In the aftermath of Sunday evening’s football heartache in South Baltimore, some of us spent a few moments on New Year’s Eve remembering Dec. 4, 1960, and a heart-stopping moment at Memorial Stadium that offers a lesson as we commence 2018.
With just 14 seconds to play on that raw afternoon more than 57 years ago, John Unitas threw a desperation pass to Lenny Moore, who made a touchdown catch that resembled an optical illusion. The entire ballpark went mad with joy. The Colts, National Football League champions the previous two years, were clearly on their way to a third title.
Except that, against all odds, here was the beginning of the end of a dynasty.
With 10 seconds to go, the Detroit Lions’ quarterback, Earl Morrall, lined up at his team’s 35-yard line, and he found a receiver named Jim Gibbons all alone, and as time ran out Gibbons caught Morrall’s pass and went the distance.
Lions 20, Colts 15.
Do we need a recitation of Sunday’s game between the Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals to draw direct parallels? What’s remarkable is that the Colts’ loss, nearly six decades ago, seemed only a momentary stumbling block. Even with the loss, they were still 6-and-3 and leading their division. And yet the manner of losing seemed to take the entire town’s breath away, and it signaled the beginning of a downward spiral.
With the Ravens, Sunday’s loss kept them out of the NFL championship playoffs. And they lost it on fourth down and impossibly long yardage to go, and mere seconds left on the clock.
And they lost it with more and more empty seats at Ravens’ home games as this disappointing season droned on, and tickets available online for less than their cover price. And they lost it with what looked like tens of thousands of empty seats at the ballpark Sunday, even though there was a playoff spot on the line.
So there we were, seven of us out to dinner on New Year’s Eve, with the Ravens’ loss only a few hours old, and what floated like a down-and-out pass through the heart of our conversation?
“Hey,” somebody said, “remember the Morrall to Gibbons touchdown back in ’60?”
“Oy,” somebody else said, “don’t bring it up. It still hurts.”
Yup. Nearly six decades later, and those of a certain generation are still trying to get over that game. And that’s my generation’s problem with the Ravens’ loss Sunday night.
We haven’t got another six decades left to get over this one.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and its Love Affair” (Johns Hopkins University Press) and most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).