“Write a book called, ‘How To Win Ugly in the NFL.’ There are some very disappointed people here today.”
–Trent Dilfer, Jan. 7, 2001, to Bennie Thompson and the NFL Films crew during the waning moments of the Ravens’ victory at Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville, Tennessee.
John Steadman was a man who had a sense of impeccable timing.
As if decreed by a higher power, he lived his life on a football clock.
The city of Baltimore that John had lived his entire life within and loved so much, had finally tasted an NFL playoff victory, its first since 1971. Now, after 30 years and five days without a pigskin conquest, he could rest peacefully knowing his city had persevered and triumphed.
The first phone call of my new year, the first voice I heard in the new millennium, on Jan. 1, 2001, was the voice of my dear friend, cartoonist Mike Ricigliano.
Ricigliano, affectionately known as “Ricig” to everyone in his life, came into my life when he and I worked with Steady at The News American in 1984. He was the cartoonist and artist responsible for all of my fun promotional radio tools, from T-shirts to fun advertisements. His son, Ryan, was the one who bestowed upon me the moniker, “Nasty,” during a comical babysitting attempt.
It was just after 9 a.m., and I was groggy when I picked up the phone.
Ricig told me that John Steadman had died in the middle of the night.
Steady died just hours after Baltimore had done the seemingly impossible: it not only returned to the NFL after a 12-yard absence, it was finally drunk with pleasure, celebrating a home playoff victory.
The city was whole again, and Steady, after a horrible two-year battle with cancer, was resting peacefully.
As I feverishly prepared to take more than 200 people to Nashville for a playoff game that weekend – leading a WNST-sponsored road trip that would incorporate plane tickets, game tickets, hotel accommodations, a pep rally and a tailgate – I would be attending the funeral of my idol on Thursday night.
The scene at the viewing that evening was surreal, a who’s who of Baltimore sports celebrities, dignitaries and sad fans.
There I was sitting amongst former Colts, former Orioles, broadcasters, politicians, sportswriters, radio personalities, family members and other friends. There was Art Donovan next to Tippy Martinez next to Johnny Unitas next to Michael Olesker next to George Young next to Vince Bagli next to Peter Angelos next to Marty Bass. It took more than an hour to navigate the line.
I suppose my emotions got the best of me yet again, and the first to come to my rescue was, ironically enough, Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who held my head on his shoulder and said, “It’s OK to show your feelings like this because he meant that much to you.”
Once composed – and it took a little while – the talk went right to football, of course. Accorsi’s Giants would be hosting the Philadelphia Eagles three days later, the same afternoon that the Ravens would be in Nashville.
Accorsi, one the of truly good men in sports, spent three full days that week of the biggest game of his year, in Baltimore, paying tribute to Steady. He also paid tribute to John throughout the postseason, wearing one of John’s signature holiday gifts – a neck tie – to every game.
It was John’s way to always wear a tie in the press box, and though he must’ve given me a dozen of the things over the years – and I still have and can identify them all – he never saw me wear one at a sporting event. And he never gave me a hard time about it. After all, I was “Hard Metal,” “Senor” – I had a different set of rules. John not only embraced that concept, he endorsed it. As seemingly formal as John was perceived to be, it was always OK to be yourself with him.
And that included plenty of playoff football talk at his viewing. Accorsi and I joked that if both of our teams won two more games, we would have a very unfriendly reunion in Tampa three weeks later.
Sometimes, in life, it’s funny the way things turn out.
Less than 36 hours later, I would land in Nashville – ironically enough – Steady’s favorite town in America because he loved country music. Just 15 months earlier, Steady and I sat along with my pal Scott Panian in the Nashville airport for hours after a Ravens-Titans game talking about country music, Nashville, the history of the NFL, Pete Rozelle and Art Modell. It is my favorite and most memorable conversation with John.
God, I loved that man!
So there I was again in Nashville that Saturday morning, passing the little barbeque restaurant in the airport that the three of us shared a meal and a beer in that night in September 1999.
The atmosphere in Nashville for the AFC Divisional Playoff game with the Ravens was charged. The Titans were the No. 1 seed and would have home-field advantage for as long as they could continue to win. Despite going to the Super Bowl the previous year, the hometown fans didn’t have a great opportunity to support the team because they had been road warriors after the “Music City Miracle” Wild Card win over the Bills. The Titans won in Indianapolis and Jacksonville, and came a yard short of winning the rights to the Lombardi Trophy in Atlanta.
So this game with the Ravens would be their first chance in more than a year to really have a game with something at stake, an elimination game, at Adelphia Coliseum.
And it wasn’t lost on either side what had happened the last time the pair of AFC Central giants squared off in Nashville.
While the Ravens were finishing off the Broncos on the field the previous week, wide receiver Qadry Ismail enlisted the help of the NFL Films crew on the sidelines to get his message across.
Like a coy game show host with a bad attitude, Ismail barked at the cameras: “Who is the only team to beat the Tennessee Titans in Adelphia Coliseum?”
After a pause and a smile, holding up his Ravens helmet to the camera, Ismail said, “If you picked the Baltimore Ravens, you were right!”
The cockiness and moxie was not lost on the Ravens fans. In addition to the 200-plus folks I had enlisted, hundreds more found their way into Tennessee for the biggest road game in franchise history.
In the locker room after the Broncos game, I had cut a deal with Ravens’ defensive back Corey Harris, who lived in Nashville, to bring all of the Baltimore fans to his bar on the city’s northeast side. On the Saturday before the game, his bar, a converted Hooters restaurant that he had renamed Sports Café on The Water, became a purple frenzied meeting place for Ravens fans in town for the game.
In addition to more than 1,200 fans stopping by, Harris brought Kim Herring, Anthony Mitchell, Anthony Poindexter, Travis Taylor, Adalius Thomas and other players into the bar to mingle with the fans once the team arrived from Baltimore in the afternoon.
To call it a “pep rally” would not do the event justice. It was a party for the ages. As it turned out, it was only a jumping off place for the wild enthusiasm over the next three weeks.