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A Fan's Gloat

How a Championship Feels From North of the Border

By David Dudley | Posted 2/7/2001

The details are hazy, but in my mind I always see the same things: A faceless mob, lit by streetlights and ruddy with drink. An animal roar of joy. Church bells and car horns, of course, and confetti or glitter or balloons. Fat men dance with beautiful women; couples lock in theatrical embraces, like the famous photo of the sailor kissing the girl on V-E Day. The streets are a sea of strangers in ecstasy. And in the tumult a wave of soundless, wordless something rises and crests and scours the city like a fire hose, leaving it remade, clean and bright and ready for anything.

That is what I always figured winning the Super Bowl must be like. I've had many years to reflect on the phenomenon; the team I grew up with, the Buffalo Bills, went to, and lost, four Super Bowls in four years, each defeat more soul-crushing than the last. It was that first one, though--that 20-19 near-miss in Tampa 10 years ago--that really planted the idea in my head that a Super Bowl victory would be more than just a good party. It would be more like an Augustinian conversion, a thunderclap of cleansing clarity that could relieve the city of its ancient grudges and forever reverse its fortunes.

The reality, I'm sure, was something of a mess: broken bottles, vomiting, jerks yelling all night. And on Monday morning the city was probably, heartbreakingly, unchanged. Or was it?

In the decade since a guy named Scott Norwood missed that field goal in Tampa, Baltimore got its own NFL franchise. At first, I followed the team's fortunes from a certain professional distance, not only because I occasionally had to write about it, but because I was already wedded firmly to another team. But after a few endearing years of character-building missteps and a few sleety games in the company of more hellbent fans, those hard-luck Ravens--the franchise born in darkness and deemed to forever define the failings of a morally bankrupt league--were growing on me.

I moved from Baltimore several months ago and now live in Montreal. In my absence, the Ravens prospered and, as the world watched in horror, abruptly vaulted into the promised land. I saw it all (except for the much-ballyhooed commercials; my Canadian cable provider replaced them with the same crappy ads promoting Quebec cheese-making that they've been rotating all season). And, aching suddenly for the town and the people I'd left behind, I tried to feel the love.

On game day I flew the Maryland flag from my second-floor porch, bewildering the neighbors. I arranged purple-and-gold tortilla chips in the festive shape of the much-feared winged "B." I got riled up watching the pregame festivities, which, in Montreal, consisted largely of scattered remote shots of average Canadians waiting around in various bars for the game to start. ("We're talking to Bob in Saskatoon!") A few Montreal friends came over to experience the majesty of bona fide NFL football; they watched politely, sipped red wine, and asked the occasional tactical question. ("Can they do that?" "Why is he dancing?") I hopped around and yelled and generally made an American spectacle of myself, like you're supposed to. When it ended, I wallowed in mid-Atlantic-ness, passing out triumphant shots of Pikesville rye and playing an old Kix album. And I waited for the mighty thunderclap to come rolling north.

In Montreal, though, it was just another subzero Sunday night--snow falling, fireplace smoke in the air, the usual sepulchral winter quiet. In desperation, I called my friend Jim in Baltimore, to hear what I was missing.

It sounded like . . . well, you know what it sounded like. You were there. But over a phone line, it was like the Hindenburg blowing up: screams, sirens, incoherent apologies from a dazed reporter. Humanity run amok. In the background, I heard a mob singing "We Are the Champions." It was, no doubt, a scene very much like the one I had always dreamed of. And when I finally fell asleep (OK, passed out), I could still hear the sound.

But did anything change? Does Baltimore now enjoy that elusive respect we heard so much about in the last weeks? Has it finally rid itself of its many burdens, the stench of failure and loss? Is Tinytown really the Greatest City in America? Can it be that easy?

Of course not. The righteous force of the Ravens' Super Bowl victory was not seismic enough to be felt across the border, or even the state line; from the perspective of greater North America, this was a game that few enjoyed won by a team that most despise. If anything, the Super Bowl publicity should do nothing but further inflame the famed Baltimore-against-the-world complex. Look around, folks--this time the world really is against you. The non-Maryland media is almost unremittingly hostile toward the Ravens, as some of you may have noticed. And no wonder--peer over the rose-colored glasses for a moment and the Ravens' ill-mannered postseason holy war truly can make one cringe. Frankly, they're monsters.

But that's why they're there. Jobbed by the NFL for 12 years, Baltimore bulldozed its way back into a league it actively demonized, then unleashed its avenging angels on the championship game. What looked like sweet redemption in Central Maryland was just football to the rest of the world. Winning the game itself in such a resounding fashion, which usually quiets naysayers, did nothing in this case but shift the tone from smug dismissal to sour promises of swift vengeance.

Of course it has always been thus, from sportscaster Bob Trumpy's ineffectual cold-hot-dog curse of 1996 to the countless aggrieved New York boosters who now complain, surreally, of the Ravens' unseemly championship swagger. And surely there remain local voices of moralizing dissent here and there. Such is the enduring stain of Art Modell's original sin. I still see little difference between Modell and any number of other NFL carpetbaggers, except that the others took their logos with them and never looked back. But then, I also don't understand why the Ravens are pilloried for Ray Lewis when franchises that actively seek out homicidal felons and nutjobs (think of the Jimmy Johnson-era Miami Dolphins) never hear a peep. Or why the trash-talking Ravens earned more scorn than the insufferable, coked-up Dallas Cowboys during their early-'90s reign. But I don't worry about it much anymore. That's football. Like so much else in the America of George W. Bush, it's mean and petty and it isn't always fair. Which is why the Ravens, a franchise seemingly fueled by sheer outrage, are the perfect team for the times, and why Baltimore is the perfect place for them to play.

Baltimore knows enough not to believe that a football team is necessarily a good and moral thing, or that its players are all heroes, or that winning this game will do anything more than deepen the world's suspicion that the town is a bewildering backwater of tacky and vicious people. Hopefully, it won't care either. Not anymore. If the history of this city, and the Super Bowl that is now a part of it, tells us anything, it is the virtue of a stout defense.

The euphoria will fade, if it hasn't already. The salary cap and a first-place schedule and the collective ill will of a grumpy nation will eventually grind the team into mediocrity, or worse. The Ravens will break your heart, again and again, and you'll have to come back every week and take it. This is the way it should be; this is what you signed up for. You have to love them anyway, because you remember that one night when you rode the wave into the streets and awoke to the world made new, and you believe that someday it could happen again. And you have to love them, Baltimore, because Lord knows, no one else will.

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