When Art Donovan passed away last weekend, it was the Ravens who confirmed his death to the Associated Press, enabling the news to travel. The Ravens also helped direct reporters on the story to the right people to comment on Donovan.
When Donovan was laid to rest Friday at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, the Ravens helped with some of the logistics, making sure the event received the respect and treatment it deserved.
Donovan never donned a purple jersey and played for the Ravens. He retired from the NFL more than three decades before Art Modell moved his franchise to Baltimore. In fact, don’t spread this around, but Donovan may have cracked an occasional joke about the team’s purple colors, gaudy stuff for a player from football’s black-and-white era.
But that doesn’t matter to the Ravens.
Having arrived in Baltimore without a shred of history after leaving their colors and record in Cleveland – a gesture former Colts Owner Robert Irsay certainly failed to indulge in – the Ravens, from their first days in Baltimore, have embraced what they inherited in their new home: the tradition that Donovan and his Colt teammates forged before Irsay moved the franchise to Indianapolis in 1984.
It’s a weird and rare situation, to say the least – one franchise trumpeting the tradition that another franchise generated. St. Louis is the only other NFL city with similar circumstances, having cheered for the Cardinals from 1960-87 and now the Rams since 1995.
I don’t know how much the Rams pay homage to the old Cardinals, but with all due respect, no one has made a movie about that city’s profound love for its former team, as Barry Levinson did with Baltimore and the Colts in “Diner.” Though they’re long gone and in fact have broken the Ravens’ hearts repeatedly on the field, the Colts and their horseshoe helmets still stir heartstrings here. The names Donovan, Unitas, Moore, Marchetti and Berry conjure powerful emotions.
The Ravens didn’t need to adopt them; connecting with a bunch of old guys wasn’t going to help them win.
But it was good for business. It’s what the Ravens’ new customers, the city’s then-still-bitter fans, desperately wanted in 1996 – a new team, yes, but also a respectful nod to the players who made history here before being left homeless at the Pro Football Hall of Fame by Irsay.
And beyond just being good for business, extending a hand to the Colts was and is simply the right thing to do; an important gesture of civic goodwill that endures. Modell understood it was crucial, and Steve Bisciotti, who now owns the Ravens and was a huge fan of the Colts growing up, would have it no other way.
From the outset of their time here, the Ravens have exhibited a palpable connection to the Colts and a wholehearted respect for what they mean to the city and its fans. Unitas walked the sidelines on Sunday afternoons, eliciting cheers until his death in 2002. Tom Matte was on the radio broadcast for a decade. Lenny Moore still regularly drops in on practice.
The ultimate nod came in 2002 when the Ravens, Bisciotti and Modell commissioned the Unitas statue that stands outside Gate A at M&T Bank Stadium; and that year they also inducted Unitas, Berry, Moore, Donovan, Marchetti, John Mackey, Ted Hendricks and Jim Parker into their Ring of Honor, where they will reside permanently alongside latter-day Baltimore football icons such as Jonathan Ogden, Matt Stover and Ray Lewis.
It’s only appropriate. You can draw a straight line from what happened in Baltimore years ago, when the city first went wild for pro football, to what’s happening now, as the city celebrates the Ravens’ second Super Bowl title. Quite simply, the frenzy that started then is being continued now.
With that in mind, the Ravens actually owe it to the Colts to honor and treasure them. When Baltimore was without football for 13 years, it was the old Colts who helped keep the seat warm, continuing to live here (in many cases) and remind people that, yes, although we lost a team, pro football could still be a big deal here.
Fortunately, no one understands that better than the Ravens.