November 22, 2008

Baltimore fans still cheering 13 years later


MONTREAL – Call it the U.S. branch of Canadian football’s fan club.

More than a decade after their Baltimore Stallions rode out of town, a band of Canadian pigskin diehards from Maryland have made the trek to Montreal to watch Sunday’s Grey Cup.

Baltimorean Sue Haddox said it’s still painful to talk about losing her beloved Stallions, who moved to Montreal to become the Alouettes in 1996.

“I was just crying my heart out,” said Haddox, whose voice still cracks when discussing the thousands of Stallions fans who fought to keep the team, even as the NFL’s Cleveland Browns moved into town to become the Baltimore Ravens.

“We even bought season tickets when we knew they were moving, hoping that would convince them to stay.”

The CFL’s ill-fated American expansion brought a handful of U.S. teams into the league, including the Sacramento Gold Miners, Las Vegas Posse, Birmingham Barracudas and Memphis Mad Dogs. The experiment flopped almost everywhere, and although it succeeded in Baltimore the Stallions were quickly squeezed out by the arrival of the NFL.

But Haddox, and about a half-dozen of her Baltimore buddies, couldn’t let go of their passion for high-scoring, wide-open Canadian football and have continued to get their fix by making Grey Cups trips an annual ritual.

Since watching the Stallions lose the 1994 championship in Vancouver and then prevail the next season in the only Grey Cup won by a U.S. team, she’s only missed one fall classic.

Now a fierce Alouettes fan, she’s delighted this year’s final between her team and the Calgary Stampeders is on home turf.

“They have a good home here,” she said of the transformed Stallions.

The vocal gang of football pals proudly wore their Stallions colours Friday as they munched on pancakes and danced to live country music in Montreal’s Grey Cup village.

Gregg Dieghorn said their presence at Grey Cup events across Canada has made them celebrities.

“When you come to Canada to watch Canadian football from the States, people are just amazed,” said Dieghorn.

He said some American friends are equally perplexed by his hobby.

“They look upon it as some sort of cult, (as if) we’re people who don’t have anything else in our lives except go to the Grey Cup every year.”

He said his wife joined him on a Grey Cup trip a few years ago and she described it as “a combination fraternity party, college reunion and oh, yeah, there’s a football game at the end.”

“That’s what I like about it,” he said.

Joe Short, dressed head to toe in Stallions gear, said he’s been watching CFL football since the 1950s.

“There’s probably 20,000 broken hearts still left in Baltimore,” said Short, whose tall, Stallions cowboy hat is easy to spot in the Grey Cup crowds.

He said the plodding style of the NFL has nothing on the high-flying CFL action.

” It’s so exciting, but the best part is the game is for the average fan … you don’t have to pay a lot of money,” he said.

Leo Dodge said he’s grateful that Canadians introduced their sport to Baltimore, even though the franchise only stuck around town for two seasons.

Dodge, known as “flag man” for the massive blue-and-white Stallions banner he waves at all Grey Cup festivities, said he’s pumped to cheer on his “Stall-louettes.”

“I just want to see a great game and it’s always a great game in the CFL,” said Dodge, who wore a t-shirt that read: “Thanks Canada. We may never repeat but we will not forget. Fans of Baltimore.”

Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo, named this year’s most outstanding player and one of the league’s all-time greats, got his CFL start in the U.S. as a rookie with the Las Vegas Posse.

Rich Salzer of Virginia Beach, Va. has been to 17 Grey Cups and meets up with the Baltimore CFL fanatics every year.

On Friday, he donned a Mad Dogs flag like a cape as a shout out to a Memphis friend, and fellow CFL enthusiast, who couldn’t make it to Montreal.

He said American-born athletes have always played a starring role in the league on both sides of the border.

“We think we’re filling a void because the Americans have become part of the Grey Cup,” he said of the U.S. contingent at this year’s event.

“It’s my favourite time of year.”