Before they got their name in 1996, the Baltimore Ravens, wanted the city’s NFL franchise to be known, once again, as the Colts.
When the Cleveland Browns left for Baltimore after the 1995 NFL season, there were more pressing matters on the mind of the organization before a name was constructed. Plus, with more than a dozen lawsuits from Cleveland trying to prevent the move in the first place, the public option to discuss the name wasn’t available just yet.
So, as the franchise’s brass internally sat down to come up with options, the name “Colts” was brought up. Baltimore owner Art Modell reached out to Jim Irsay in Indianapolis about acquiring the name. Modell thought he could get the rights for a couple million dollars, so he offered $5 million.
Irsay came back with an offer around $25 million.
“We probably had, in the original mix, 12 to 15 names as possibilities,” longtime Ravens executive vice president of public and community relations, Kevin Byrne, recalled. “We looked at variations of horse themes to go along with the Colts...(After Irsay’s offer) Art said, ‘I think we’re going to have a different name.’”
The Colts had been the name of the city’s team from 1953 to 1984. The team had won three NFL Championships and one Super Bowl and had one of the league’s most famous quarterbacks in Johnny Unitas.
But in the early morning hours of March 29, 1984, the Colts famously left town on Mayflower trucks for Indianapolis. The franchise, owned by Robert Irsay, kept the name.
When football returned to Baltimore, retaining — or, in this case, buying — the Colts name back wasn’t an option. Neither was keeping the name "Browns."
“(Owner) Art (Modell) had said from the very beginning, ‘I’d love to have you go with us, but we can’t be the Baltimore Browns,’” Byrne recalled. “‘I can’t do that to the people in Cleveland. They need to keep Jim Brown and Brian Sipe and Ozzie Newsome. We have no right to take that.’ (So) I knew we were going to have a new name.”
Paired with Modell’s lack of desire to keep the name, as well as commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s commitment to bring football back to Cleveland with the original “Browns” name, Baltimore searched for a new name for its new team.
Bryne, who was with the Browns organization starting in 1981, followed the team from Cleveland to Baltimore. He announced his retirement from the organization in April.
While the team searched for a name, he said the organization wanted a unique name that worked with the city’s history. One option was to name the team the “Americans,” a name based on the railroad history of Baltimore.
“David was really enamored with that,” Byrne recalled. “He used to chuckle, ‘We will be America’s Team, we’ll be called the Americans. We’ll have American flag on the helmet.’”
Another option was the “Marauders,” a nod to the city’s football past with the Colts, as well as the country’s past.
Then, the Ravens name was introduced.
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It was based on a poem titled “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe, who died in Baltimore in 1849 after spending the latter half of his life in the city. While the name is commonplace now, the debate raged on at the time.
“Internally, we couldn’t agree at all,” Byrne said. “One day we were discussing it and I said, ‘Why don’t we let the fans decide?’ So we went to The Baltimore Sun and asked them if they would like to be involved in a fan-vote. While we had lots of names, the three finalists we offered to the fans to vote on were Americans, Marauders and Ravens. And overwhelmingly, the fans selected Ravens.”
According to the Ravens’ website, The Sun announced a record-breaking 33,748 callers for the poll. The Ravens overwhelmingly won the poll with 22,463 votes. The Americans trailed 5,635, and Marauders 5,650.
“When we first practiced, we were the Mean Machine from ‘The Longest Yard,’” Byrne joked. “We didn’t have a logo on our helmets, we had white helmets with black jerseys. We had to kind of hurry the process.”
Once the name was chosen, colors had to be picked for the team. The pictures and descriptions the organization found of ravens showed the bird’s black figure with the look of almost purple wings.
“In talking with the league, they told us, ‘You just can’t be black and purple, you need some white colors in there,’” Byrne said. “So we looked at the state flag which had some gold in it, had some yellow, had a little red in it, then we got those colors in to brighten up.”
And with the name and colors decided, the Ravens were officially the NFL’s newest franchise.
The only thing left to work out was the blending of Baltimore’s past into the future of the Ravens. Byrne credited Art Modell for making that happen.
Former Baltimore Colt players were interested in who Art was, and many of them likened him to Robert Irsay in Indianapolis. Byrne assured them that wasn’t the case.
After Modell met with the former players and earned their trust, he set his sights on getting Unitas onboard. And with a promise to look after the NFL’s alumni from Modell, Unitas agreed to be on board with the Ravens’ organization.
Later that year on Sept. 1 against the Oakland Raiders, the Ravens officially entered the NFL, with Baltimore Colt legends welcoming them on the field.
“John came, we had opening day with the jackets, we all lined up and Johnny presented the game ball to the referee,” Byrne said. “It was like the imprimatur from the Pope so to speak, that the Baltimore Colts were telling all the fans, ‘It’s OK to root for these guys. These guys are us.’”
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