.
I started pursuing them in March or April of 1993, and by July they gave me conditional ownership for a franchise. Because I had everything put together, I just didn’t have a place to put it.
I was impressed with [Speros] and his energy and his enthusiasm for not only bringing a team, but kind of a great vision for expansion for the CFL throughout North America.
[Mayor Schmoke] said, “Listen, this is my pact with you: I’m here to support football, any type of football. If we don’t get the NFL then I would support your efforts to bring the Canadian Football League here.”... On December 1st, I announced I was going to bring the team to Baltimore.
I was right in Towson [University] when the Stallions were coming. There was serious buzz about the CFL, a professional franchise coming in.
It wasn’t the NFL, but it was football, and you’re excited to have it. And from my perspective it was, “Ok, we have football.”
The CFL couldn’t fill the void, but they could partially fill the void. They knew that.
People in Baltimore were so upset with the NFL. I think half the reason they supported me was to show that the NFL made a huge mistake in not choosing Baltimore. You talk about timing, this is Business 101. It’s when timing meets opportunity, preparation; and the timing was perfect because this city for two years thought they were gonna get their NFL team back.
The most obvious location for a football team to play: Memorial Stadium, the former home of the Baltimore Colts and the Baltimore Orioles. But the Colts left for Indianapolis a decade earlier and the Orioles moved to Camden Yards in 1992, leaving the stadium unoccupied for two years. By the time Speros expressed interest in moving in, it had fallen into disrepair.
I thought I had the best deal in the world when I signed the [Memorial Stadium] lease with the city for $1 per year... And then we found there’s 20,000 broken seats; the field is nothing but weeds and lumps and rocks; literally the locker room was just dungy, dirt, you can imagine even rodents running around.
I remember being in Jim Speros’ office with water coming out of the ceiling.
We would be sitting in the lower deck and when people flushed the toilet up in the upper deck it leaked. The pipes were so bad in there.
I took a tour of the stadium after they made the agreement. And I literally could put my foot down through the floor in a couple of places.
My role basically was to get improvements. I was brought on board because, politically, I had some connections to make sure that we could get some things done that we had to get done. And we did. We renovated the stadium, we put a new field in. It was a disaster.
At the time Jim came to talk to me about this, he said there would not be any requirements for the city to put in money for the stadium. He had been in it and he thought there were some cosmetic things that needed to be done, but no major expenditure by the city. And that was one of the reasons that it was easy for me to turn over the keys, because at the time the country was going through tough economic times and the city was too. So it would’ve been tougher for me to invite the Stallions in if I had to use a lot of city resources.
They cleaned it up. Speros basically traded things. He’d trade tickets, or he’d trade other things, for services.
We [were] making trade deals for paint, TVs, rugs, computers, equipment, tape, training room supplies. We traded for all manner of stuff to put this thing together. It was fun, I have to admit.
Within three and a half months I had got the field ready to go, put about $3 million into the stadium just to get that stadium up and running. We painted it, put a new field in, did the locker rooms.
Construction was going on everywhere while we were putting this together over a six-month period… But we had players coming in the building, [we were] starting to put the team together.
The person I had my eye on [to coach] from Day One was a gentleman named Don Matthews… They call him “The Don.”
He was, without a doubt, the best coach that league has ever seen.
[Matthews] had turned down jobs in the NFL. I know for a fact that he had a chance to go to Dallas, but he stayed in the Canadian Football League.
When [Don Matthews] went in and did the interview, he’s like, “If I get this job, I’m gonna push for you to get this job.” And so he first interviewed in Las Vegas and then the following week he was in Baltimore. And then he told them they should be looking at me to come in and be the general manager. And then I got offered the job.
Speros let Matthews and Popp run the team. That’s what he did. He knew he was in over his head and he said, “Don knows how to take care of the players, Popp knows how to get them. I’m just going to sign the checks.” ... And it was a pretty good combination. Wherever Matthews and Popp would have wound up would have been the team that would have won.
We set up about one big room and put eight phone jacks in it and set up a table and a white board and had a whole list of players… I just gave them a list of names of players to start calling. One after the other after the other, talking to agents. And we made a little game of it. We were like keeping tally; it was like college recruiting. Who gets the first commitment? Who’s winning the commitment role, landing the guys I gave you? But we were all in one big room. It was all we had.
[Matthews] started with quarterback Tracy Ham, a great running back in Mike Pringle, and one of the best defensive players at the time in Jerald Bayliss.
Tracy Ham was definitely the team leader... Tracy was extremely professional in how he’d approach the game. He was not a “rah-rah” type of person, it was more of a leading by example.
I think the pressure, especially from a quarterback’s position, was that we have to play good football. Because this town, they’re used to good football. I didn’t want to be the quarterback that didn’t bring good, solid football back to the city.
If you look at that roster, I would say half of those people had previous experience. The key people that you needed to be in those key positions were all CFL veterans somewhere along the line.
We had a lot of veteran CFL players. I think when I came here I was already playing for four years in the CFL. You had Elfrid Payton, Tracy Ham. Those guys were seasoned veterans. The people on the defensive side of the ball, we had so many people that had played for so long.
When Don Matthews gets to be the head coach, he already knew those players and got them to come down with an American dollar that was a little stronger. The dollar could buy a lot more, and there was no salary cap. It was stocked.
[Future New Orleans Saints wide receiver] Joe Horn came here at the end of the first year. He never got into a game. He never got to the point where he learned the offense well enough to get into a game.
In our tryout camp we had [wide receiver] Wayne Chrebet, who we cut, we didn’t keep, before he went to the Jets… He did very well that day; just at the end of the day he wasn’t the type of receiver we were looking for. At least what the coaches were looking for at the time, they were looking for more of a speed stretch guy.
When I first got here, my first day, it was rainy but it was real humid. When I worked out, I remember Coach Matthews asking me if I could still run. I said I could run pretty good. So he told me that if I run a 4.5-forty [yard dash] that he’d sign me right on the spot. So I went out in the mud and the rain and ran a 4.4. And the guy was like, “You wanna do it again?” And I was like, “Nope.”
I knew what it took to put together a team… And I took that approach into Baltimore, I knew what it took and what we needed to be to be successful, and used those concepts with everybody and hit the ground running.
To be honest, the best way to put it is they were pretty good from Day One. They had very good coaching, they had veterans at the key positions and they just made it work through repetition.
With the roster filled out and the stadium cleaned up, the coaching staff turned its attention to teaching its young American players how to play Canadian football. With new rules and new vocabulary, the CFL game was exotic, to say the least.
Everything about the league was funky.
I thought it was minor league football.
To a layman that’s not familiar with the Canadian Football League, you look at the game and it’s still tackling, catching, running, hitting, all the whatnot. But we play with three downs, the field is 110 yards long, the end zone is 20 yards deep, [and] we have to line up a yard off the ball. I still didn’t know all the rules heading into my second year.
It was an interesting pathway to educating those guys on how to play the Canadian game.
The crazy rules, you have the single point if you don’t run a kickoff out of the end zone. I’ve seen games where that actually matters.
My favorite rule I wish the NFL would have adopted, was on the punts where you had to give the receiver five yards, and no fair catches.
That prevented guys from getting killed but it made the game more exciting. Because there were no fair catches because you didn’t have those dead plays... I liked the fact that they had a lot of motion. Everybody’s charging the line of scrimmage.
It’s a lot more fluid game. It moves more quickly than the U.S. game. The guys are moving, but there’s only 20 seconds between plays, and the ball is virtually never dead.
You really had to watch what was going on.
Jim [Speros] told me early on that no lead is ever safe in a CFL game, and we saw that a lot. You know, swings of 20 points or more in a game, because it was so fast-paced and the scoring was different.
It was fast-break football, constantly.
It was basketball on a football field... Everybody in the CFL had, particularly on defense, had to be able to run. Even the defensive lineman had to be somewhat agile because they had to be on the run.
And the quarterbacks were all runners. Here in Baltimore they had Tracy Ham. In college he was at Georgia Southern and he ran a wishbone offense; it was called the “Hambone.” He was perfect for the CFL.
There was no dead time in that game. The only dead time was when it was finally over, and then you could breathe out a sigh of relief.
With the season fast approaching, owner Jim Speros had to pick a name for his team. His decision proved highly controversial, sparking a lawsuit that made national headlines and united the city.
A lot of people came up with some great names for the team, the Sharks, they wanted to call them the Bombers... I thought maybe something horse related would be good...I was getting ready to name the team right from the beginning Stallions... John [Steadman, legendary Baltimore sportswriter] walked into my office in April 1994... He says, “If you don’t name this team the Colts you’re gonna fail miserably, because I know this town, I know this city, I know football, and you’re not gonna survive here.”
I don’t believe that Jim investigated whether it would be viewed as some kind of trademark infringement, because he made real clear and everything it was the CFL Colts.
We named the team the Colts and the city went crazy. We sold 13,000 season tickets within a matter of four days after we made that announcement.
The NFL sued. Early on they recognized it, it didn’t take them long. Trademark infringement is what they got them on.
Literally two days before I was supposed to have my first preseason game, which was going to be at Memorial Stadium, I get whisked into court in Indianapolis. I walk in with three attorneys and there’s 13 attorneys sitting on the other side of the bench representing the National Football League ... The NFL did me the biggest favor in the world because this became national news for six months.
It made everybody even madder. “Why can’t we use the Colts name?”
It made everybody galvanize against the NFL.
Unfortunately they told me I had to cease and desist using that mark until this gets straightened out… There I was, two days before a game, and I had to basically go back — the field was painted with Colts in the end zone, I had all this memorabilia, programs printed. We had to black out shirts, black out programs, black out cups. We did everything we possibly could because we did not want to be an infringement on what the judge was saying in Indianapolis.
We had interns luckily that were literally blacking out — taking magic marker — and taking the CFL Colts logo and the name Colts, and taking black magic marker and eliminating that from the program page.
We ended up calling them most of the time the CFLs. That wasn’t too catchy. But they weren’t going by any name, so we did what we had to do.
I don’t even think we had a slogan. We had no name! This was a team with no name.
In their first game on July 7, 1994, the nameless Baltimore CFL team — the Baltimore CFLers in official league records — traveled to Toronto and defeated the Argonauts 28–20. Then, on July 16, in front of nearly 40,000 fans, professional football returned to Memorial Stadium for the first time since the Colts left Baltimore in 1984.
When you turned down 33rd Street you knew there was a football game that day. You could just feel the vibe all over the stadium.
Once you got out there and it’s Memorial Stadium and they’re playing football and you see the field and you see the surroundings and you hear the band, and then you kinda got caught up in it and it was like, “This is a pretty cool thing.”
A lot of fans, they were starved for football, so that’s why they came back out.
Baseball went on strike that year, so people in Baltimore had nothing to do the whole summer.
We were the only game in town.
First [home] game we ever played, at halftime we had [former Colts stars] run out, and we announced all of them… They gave Johnny Unitas almost a 10 minute standing ovation.
I had asked all the guys [former Colts] to participate and come out and support the Stallions. And they did, the guys who were living in town here. Most of us always stayed here in town. We weren’t making enough money to be able to bounce around and have houses in Florida.
There was so much history, so much nostalgia there with the Colts being there. You talk about Tom Matte, who played for the Colts but also did color commentating for us. And you got Bruce Cunningham and all those guys that were there and always talked about it; Johnny Unitas coming to some of the games. It made for a great place to be.
You could feel the energy and feel the history… Some great football games had taken place in that stadium.
The old Colts Band played, the people were doing the old C-O-L-T-S cheer, the stadium was rocking. And so people really embraced the team.
I can remember walking around in games there after the lawsuit, people walking around in T-shirts that said “F**k Tagliabue.” [Paul Tagliabue was NFL commisioner at the time.] The PA announcer would do the intros and he would say, “Your Baltimore CFL…” and he would let it hang there and 35,000 people would yell “Colts!” The team was really good too, which helps.
We did as much as we possibly could without getting ourselves in trouble.
We opened up the regular season in Toronto and beat the Argos and came back and hosted Doug Flutie and the Stampeders. The CFL really wanted this American expansion to work. It was strategic, Flutie was the face of the league… The way the CFL set it up, it was the day before when the teams travel in, they had Flutie [have] a press conference right after Don Mathews had one and clearly that helped sell tickets as well. We...hung tough with the Stampeders for three quarters, they were probably the class of the league that year.
Despite the loss to Calgary in the first home game, fans were hooked. Baltimore led the CFL in attendance in 1994, averaging 37,000 fans per game, roughly 7,500 more than the next team, Edmonton.
On the field, it was clear Popp and Matthews had assembled a winning team. While Shreveport, Sacramento and Las Vegas — the CFL’s other new American expansion teams — finished a combined 17–36–1, Baltimore galloped to a 12–6 record.
Baltimore didn’t just have a football team, they had a good football team.
They made typical mistakes that any football team would make early in the year, but those things kind of ironed out fairly quickly… As the season progressed, as they started to pile up a couple of wins, you could see that they had the making [of a great team].
Initially I think most of the people came out of curiosity, as a looksee, let’s see what this is all about… After they saw the product on the field and the caliber of play the excitement just continued to grow, and grow to the point where our fans were showing up at practice.
I remember they practiced on an abandoned high school field, but it had glass, it had condoms, it had all kind of nasty stuff. The bleachers were terrible. And I remember this one day, it was late in the season and something was going on because the offense and defense were getting chippy. And all of a sudden a big brawl breaks out. It was the best football fight I’ve ever seen. And these were teammates! Throwing punches at each other, taking their helmets off and throwing punches. It went on for five minutes, it took awhile to get in control. And afterward I went to the locker room, they had to come back to Memorial Stadium where the locker room was, and I went in and everybody was like, “Hey, that was fun!”
I’ll tell you this, it’s a funny story. We’re walking around the stadium and this girl comes by and says, “Oh Mr. Wheel, I’d love to get my picture with you. My father wanted to get his picture with you.” She says, “Wait here and hold this box.” I mean it was a box, I don’t know what the hell it was. “So hold this box I’m gonna go get my husband,” [she says]. And they’re getting ready to take the picture and I ask, “Well where’s your father?” She says, “You’re holding him.” I was holding his ashes all this time. She said, “Yeah, we bought a seat for him to come out and we sat his ashes right there on the seat.” I said, “Oh, s**t.”
I would say that by the end of the first month, I had a pretty good idea that this was a team that could surprise. Then I think by about halfway through we started seeing this as a team that could go to the Grey Cup.
Oh, there was a cross-border rivalry, no question. Their first comments were that we didn’t have to have Canadian players. [The Canadian teams] all had to start 10 Canadian guys.
The American teams didn’t have to do that, so they certainly had a huge edge as far as competition went.
[Don Matthews] recognized that they couldn’t put the cap on American players, and they used a basic roster of American players which the Canadian teams couldn’t do. So that automatically made them better in all the skill positions than all the Canadian teams.
It was not a level playing field at all.
I was blessed to have probably the second biggest offensive line in football at that time, second probably to the Dallas Cowboys. That’s in all seriousness. My offensive line was huge all the way across the board.
To some degree, it was an advantage, and then it was a lot easier to replace people that got hurt.
[Canadian fans and players said,] “They got all the Americans, we got the Canadians. We’re not gonna beat the Americans.”… The Canadian executives, owners, presidents, wanted to see the American teams succeed because they saw that as maybe a savior for the league.
I had hate letters.
We were all in the Canadian Football League, we just happened to be on different sides of the border. We tried to squash in the media any type of [U.S.-Canada] rivalry like that, because we didn’t want it to be “us against them.” It wasn’t the Olympics.
|Team||Wins||Losses||Points For||Points Against|
Baltimore began their playoff run the same way they began the regular season, by defeating the Toronto Argonauts, this time at Memorial Stadium in front of more than 35,000 fans. In late November, the team faced the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the East Division Finals with a trip to the Grey Cup on the line.
They played in Winnipeg, which was probably the coldest I’ve ever been for a football game. It was brutal, and they barely beat a team that shouldn’t have been on the field with them. But the field and the conditions made it a winnable game for Winnipeg.
I said, “You know what? I’m going to be like the O-linemen today. I’m going to go out with no sleeves on.” You know, sleeveless, and show my so-called guns. And I remember I ran out for pregame warmups and I don’t think I made it a full lap around the field during my little pregame routine jogging around the field. And came back in and I couldn’t find enough long sleeve sweatshirts to put on.
They were throwing things. It was challenging, it was like minus something. It was very cold, and fruit was flying.
We’re down by one and it’s maybe 10 seconds left on the clock, Matthews sends on the field goal team, and it’s do or die, that if we don’t make this kick we don’t go to the Grey Cup. And it’s 54 yards. But the wind is blowing 60 knots, 70 knots [at his back].
Donald Igwebuike who’s from Nigeria, a soccer player turned into a kicker, and he nails a fifty-something yard field goal in that weather to win [14–12].
That ball would have probably been good from 65–70 yards.
It’s very difficult to play up there, especially elements that they were used to: very cold, snowing. We were able to go up there and in kind of an us-against-them type of atmosphere...get a victory.
It just wasn’t a great football game. It was really a matter of surviving it.
We won a squeaker of game in a really cold, windy, miserable day in Winnipeg to go to the Grey Cup.
That first Grey Cup was like national pride because here’s Canada represented by the BC Lions, and nobody wanted the cup to go south of the 49th parallel.
BC Place holds probably 75,000 people and I really think the only folks that were rooting for the Baltimore team were the folks that came in from Baltimore.
[It] was the U.S. versus Canada. It wasn’t the BC Lions versus the Baltimore Stallions. It was very clear that the fans in Canada did not want the Grey Cup to go to the United States.
Oh my god, that was like the ultimate football game. In my history of playing that’s one of the games I’ll never forget.
The town was cranked up, the players were cranked up. So going into the game you kind of felt that this was their moment.
To see the emotion from the Canadian players during “O Canada”… they were serious about not letting the Grey Cup come south, and they played with a tremendous amount of passion.
It was a truly us against them mentality… We knew that if we didn’t take control of the game, and when I say take control, like make it a blowout early, that it was gonna come down to a call, a play, or something that was gonna favor Canada.
I think the team was extremely confident going into Vancouver because we had just hammered the BC Lions late in the regular season.
We hadn’t spent a whole bunch of time working on hand signaling or nonverbal signals. We ran no-huddle, but it still was all verbalization. I don’t think we really anticipated the crowd being that noisy. We knew it was going to be loud, but it really showed us how much the Canadians wanted the Grey Cup.
The Stallions took control immediately, intercepting Lions QB Kent Austin three times in the first half. Coming out of halftime with a 17–10 lead, Baltimore let BC inch back into the game after consecutive field goals by Lions kicker Lui Passaglia.
The teams traded field goals throughout the second half. Late in the fourth quarter, the Stallions drove deep into BC territory with a chance to hammer in a touchdown for the lead.
We ran a counter play with Tracy, he extended the ball over the goal line, and had possession of it with his arms extended. [BC] slapped it out of his hands and they called it a fumble. So they got the ball and we didn’t get a score.
Tracy Ham fumbling on the half-yard line, ball spilling into the endzone… That would have put us up with less than five minutes in the game, probably would have sealed the game.
I didn’t play particularly well.
With two minutes left and the game still tied, Danny McManus, who replaced Kent Austin at quarterback for BC, fired downfield to Ray Alexander — a play still burned deeply into the minds of the Stallions’ coaches and players.
[BC was] trying to drive down to get into field goal range. [Ray Alexander], I remember he was like six-two, six-three, pretty tall receiver, and him and I went up for a ball together and we both came down with the ball, and the ball hit the ground, I mean like it was an incomplete pass. I wanna say the back judge called an incomplete pass but another official came in from lord knows where and called it a complete pass. And it was obvious, I mean you can look at the tape and see it that it’s pretty much not a completed pass.
There wasn’t replay anywhere in ’94… Obviously the call at the end of the game was ridiculous.
Unfortunately it did come down to a questionable call.
Though Passaglia missed the subsequent field goal attempt that would have put BC ahead, the controversial call still backed Baltimore up deep in its own territory. Their next drive stalled, and the Lions got the ball back with excellent field position and less than a minute to go. On the game’s last play, Passaglia buried a 39-yard field goal to give BC the win.
To lose the game with no time on the clock to a field goal was really heartbreaking… It was a real long walk. I had my chin on my chest. I had lots of company, but you seem to take those things personally. You know everybody else is in the same frame of mind, but from your perspective, nobody feels quite as badly as you do.
It’s almost 20 years ago and I’m still bitter about that.
The Baltimore team did not lose the game at the end. They lost the game because they weren’t doing the things during the game that they normally did. They didn’t run the ball as well, they didn’t throw the ball as well. When I looked back on it, I thought maybe the Lions did a better job of preparing for that game. They played an inspired game, the Baltimore team did not play an inspired game. It wasn’t anticlimactic, but it kind of had that feel to it where it was like this wasn’t the Stallions’ best game, this wasn’t their best effort. For whatever reason they were off. They didn’t play well, and some of their key players let them down.
That brought out the patriotism of Canadians, in particular CFL fans, and there were as a bit of “Take that USA.”
Once you make it to the Grey Cup once — you make it to the championship, the Super Bowl or whatever your championship is — and you play in that game and you lose, there’s always disappointment and there’s always frustration.
We gave a Grey Cup away. We should have never lost the game.
It was tough. It was tough because we felt we were more prepared and we were the better team. But unfortunately it just didn’t go our way and it kind of fueled us going into the 1995 season with the “unfinished business” slogan.
From that moment on the guys made a vow that we were going to get back to the Grey Cup and we were going to win. But that was one of those moments that you could taste it. And Matthew’s speech at the end of the game was “This year we knocked, next year we’re kicking the door in.”
The team was hungry to get back on the field, but there was a more pressing matter at hand: settling on a name for the team. Negotiations with the NFL over the Colts name had stalled, and the $500,000 worth of pro bono services a law firm had given Speros to fight the case was drying up. He was intent on settling the issue before the 1995 season began.
At the end of the year in November we just decided to stop pursuing getting the [Colts] name.
The NFL had its way. They always have their way.
We never lost the case, but the fact was the NFL can just wear you out financially. They couldn’t believe that I had a law firm doing pro bono and fighting this thing.
In the offseason they ran a contest and they decided Stallions was the name. It was a good choice, it’s a name they probably should have gone with from the beginning.
I’m glad they came up with the Stallions instead of some of the other names they were coming up with. You know, the Hippopotamuses.
The second season I became a season ticket holder. Again, good team, same setup, same coach. Hungry team, obviously on a mission.
We didn’t feel like we finished what we had started.
They were much more confident, they knew how good they were. They added a couple of key players, they came to recognize how they could tweak things a little bit better, and the fans were into it too.
From the other interns, to the staff, to the players, everybody was like, this year we’re getting it done, nothing’s gonna stand in our way. And I felt that right away and that was part of what became overwhelming to me, seeing how driven they were from training camp, that we just need to finish what we started last year.
After a narrow season-opening loss — to the BC Lions in a repeat of the 1994 Grey Cup — the Stallions rattled off five straight wins, cruising to first place in the south division. But a three-game road trip in nine days at the end of July halted that momentum.
We played in Birmingham on a Saturday night, and then we chartered a plane and played Edmonton on a… Wednesday night, and then ended up playing Calgary on a Sunday.
I had no idea how we got ready to play that third game. We stayed in this tiny little Canadian town and we had 38 football players staying there three nights. It was amazing.
I ate the best steak I’ve ever eaten in my life in that town.
[The games] are bundled together and you stay on the road. But staying on the road creates [bonds]… It’s a little like going camping. All the guys, you’re with the boys, and there’s a lot of card playing in between meetings and getting to know each other a little better.
You imagine how the bodies were beat up, and I think there were a lot of chips on. Conspiracy theorists were out there saying, “Nobody else had to play this, three games in nine days.”
The Stallions lost the final game of that trip, then returned home and lost to a mediocre Memphis team. At 5–3, with their hold on first place hanging by a thread, Matthews decided his team needed some motivation.
That next day at practice [Matthews] and the organization flew in about 25 people to tryout for the team in front of us. We were practicing on one half of the field and they would have an all-out combine on the other end of the field. Because certain players weren’t getting certain things done, and that’s his mentality. “If you’re not getting it done I’m gonna cut you and find somebody else who will.”
That was the coaches’ way of saying that all of you guys are expendable, you guys need to pick up your game or we’re gonna replace you… We still talk about that today, that was something that really got our attention.
Don didn’t worry about how people perceived him. Don didn’t care about what people thought of him, he didn’t care about what the players thought of him. He didn’t care about being liked, he didn’t care about being a coaches’ coach, he didn’t care about any of that. Winning was the bottom line for Don, and he was diligent in seeking the bottom line. If Don thought a player needed to be motivated, he’d find a way to motivate a player.
Then we ripped off 13 straight [wins]. Some of them were tight but I think we knew almost every time we hit the field we had a chance to win.
The team was unconsciously good. The team was good the first year, but they were dominant the second year.
It was kind of like a singular purpose, you could just tell that [the Grey Cup] was on their minds.
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Meanwhile in Cleveland, Browns owner Art Modell was at odds with his city. Desperate for a new stadium that legislators refused to build, he began shopping his team to other markets — just as Bob Irsay had done with the Colts 12 years prior. Baltimore, with its pot of pre-approved funds for a new NFL stadium created after the Colts’ defection, was of particular interest to Modell.
Nobody believed we were ever going to get [an NFL] team. The gods were against us.
I started hearing it back in September 1995. I didn’t really want to believe it, maybe I was somewhat in denial ‘cause I’m thinking, “There’s no way this is gonna happen.”
Rumors started to fly. [Maryland Gov.] William Donald Schaefer had had enough. He brought in John Moag of the Maryland Stadium Authority, and Schaefer took the collar off and said, “Go get me a team.”
I’d been working at Channel 45, and they wanted me to go up to Cleveland to interview Art Modell to find out how serious he was. And I did and he said, “I’m very serious.”
I thought it was a long shot. I didn’t think it was going to happen.
We didn’t really care because we knew the NFL had denied Baltimore a franchise in the past.
Modell was sharp enough to realize that he had bumbled his way in Cleveland, lost money in a town where you shouldn’t be able to lose money. And he saw a need and he saw a chance.
I think people saw really good crowds for a CFL game and… Art Modell said, “If they can get 40,000 people for a Canadian Football League game that they don’t understand imagine what would happen in the city when we brought the NFL back.”
It’s the elephant squashing the mouse. The NFL was the elephant, we were the mouse.
I was en route to Notre Dame. I had just checked into my room and I got a call from the office and they said, “Don’t unpack your bags. Go to Cleveland, the Browns are coming to Baltimore.” I said, “You gotta be kidding.”
I was sitting there and one of my teammates Chris Armstrong calls me and he’s like, “Big Irv are you looking at the news?” And I’m like, “Yeah I’m looking.” But I get D.C. channels not Baltimore channels and I’m like, “What’s going on?” And he’s like, “Man the NFL just gave a franchise to Baltimore.”
I guess at first we’re like, “Well what does this mean?” And then soon you kind of digest it and you kind of go, “Where are they going to play? Are they going to play here? What happens to us?” And then when you kind of look at it and go, well, if there’s going to be two professional football teams in one city, one American city, and one’s in the Canadian league and the other’s in the NFL, you kind of do two plus two and figure out that the score’s not in your favor.
I can remember people having signs “Save Our Stallions” and “To Hell With Art Modell.” There was just that kind of anger [among die-hard Stallions fans]. It took a CFL team to show the NFL that Baltimore was worth an NFL team.
Once the football fans here knew the NFL was coming back, it was like if you have two girlfriends, or you had a girlfriend you lost and now you’re gonna get her back, you dump your new girlfriend and go back to your old girlfriend.
You had all these bootleggers going around in the parking lot selling Baltimore Browns T-shirts. I still remember the guy, what he looked like and the T-shirt he was holding up, that was a brown t-shirt with an orange helmet on it that said “Baltimore Browns” and I just felt like someone kicked me in the stomach.
All of the news people, on the radio, on the television that were backing the team and everything, boy I'll tell you as soon as they said “NFL” it was like “CFL? Who are you talking about?” It was a shame.
In our locker room when they said that [the Browns] were coming I taped over everybody’s name except mine. I said I wasn’t going anywhere, I was gonna stay… I covered up everybody’s name with a player from the Browns and left mine uncovered.
You could just tell that there was such a hatred, an anger, because that announcement was made one week before the Grey Cup, it was made right before that playoff game.
We were so focused on getting to the Grey Cup and winning it.
I remember the guys saying on the plane that if we don’t get it done now it will never happen, if we don’t be the first American team to win that Grey Cup it will never happen, because all the teams were going back from the states, Canada was getting back it’s game, and if you wanna be a part of history, let’s make it this game.
The Stallions steamrolled through the playoffs, beating Winnipeg 36–21 and San Antonio 21–11, to notch a second straight trip to the Grey Cup. This time around, they travelled to wintry Regina in Saskatchewan to face the Calgary Stampeders, led by CFL legend Doug Flutie.
It was bitter, cold and the wind was blowing so hard before the game started that they almost held the beginning of the game. They were afraid… The temporary stands they had on one end wouldn’t hold up under the winds. It was blowing 50 mph and faster before the game started.
I can remember the CFL officials walking in the door and going… “We may have to postpone the game until tomorrow.” And we’re like “Aw, what are you kidding?” And they responded, “Well we can’t for insurance purposes let fans in the stands because they may collapse with the wind.”
When you went out for the coin toss, you honestly didn’t play to have the ball. You played the wind.
It was Canada versus U.S., that’s how hockey is, soccer is, whatever sport you wanna put out there. It was like an Olympic event is what it was… We were going into that game 17–3… The two all-time winningest coaches in history were battling each other.
We were locked in, understood what was at stake, and we had a good football team. Anything else would have been very disappointing.
[Tracy Ham] threw the ball really well. There were three or four plays where guys were open and he would throw the ball and the wind just takes it and blows the ball all the way off the mark. It was a horribly difficult time trying to be accurate. Throwing the ball with the wind was worse. You get it in the air and it just sails. It was difficult to throw anything down the field, and the intermediate game was less effective. But it was such a strong wind, you’d throw a 15-yard route and the ball would move.
You tried to score as many points as you could in the second or fourth quarter, while you had the wind with you and try to hold on for dear life.
It’s tough to score when you’re going into the wind like that… We ran the ball pretty well and we were able to score points when the kicking game and the defense put us in a position to do so. We didn’t drive the ball much. The wind was cold, it was probably 15 degrees, and the wind was blowing 35 mph. It was a pretty bitter day. But we had great special teams play and some big plays on defense that put us in a position to score points.
Facing Doug Flutie was a big challenge. He’s a great player, one of those magical players where you don’t want the ball in his hands in the last series. I know our defense got really motivated to play against him.
I could just hear Matthews saying Flutie’s hand is so small his hand is gonna shrink and we’re gonna get these turnovers from the ball.
We knew that Doug Flutie didn’t have a rifle arm. So when they went into the wind we guaranteed he wasn’t going to put the ball in the air. I mean we put all our ducks in saying, “Hey. We’re gonna rush Doug, we’re not even gonna give him time to think about it.” So we’re gonna make them run the ball, and take the passing aspect of the game completely out. And then when he does have the wind, “Hey we’re gonna lock up his receivers and with the wind pushing his ball it might make it sail, but we’re gonna play man to man the whole game, we’re gonna be in his face and be in the receiver's face and make them make plays.”
We played a solid football game first half and an even better second half. Just a stellar defensive Cup performance.
Playing against Doug Flutie’s team in the Grey Cup added to the sweetness of the game. It was a big win, and I think for Tracy Ham in particular, to be able to go out there and play against somebody of that caliber.
If that’s gonna be your swan song… to say you beat Doug Flutie [37–20] in the championship game, that’s pretty damn good.
It was so bittersweet. We were celebrating a championship knowing that once we land back in Baltimore that the cheers were just a couple days from running out.
[We] came back to Baltimore [and] wanted people to meet us at the airport... [we assumed] the fans and everybody would be there cheering us on.
We came back and had a small event with some fans down at the Inner Harbor and that was pretty much [it]. We got a little bit of media attention that week.
It was dark, it was sparse.
There was no parade, there was nothing.
We never had a real championship celebration, and we all talk about it to this day. We really need to get together and have a celebration together because we didn’t get to enjoy it in Baltimore the way we wanted to.
There would have been a lot of celebration about the Grey Cup victory but for the focus on an NFL team coming.
We were winning. It was the perfect model of how to build a team and put a team on the field…We led the league in attendance, we led the league in sponsorship sales, we led in total revenue sales, we were the best team in the league, we won the Grey Cup, we won every award. I won franchise of the year, my coach won coach of the year, my quarterback won MVP. It’s like, what else could we win? It was certainly devastating.
It left everybody in the cold. You didn’t know what was going to happen. You had no idea.
The Stallions fans were still Stallions fans. But by and large the city no longer cared, and that was unfortunate, but that’s the way things work. The CFL rolled the dice, they took a gamble. [The Stallions] won a Grey Cup and the city didn’t really care. They were eager to get them out of town.
The team had just capped off one of the most dominant years in CFL history, becoming the first team to win 18 games in a season. But their future was in doubt. The city was ready to move on to its new NFL franchise. And the only remaining CFL U.S. expansion teams — Shreveport, Birmingham, San Antonio and Memphis — were getting ready to fold.
I hoped that we could host both teams because the seasons didn’t overlap that much. I thought it was a possibility that we could keep the CFL and have the NFL team there.
But the reason [the Stallions couldn’t stay in Baltimore], it was explained to us, was the commercial advertising — the sponsorships, the signage — that that kind of money would have dried up and it wouldn’t have been profitable. The wear and tear on that field probably wouldn’t have been a good idea. You kind of got the idea that Mayor Schmoke and the governor were more interested in the NFL, and kind of wined and dined the NFL using the CFL’s success.
It was pretty obvious that there wasn’t going to be a fan base for both teams. And there wouldn’t be a facility for both teams. For the CFL team to beat their head up against an NFL franchise wasn’t something they were going to do.
Bottom line was I had to cooperate, which was a smart business decision. And the 22,000 season ticket holders — a lot of them felt like, why wouldn’t I just stay there and coexist. I explained to people that this is the right decision for the whole league, not just for Jim Speros and our team here in Baltimore. Plus, we’d die on the fumes just trying to compete here against an NFL team. We’d be minor league.
Everybody who was going to a game was gonna go to the NFL game. If they gave tickets away, they might have got 12–15,000. If they sold tickets, they would’ve gotten less than 10.
We looked at Houston, we looked down in Norfolk, Va., we looked down in the Tidewater area, we looked at Virginia Beach. Houston had lost the Houston Oilers to Nashville, and Drayton McLane, the owner of [Major League Baseball’s] Houston Astros, gave me a free invitation to come down and put it in the Astrodome; he wanted to be a part owner with me.
Everybody was told, “Just relax, be patient, we’ll all get it when it’s all put together.” But as an athlete you’re worried about your future. We’ve got wives, we’ve got kids, we’ve prepared to be in Baltimore. We thought we were gonna be here for a long time, and then now we have to relocate and go somewhere else.
The League had kind of made their mind up, they wanted to relocate back to Canada because Montreal was an open market. The team had left there in 1987.
I’m telling my family, “I’m coming home, I’m not [going] back up there; I don’t like it, they speak French and I speak English, you know I don’t wanna be there.” Once the franchise got moved up there I talked to the general manager I talked to the coaches, they’re like, “Just suck it up and come up here, stop being a baby.” And honestly I ended up loving it. I still call it my second home.
You can’t complain about Montreal. It was a beautiful city. Seventy-five percent of that city speaks French. Our summer camp was 40 miles outside the city. That was bizarre to me, we’re out there practicing, we go out to eat a restaurant, and I had no idea Canada was French. Stupid thinking I guess.
We had four months to create a team, create a logo, sell season tickets, get sponsors, build the organization, figure out how where our offices are gonna be. It was just a whirlwind of activity.
When we went to Montreal we had to start from scratch from nothing with our players. You start over, and we’ve had success in Montreal with the frame of the team from Baltimore. We still try to make [the Stallions] part of the organization to some degree. There’s still some… historic value to Baltimore still alive with Montreal.
Almost two decades have passed since the Stallions moved to Montreal and became the Alouettes. Jim Popp is the team's general manager and head coach, and former Stallions intern Mark Weightman is now the team’s president and CEO. They’ve won three Grey Cups since 2002, but the legacy of the Stallions hasn’t faded for those who were there.
That two year run was special.
For that small moment of time we were the best thing going in Baltimore.
It’s taken me almost 20 years to reminisce and really reflect back. I really feel like the reason the NFL came back to Baltimore, we had a lot to do with that. The resurgent energy in people. The NFL was watching and said “Look at this, we made a mistake. We should have gone to Baltimore.” The Ravens exist today because we gave up our lease [on Memorial Stadium].
We had tremendous team camaraderie, tremendous. And it was a fun, fun two years. I mean, we won a lot. But the whole organization was together. And after every win we spent time together, we all went downtown to bars and restaurants together… everybody seemed to get along as well as any place I’d ever been.
The experience was a great growing experience. It was a great business experience to see how to be able to build a franchise, how to bring a team together, and how to get people into the stadium and how to generate enthusiasm. It was a challenge, and we worked hard at it, we had to work hard at it.
I will cherish that team for as long as I live. I mean that second year’s team; honestly I could say we could probably have competed with some NFL teams...We were that talented.
Some people call the U.S. expansion of the CFL a failure. I see it as anything but. I think it was an important part of helping our league grow… Had the Ravens or the Browns never moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens, who’s to say the Stallions wouldn’t still be there and be thriving, because we were very successful and had a very strong following of fans… We’re still very proud of our roots in Baltimore, that’s for sure.
I would love for that team to be recognized and brought into a Ravens game at a halftime or something on an anniversary… They never got recognized, it never happened after we won our championship. They never got their celebration with the fans. They didn’t get to share that with the city.
I always say, somehow, some way, the football gods looked upon us because they gave us the Stallions for two years and gave us the foundation to get back into professional football.
In this day in Canada, we are literally treated like royalty. I’ve gone to Grey Cups and I haven't purchased any beer. “You’re an American fan? You’re still coming? Oh man you’re excellent, here have a beer.”
I guess because of that shortness, sweetness and success, it just lingers. It keeps going.