When you pull for a team that is not your season-long favorite (listen up, Saints fans!), you either pull for one team or against the other. However, tossing my hat in the Ravens ring contains a little of both. It is very simple: I don't like the 49ers, and I have fond memories of Baltimore football.
Regular readers of this column know I was a member of the Saints organization between 1986 and 1996. During those years, the Saints ranked fourth in wins among all NFL teams. Guess who was first? The 49ers were the dominant team in football over those years, winning Super Bowls after the 1988, 1989 and 1994 seasons. They also made a living at keeping the Saints in second place in the NFC West. I have not researched this, but how many NFL teams have won 12 games in a season and finished second in their division? The Saints did in 1987 when the Niners won 13 and in 1992 when the Niners won 14. When I see the 49ers even today, I have flashbacks of Joe Montana and Steve Young hitting Jerry Rice or John Taylor over the middle or even TE Brent Jones on late drives to nip the Saints.
One of my worst memories with the Saints came in San Francisco after we had gone to our limits to make free agent Deion Sanders the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL only to have him spurn our offer for a one-year deal with San Francisco. Saints owner Tom Benson was incensed and wanted the league to investigate this "Mickey Mouse" deal and the rumors that a Silicon Valley company had padded Sanders' pockets with a sponsorship deal. In Sanders' first game in a Niners uniform, the Saints were leading and driving for another score when he picked off a Jim Everett sideline pass and took it the other way. I will not reveal the murderous thoughts in my mind when Neon Deion sashayed into the end zone and the PA system began playing the tune to the Mickey Mouse show. Bleep the 49ers!
On a more positive note, my entree into the NFL was covering the Baltimore Colts for the Evening Sun from 1978-81. Baltimore was a struggling blue-collar town whose Inner Harbor consisted of the U.S.S. Constellation and little else, a far cry from today's high-spirited destination of shops, restaurants and festivals. When I started covering the Colts, they had just come off three straight divisional championships and were one of the AFC's top teams. But in the final preseason game of 1978, QB Bert Jones went down with a separated shoulder and was lost for the season. That began a precipitous decline marked by poor drafts, player unrest and owner Bob Irsay jumping right into the middle of it.
Irsay was a reporter's delight as he was usually fueled by 99 percent firewater. That led to such shenanigans as the time he went onto the field during a game to fire defensive coordinator Maxie Baughan. Irsay trundled over to the coach wearing headphones and proceded to get in his face and telling him he was done. Irsay was helped off the field, satisfied he had done his job but unaware that he had fired the offensive line coach by mistake.
By the nature of news cycles in those days, reporters for the morning paper called their sources and wrote at night, while we evening newspaper reporters made our calls and wrote our stories early in the morning. Consequently, my rival at the morning newspaper would call Irsay at night, when he was cranking up the Enola Gay, producing some outrageous statements. My editor would call me early, report his quotes in the morning paper and have me call Irsay at 6 or 7 a.m., after he had slept it off. He always denied the comments, saying the morning paper reporter misquoted him. Whenever I would see him afterward, he would chide me for being the only reporter in town who quoted him accurately.
I had moved on to the NFL office by the time Irsay loaded up the Mayflower vans late one snowy night and moved the Colts to Indianapolis. But the fans remained and their Colts Corrals kept meeting for years afterward, kept alive by men like Hurst "Loudy" Loudenslager, a lovable little teddy bear whose emotions rode up and down with Colts wins or losses. The Baltimore Colts marching band continued to show up for years at the Preakness Stakes to play "Maryland, my Maryland," evoking fond memories of the team they loved. After Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, those Colts fans evolved into Ravens fans, and Sunday will be their day.
His new book, "Where the Water Kept Rising," is now available in local bookstores, at Amazon.com and at his website: www.JWMillerSports.com