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Baltimore Beatdown presents “Forgotten Dynasty: An Oral History of the Baltimore Colts”

Hey guys, Jake with Baltimore Beatdown here, writing you all to set the table for the next month or so of content that’ll be featuring on the podcast. Over the next several weeks, a special project of mine will be coming to your airwaves on the Baltimore Beatdown Podcast each Monday, titled “Forgotten Dynasty: An Oral History of the Baltimore Colts.”

TRAILER:

The name is fairly self-explanatory, but in the interest of keeping you guys informed (especially with an undertaking like this), I thought I’d sit down and put pen to paper to explain to you all just what this series is, and the backstory behind it all. It started with my love (to the point of it maybe being an obsession) with the history of sports, specifically football, and it will culminate with the release of this podcast, which at this point I’ve dedicated a decent amount of time over the last two or so years to assembling.

Growing up a Baltimore football fan for the last 25 years has been an interesting, fun, and (relative to the success the Ravens have had), blessed experience. One of my earliest memories in life was heading over to a next door neighbor’s house for a Super Bowl XXXV watch party, which set a template and an expectation upon which I’d go on to judge the team in many contexts.

Super Bowl XXXV - Baltimore Ravens v New York Giants
One of my earliest memories in life is of the Ravens hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, setting a tone for what Baltimore football was all about

This proved to be a fair benchmark as it was at age 17, in my senior year of high school, that I saw the Ravens do it again, this time with a team I had an actual investment in at a more seasoned age. In the decade since then, there’s been some difficult lows, and some amazing highs as well, as Baltimore is now in the midst of another run of incredible football from the Ravens, led by a classy owner, a stalwart head coach, and a superstar quarterback.

At this point it feels like a lifetime, because to me, well, it is. But the reality is that it’s only been a few decades, albeit some very eventful ones. Over the course of those decades, even amidst all the Ravens have done, there was one aspect of being a Baltimore football fan that always struck me as somewhat odd: both the Ravens origins, and all that had transpired before they came to town.

At this point, we all more or less know the story about the Browns moving to Baltimore, and not the staunchest Cleveland supporter, or Ravens defender will ever convince me that either side of that whole debacle was 100% in the right. This is something I’ve become more sensitive to as I’ve grown up a bit, and come to realize that there’s plenty more gray area in situations than often appears, especially the further into them you dare to look.

2901583P Fans Browns
Art Modell is a beloved name in Charm City, and not so much in Cleveland; whether he was right in what he did very much lies in the eye of the beholder

One counterargument I’ve heard given to said Cleveland sympathizers who revel in ripping the Ravens and Art Modell at every turn is that is that football is a business, and nobody knows that better than Baltimore who were the victims of the very same thing a decade prior to Cleveland. I had found myself making this same argument at times throughout my life, happy to cite that as a cold hard fact, but not having much of an understanding of what I was actually talking about.

I knew some of the basic names, such as Johnny Unitas, Ted Marchibroda, Ernie Accorsi, and of course Robert Irsay, among many others. But as I grew a bit older and became a bit more resourceful and curious about the whole situation, I began to dig in further to the history of the Baltimore Colts, and was amazed at what I found.

Names that I hadn’t heard before, or didn’t know much about – such as Carroll Rosenbloom, Weeb Ewbank, Earl Morrall, or Bert Jones to name a few – turned out to all be incredibly fascinating characters in their own right, and worthy of having their story told. Another story I would’ve liked to have had told to me was one that I had no context on, other than a notably incendiary quote.

The quote was from Johnny Unitas, and it was regarding Don Shula, a man who (I didn’t even realize at the time I was hearing this quote) had had one heck of a run as a head coach in Baltimore before his glory days in Miami. It isn’t simply that fact that piqued my interest, but rather, what Unitas had to say about Shula and the whole experience, shortly before passing away in 2002:

“If (Shula) was standing here right now, and he was on fire, I wouldn’t piss on him to put it out,” Unitas said.

No matter how you slice it, the hero of the story of the Baltimore Colts (if there is one) is Johnny Unitas. At this point, his outsized legacy complete with famous pictures, highlights, and a statue outside of a stadium he never even played in, precedes him. While most would kill for a legacy like that in just about anything, the problem with having one is that it (at least to a degree) dehumanizes you.

Baltimore Colts v Chicago Bears
There are few sports figures as important and fascinating (and, sometimes misunderstood) than John Unitas.
Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images

The larger than life character of “Johnny U” is one that’s become so big and so synonymous with the glory days of the Baltimore Colts, that it’s fairly easy to forget that he was a real person with real life issues, including complicated relationships both personal and professional. When I came across what he said about Shula, that humanized him pretty quickly to me, and made me even more curious about who exactly he was beneath all the records and iconic imagery.

This led me to a 2018 book from local author Jack Gilden, titled “Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the Rise of the Modern NFL.” An engrossing read, the book takes you on a journey across several formative decades of the United States through the scope of an NFL franchise, the Baltimore Colts, and specifically the near decade of dominance under head coach Don Shula in the 1960’s.

It also spends plenty of time explaining the origins and overall story of both “Johnny U” the icon, and John Constantine Unitas, the man and father. By the time I had come across this book, I had already come to the realization that I wanted to use my platform with the podcast to tell the story of the Baltimore Colts, but it was when I came across it that I began to understand I had had the scope of the story completely wrong.

Rather than simply reading off a list of achievements of the team, and explaining in detail what went wrong in the 1970’s and 80’s that led to them leaving town, I scrapped a few of my early attempts at writing up a script, and went back to work. My reasoning for doing so was that if I was going to tell this story, I was going to do everything in my power to do it right and give as much context as possible, something that reading Jack’s book gave me the confidence and the inspiration to believe I could do.

Don Shula talks wih Johnny Unitas and Lou Michaels
Easy to forget amongst his later successes, Don Shula had an extremely successful (if rocky off the field) start in Baltimore as the Colts head coach.

A specific cue I took from his writing style is that while the sports side of the story is the initial draw, it’s the human side of it all that really makes up the bones of what we’re talking about – especially in the case of a franchise like the Colts that had no shortage of characters to draw from. Whether it was the origins of the mysterious and unapologetically high-rolling Carroll Rosenbloom, the sharp mind of Paul Brown acolyte Weeb Ewbank, the fiery relationship between Unitas and Shula, or the chaos and volatility of the Robert Irsay era, there was more than enough human drama to both keep the listener engaged, and also tell the story as it truly happened (even if there were some emotions involved).

Growing up as someone who associated the Colts with Indianapolis and Peyton Manning while only knowing the broad strokes about the story of their time in Baltimore, learning about it in earnest over the past few years has made me realize just what a unique and amazing story it is. That the team by the time I was born was well established as one of another city (plus the fact that I associated Baltimore with the Ravens) made the idea of the Colts and what they accomplished feel more like urban legend than an actual concrete thing – funny enough it’s so unbelievable at times that it reads that way, but make no mistake, it was all very much real.

Ultimately, it’s that dichotomy of dissonance that I find most fascinating here; that the Ravens have come to town and been so successful in such a short time, coupled with the fact that the Colts literally play for another city at this point has put the latter’s legacy with young Baltimore sports fans into a strange state of limbo. We certainly can be proud of what they accomplished over their time here, but with how much time has passed, the acrimonious ending of their relationship with the town, and a new shiny franchise that’s brought us two championships in it’s own right, I also wouldn’t blame anyone who overlooks it all, intentionally or otherwise.

That dynamic coupled with just how amazed and interested I was with this story is what’s brought me here, and also what’s brought you guys this podcast. My desire to tell this story predates me even discovering the depths of how fascinating it all is, and it was upon that discovery that I realized the true potential of such a series and how much fun it would be to produce.

That led me to writing up a 200+ page script based upon many hours of research, plenty of great supplemental audio, and original audio of my own that comes from three different, equally qualified sources: Jack Gilden, Bill Curry, and Keith Mills. Upon reaching out to Jack (the author of the aforementioned “Collision of Wills”), I was delighted that he so quickly got back to me and agreed to sit down for a lengthy phone interview that would help provide the basis for what you’re going to be hearing over the course of the next few weeks – for both his great writing in the book, and the time he was gracious enough to give me, I’m extremely grateful to him.

The same can be said for Bill Curry, who started at center for the Colts between 1967 and 1972. I wasn’t sure when I began this process if there would be much of a chance of me finding a primary source to feature in it in any capacity, but upon reaching out to Bill on a whim to see if he’d be interested in providing some color of his own from the perspective of a player, he also agreed to a lengthy interview which you’ll be hearing much of throughout the series to his immense credit.

Finally, a man that I (and I’m assuming many of you) have the utmost affection and respect for, Keith Mills. Millsy is a Baltimore legend who grew up in this area as a fan of the Colts, became a successful on-air sports personality, and through it all had a front row seat to many of the highs and lows we’ll be discussing in the series – special thanks to him both for all he’s done to become synonymous with Baltimore sports, and for the time that he gave to a young small-time blogger and podcaster who grew up consuming his work.

At the risk of rambling along any further, I’ll leave you guys with the three things I’m hoping to accomplish with “Forgotten Dynasty:”

  • To pass along the displaced legacy of a legendary football franchise to a younger generation of fans who would benefit from hearing the story
  • To do so in an entertaining and informative fashion that communicates (and hopefully replicates in the listener) how much fun I had researching and producing all of this
  • And, above all else, to do this story and those involved justice, and hopefully get it right

Time will tell if I’m able to accomplish all (or any) of this, but on the eve of the show finally debuting I just finally want to say thank you to any and all of you who have listened to the podcast over the years, and will tune in to it over the next several weeks. This has been a long, arduous, fun, and above all exciting process, and it’s been your belief in my abilities as a host and producer on the Baltimore Beatdown Podcast over that time that’s given me the self-confidence to go forward with something of this size and scope.

The first episode releases this coming Monday, 5/31, and whether you’re a neophyte with no knowledge of the Colts history with Baltimore, or someone who lived through it all as I didn’t, I hope you’ll tune into the ride with me to have some fun, and hopefully learn something new. The illustrious 30 year history of a football franchise is hard to sum up in a multi-part podcast, but I can certainly say that I gave it the best damn shot I could - the same can be said for Johnny Unitas and the quarterback position, and despite some extremely humble beginnings, he did about as well as anyone could’ve with what he had.

I definitely don’t expect to reach the equivalent to his heights in the realm of podcasting with this, but hey, a man can dream right? Thanks again for the time listened, the listens we’ll get for this from you all upon release, and the belief in me that made all of this possible – you guys are the best listenership we could ask for, and I hope above all else we repay your faith with projects like this in addition to the regular pod.

Enjoy your holiday weekend, and we’ll see you on Monday with Episode One.