Baltimore's Greatest Canadian Sports Team: A Brief History of the CFL Colts

Well South of Saskatchewan, miles from the original Colts, but much better than nothing.
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There's a good reason why Baltimore fans might have a difficult time remembering the name of the pro football team that called Charm City home during the years between the Colts' middle-of-the-night departure and the arrival of the Ravens. Which is not to say that the Baltimore Football Club—originally the Baltimore CFL Colts and eventually the Baltimore Stallions and for a time a team without a name at all because of litigation—didn't deliver some memorable football to the full-house crowds that watched them during their two seasons at Memorial Stadium. They started out as a placeholder, keeping Baltimore warm for an NFL team’s return and ended in a veil of obscurity, slinking back north of the border. What’s been forgotten is that they were one of the greatest teams in the history of Canadian football.

In the early 1990s, the Canadian Football League was on the verge of collapse. Its team in Montreal had folded; teams in Ottawa and Vancouver were mired in debt. Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall saw an opportunity, and with the CFL’s future in doubt, bought the Toronto Argonauts (along with celebrity partners John Candy and Wayne Gretzky). The Argonauts signed Notre Dame receiver Rocket Ismail to the richest contract in pro football history, a move that made the cover of Sports Illustrated. McNall had also tried to lure Joe Montana north and would soon try to do the same with Mark Rypien after the Redskins’ Super Bowl win. But poaching players was only part of McNall’s master plan. McNall was also instrumental in helping Larry Smith, a businessman and former CFL player, becoming commissioner. That coup facilitated the CFL’s next big gamble: expansion into the USA. In a country where all other sports play second fiddle to hockey and in the midst of a league-wide economic crisis, the CFL's status quo seemed increasingly untenable. The only place for it to expand was to the south—to a country where football (that is, the version of it played on narrower, shorter fields than Canada's game) was fast establishing itself as the new national pastime.

The first American franchise arrived in Sacramento in 1993. Sacramento seemed the perfect market for CFL expansion: a second tier city, without a baseball or football team. Portland, Oregon was initially a hot prospect until Paul Allen backed out of ownership, as were municipalities like Fargo, North Dakota and Rochester, New York, whose biggest asset was proximity to the Canadian border. It seemed unlikely that the league would have the opportunity or the necessary investors to move into a major football market. Then, the Jacksonville Jaguars happened.

In the winter of 1993-1994, the NFL planned to add two teams. Charlotte was expected to be one. Baltimore, which had lost the Colts, was optimistic about winning the second. It had multiple groups of potential owners and, unlike its main perceived competitor, St. Louis, it had not lost its previous NFL franchise through a league vote. It was, if anything, the opposite of that: the entire Baltimore Colts organization was surreptitiously moved to Indianapolis in 15 Mayflower trucks in the middle of a snowy night in 1984. Just as surely as it had not forgiven owner Robert Irsay for that offense, Baltimore was sure that it was still a NFL city.

But the NFL picked Jacksonville. It was a fast-growing Sun Belt city, and virgin territory. It had none of the baggage of its competitors and was located far from any existing NFL franchise (unlike Baltimore, which was less than 20 miles from a site where Redskins were considering building a stadium). Furthermore, at least according to Paul Tagliabue, Jacksonville was “a hotbed of football interest.” When the commissioner was asked what he thought Baltimore should do with the money earmarked for a football team, Tagliabue sneered that maybe the city should build a museum with it.

When the CFL added three new franchises for its 1994 season, they went to Shreveport, Las Vegas and, finally, Baltimore. Baltimore, still in shock after losing out on an NFL replacement for the Colts—if not still reeling from the loss of the Colts in the first place—was more than ready for some football.

The team was christened the CFL Colts. This immediately provoked an intellectual property lawsuit from the NFL, which claimed an exclusive trademark over any pro football team called the Colts. Even without legal rights to its name, the new team did everything else possible to cloak itself in the mystique of its NFL predecessor. Its games were played in Memorial Stadium; the cheers were led by “The Big Wheel,” a well-known 1970s-era Colts fan who had become an unofficial cheerleader; the Baltimore Colts Marching Band played on the field and there were ceremonies honoring such Colts legends as Johnny Unitas and Art Donovan. Former Colts running back Tom Matte even owned a part of the team. The PA announcers gleefully baited the fans to react, announcing every first down and score by “your Baltimore CFL...” and letting the crowd insert “Colts.” It was almost certainly the first stadium tradition prompted by ongoing litigation.

However, the franchise did not just rely on nostalgia to draw crowds. It also put together a winning team in short order. Owner Jim Speros hired a former CFL Coach of the Year, Don Matthews, who built a team with CFL experience based around CFL rules. To NFL fans, it seemed like a team of oddballs and anonymities from the pro football cut-out bin. Which, for a city that had seen Unitas and Alan Ameche, was perhaps the only way to regard Tracy Ham, a 5’11 quarterback from a I-AA program and Mike Pringle, a running back from Cal State Fullerton, a college football program so unsuccessful that it had been shut down. The CFL Colts roster, which also included an Iranian offensive tackle, a Nigerian kicker and a Jewish punter, looked more like the set-up to an elaborate ethnic joke than an NFL team. But in the Canadian Football League, which is somewhat more tolerant of stylistic and aesthetic misfits than the NFL, it was a team of all-stars. Baltimore led the CFL in attendance its first year, averaging 37,000 fans per game before losing in the Grey Cup, the CFL championship game. The next year, their attendance of 30,000 per game ranked second in the CFL, but the team itself came in first, becoming the only non-Canadian club to ever win the Grey Cup.

And then they were gone, replaced by the NFL team that Baltimore had wanted all along. Early in the team’s second season, Art Modell announced that he was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Fan interest in the CFL team, by then renamed the Stallions, waned (hence the drop-off in attendance). The team realized it could not compete against an NFL team and moved to Montreal before the start of the 1996 season. The other CFL teams in the United States fared even worse, unable to draw much fan interest. The Las Vegas team had such poor attendance that it eventually had to play its last home game on the road.

The failure of the CFL’s American expansion was a huge blow to the league. Every other American franchise, along with the team in Ottawa, folded. The league was broke and broken. Rocket Ismail had long since fled to the NFL and McNall sold the Argonauts, before facing bankruptcy and an eventual federal conviction for fraud. Even established players like Doug Flutie opted to head south, in many cases trading CFL stardom for reserve roles in the NFL.

Paradoxically, this failure also saved the league. The CFL successfully rebranded itself as the only truly Canadian sports league. The former Baltimore Stallions eventually became a success. Thanks in large part to the brilliance of another undersized quarterback in Anthony Calvillo, the Montreal Alouettes have become one of the league's premier teams, and successfully re-established Canadian football in Quebec.

Baltimore’s CFL team was the result of a strange moment in recent sports history: one in which an American city and a Canadian sports league found each other in their respective moments of crisis. Baltimore believed it had no hope for an NFL team and the CFL thought that it had to furiously expand into the United States to survive. Both were wrong, but each needed the other to find that out. The CFL learned the hard truth that even its most successful American team stood no chance against NFL competition. Baltimore's football fans got both a chance to express their rage and resentment against a league that forsaken them and an opportunity to reassert its identity as a big league town. The CFL Colts weren’t quite the real thing, at least in terms of being an actual NFL team. But in helping Baltimore reclaim a sporting heritage and history that had been stolen away in the dead of night, they were memorable all the same. Even if no one ever quite figured out what to call them.


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