My Perfect Sunday Setting

by Jesse Fask
       Now understand, I hadn’t been to an NFL game in seventeen years. I went to a game in 1983 with my father and his friend Stanley when I was seven. We had fifty-yard-line seats at a place that to me was a baseball stadium. But somehow on this autumn Sunday, it became more violent. There was cursing and fighting, massive drinking and the home team got liquidated by some guys in black and gold named Harris and Bradshaw, laughing at this town as they sprinted gracefully into retirement and the pro football Hall of Fame in Canton (Ohio, not Baltimore’s yuppie bar central).

        I always loved the football setting. When I was little, my dad took me to see college games at Navy, Towson State, and College Park. My high school’s team, the City College Knights, won twenty-nine consecutive games while I went there, and when we beat up on fancy private schools like Loyola, Calvert Hall, and Gilman, I was as psyched as I’d ever been. In college, I went to see Big Ten battles at Ann Arbor and Madison. To me, it’s always been the best way to spend an afternoon.

        I used to love the Memorial Stadium O’s crowd too, but now, with my family sharing season ticket box seats at the Yard, I get annoyed by the corporate types around me, reading the Wall Street Journal while the bases are loaded.

       My father often complained about rowdy crowds to me. How obnoxious a lot of the drunks are. He told me about how he went to Yankee stadium and some lady spilled her beer on him and didn’t say anything. But to me, that’s why Yankees fans are better than Orioles fans. Not just because she was rude, but because she was crazy and interesting and into the game. Not that I ever met her. But when I go to O’s-Yanks games in B-More, Yankees fans come in droves, rowdy, getting thrown out, cheering louder than the Orioles fans and coming out winning. It’s like Baltimore can’t get anything right.

       New York is the more sophisticated city, hands down. It’s pretentious sophisticated ladies at bars discussing high art in the most fashionable and outrageous of outfits versus crabs, beer and rowhouses with stoops.

       But put one stadium in the middle of a war-zone known as the Boogy-Down Bronx versus, and put one off the highway for the D.C. suburbanites to drive to without seeing any of the actual city, and the crowds are different. I thought this, until Sunday.

        I parked down on Fort Avenue and walked up Light Street through Federal Hill to the Ravens’ home opener versus Jacksonville. I entered the gates at what must have been the farthest point from my nosebleed seats and I circled around the whole stadium, catching a whole panoramic view.

       Spiraling upward, as it was almost kick-off, I went up ramps and steps, moving towards the upper end zone. Energy was building and before kick-off, I found an overhang to see the purple-clad jerseys waving pom-poms and cheering as Matt Stover was ready to kick off the season at PSINet Stadium.

       It wasn’t perfect. The stadium has a corporate name and the football fell off the tee. And when Stover did kick it, it was short and weak and began a horrible Ravens first half, which resulted in a half-time score of Jacksonville 23, Ravens 7.

        I arrived at my seats in the middle of Jacksonville’s first scoring drive. The scene in this section was beautiful--men in Ravens uniforms living through the team. And the only conversations I heard around me were about football. Guys had radio headphones on and when a player got injured, the local headphone guy--there must have been twenty in a section--yelled out what the injury was and whether the player would be able to return. When star receiver Qadry “The Missile” Ismail was injured on a first quarter kick-off return, the section was filled with, “What the f**k is Billick doing? Having our best receiver returning kick-offs? Un-f**kin’-believable!”

        I didn’t hear anyone talking about their wives or family or jobs, and thank God no stock market or business deal talk that so commonly is heard at O’s games. In my section, there was a prematurely greying guy with a Ravens hat to the back and a Ray Lewis jersey, who looked as if every play meant either the beginning or end of his life. His hands were commonly together facing up as if he were praying. In the despicable first half after every play, a comment would come from his obviously raised-in-Bawlmer mouth such as, “How could he just bring three f**kin’ guys at Brunell! You know the guy’s f**kin’ good! He’s a damn All-pro quarterback and you rush three guys! Jacksonville has no runnin’ game! They got a great f**kin’ quarterback! And what do they do, they sit back and let Brunell pick ’em apart! Brilliant! Marvin f**kin’ Lewis is a brilliant f**kin’ defensive strategist! He lost us this f**kin’ game!”

       And the greatest thing about this zealot’s comments is that they were not directed at anyone in particular. It was like he believed that his comments were going directly to the players themselves.

        My other favorite fan was a man in an Errick Rhett Ravens’ jersey, who stood up and clapped on every play. This guy with a bald head, mahogany complexion and a huge spare tire on his 300-pound frame got up and cheered on every play. And he encouraged everyone around him to stand and cheer. And in the second half they did.

        I had never heard a stadium so loud as when the Ravens came back on Jacksonville in the second half. With Jacksonville deep in their own territory on our side of the stadium, we, the crowd, forced Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell to burn three time-outs because he couldn’t hear with the place so loud. Every person was yelling and screaming, stomping and clapping.

       It was the most beautiful, loudest noise I’d ever heard. And I don’t usually use hyperbole in my sports writing like most, but this was just Nirvana for me. Years and years of being frustrated with Baltimore crowds and here it was, my dream. And the Ravens were responding. They cut it to 23-15 and then 26-23 and then they took the lead and the place went bonkers.

       These guys in my section were handing out hugs to strangers. But this was real love. I’d been to a lot of stadium-packed hippie concerts in my time that try to channel this fake Sixties peace love with jam-rock music, psychedelic drugs and frisbees, but this was the real deal. When homophobic steel workers start hugging each other after Tony Banks’ fourth touchdown pass of the game, now that is love. And I don’t think the alcohol had anything to do with it.

       I’m saying that because I was completely alcohol free, and I could scarcely remember being happier. Maybe I’m just a sports ambiance freak and everyone else was drunk, but just let me live a little. It’s rare that I’m positive about anything. That I’m this ecstatic even writing about it, five days later, well, let me bask in the glory.

        But all this seemed for naught when right in front of our eyes, with less than two minutes to go in the game, Brunell unleashed a bomb from midfield in the direction of the Jacksonville receiving duo of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, who were defended by two young unproven Ravens, Kim Herring and Duane Starks. The pass was underthrown and miraculously McCardell, who was too off-balanced to catch the ball, tipped the ball in the general direction of Smith, who effortlessly snagged it and dodged Starks to go in for the go-ahead touchdown.

        The crowd was silent. Heads shaking. Anger.

       Tenseness. My boy in the Ray Lewis jersey looked like he was going to implode. But then the big guy in the Rhett jersey stood and cheered through the whole extra point, TV time-out and kick-off. Then he settled down, concentrating quietly so that he wouldn’t throw off the offense. The crowd watched nervously as Tony Banks threw completion after completion for the Ravens. The ball sat on the Jaguars’ 29-yard line with less than three-quarters of a minute remaining.

       And then what happened next should be Baltimore lore forever. The first great play in the history of the Baltimore Ravens. Banks found high-profile, off-season free-agent signing, trash-talking, future Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe and hit him in stride for the long touchdown, and Piss-Net Stadium just exploded. Fireworks. Hugs. Love. The balding Ray Lewis fan was almost crying. He yelled out, “This is the best f**kin’ football game I’ve ever seen!” I had to agree and we embraced.

       The Ravens defense held and fans exited that stadium with a radiance and happiness that one rarely sees. People were cheering and clapping down ramps. Singing, “Here we go Ravens, Here we go!”

        If you’ve never experienced 68,000 people happy and joyous together in the most raw real way, I recommend it. People may challenge me and say that there’s no real love in professional sports and it’s all about money, but you weren’t there on Sunday. Sure the true fans get screwed and can’t afford the tickets, but if you look hard enough the love is there. And on that day, you didn’t have to look very hard.

        It’s a rough city and people don’t have much time for this kind of celebration. And these were true fans and city residents most of them. And even if some of them weren’t I respected them because they were so into it. But I was happy knowing that a crowd at a Baltimore sporting event didn’t have to be like the one I’d seen so often at Camden Yards. With that stadium down there in P.G. County, those Columbia and Bethesda residents can go watch their lame team with the racist nickname.

       It’s great.

       The end result was my dream crowd in one of the greatest games in the history of the National Football League and I’ll never forget it.

Jesse Fask, a budding writer and youth counselor who lives in Hampden, is considering a career in teaching.


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This story was published on October 4, 2000.