In their three decades here, the Colts brought a Super Bowl and two NFL titles back to Baltimore. Those were magical years. Great books have been written about them, great movies made about them.
The Colts' years here effectively launched the entire NFL into its era of supremely passionate fandom. Amazing as it sounds now, pro football was a second-tier entity around the country before Johnny Unitas started throwing touchdown passes and a Chicago sportswriter said the crowds at Memorial Stadium constituted "the world's largest insane asylum." Soon enough, the rest of the country was just as excited.
Then the Colts departed for Indianapolis in the middle of the night and Art Modell brought a new team to town in 1996. Not long after the Ravens arrived, Sports Illustrated wrote a story titled "It's Just Not the Same," the thrust being that it was possible the connection between the city and its former team might never be topped, much to the Ravens' dismay.
David Modell, Art's son, who was the Ravens' president in their first years here, kept that article in his desk to serve as motivation as he tried to build the Ravens. When I ran into David last week in New Orleans, before the Super Bowl, he talked about that article and smiled. Looks like Sports Illustrated got it wrong, he said, pointing out that the Ravens have not only matched the city's love for the Colts but surpassed it.
Keep in mind, that was before the Ravens captured the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the second time Sunday night, and before several hundred thousand screaming fans crammed into downtown, brought traffic in the entire area to a standstill and filled M&T Bank Stadium Tuesday just to get a glimpse of the players and coaches and celebrate their success.
As much as I respect what the Colts had, they were never this big. Maybe this beloved, but never this massively backed.
I'm not sure a city can embrace a team more passionately than Baltimore is embracing the Ravens now with its string of home sellouts, road-tripping fans chanting the "O," record-setting TV audiences, purple Friday craziness and sheer madness for all things related to the team.
I think it's a bit of a secret around the country because Baltimore isn't a top 10 media market and other teams with longer histories tend to generate more national buzz, rightly or not. But once the rest of the country sees Tuesday's insanely packed house and video of fans hanging from lamp posts and going wild at their Super celebration, the rest of country might just say, "Wow, I had no idea."
Sure, it's partly attributable to how massively popular the NFL in general has become, dwarfing all other sports. Social media also allows people to feel connected to their team and players in ways they never could before.
But make no mistake, the biggest reason fans here are attached to the Ravens with such ferocity is the Ravens hold up their end of the emotional contract that binds all fans and their teams. They make it fun. They win. They contend. They manage their affairs intelligently, draft well, fill needs, reload on the run while employing a hard-nosed, hard-working style that fits the city perfectly.
Winning a Super Bowl 2000, in just their fifth year here, sent the vital message that they knew what they were doing, unlike so many franchises. Fourteen of the league's 31 other teams have never hoisted the Lombardi trophy.
Now, the franchise's second Super Bowl triumph sends an even stronger signal. Only 11 other teams have won the game multiple times, and there are no pretenders on that list. It's the anointed royalty of the league, from the Green Bay Packers to the Dallas Cowboys to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Every other team on that list has been around a lot longer, but the Ravens now stand with them. Just like their quarterback, any questions about their elite status have been answered. You can maybe win the game once on a lark, but not twice.
It's a transformative accomplishment that will resonate for years and only tighten the bond between the city and the team it so madly loves.