The Band That Wouldn’t Die (ESPN 30 For 30)

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene
The Band That Wouldn’t Die
Year of Release: 2009
Rating: PG
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: Yes.
Spoiler Alert: The Colts leave Baltimore in 1984.

In the spirit of Telaina’s post that broke new Catch-Up ground earlier this summer with her review of Buffy, it’s time for something completely different: an ESPN documentary.

I’m a little late to the party, but the ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries are fantastic. Many of them (including the one I’m reviewing today) are available on Netflix, and clock in around 60 to 90 minutes. Each documentary explores an area of the sports world that either hasn’t gotten a lot of exposure (like Ice Cube’s Straight Outta L.A., which chronicles the Raiders’ relationship with ‘80s west coast rap) or remains intriguing to this day (like Ron Shelton’s Jordan Rides the Bus on Michael Jordan’s highly misunderstood move to baseball). More importantly, the films have provided me with a great reward system for grading over the summer term – for every ten papers I grade, I treat myself to one of these bad boys – and gotten me all sorts of excited for football season even in the face of disheartening news.

The Band That Wouldn’t Die, the second documentary in this series, is directed by Baltimore native Barry Levinson of Good Morning, Vietnam and Rain Man fame. This doc tells the story of The Little Marching Band That Could: the original Baltimore Colts band that stubbornly refused to disappear during the twelve years that Baltimore was without a team. I was drawn to this film for two reasons: I’m a Maryland native all too familiar with the sad story of the Colts, and I proudly marched with my middle and high school bands as both a drum major and a clarinetist.

As a Steelers fan, I’m trained to detest all things Baltimore Ravens. I grimace at the purple and black, the angry red-eyed logo, but I will never be able to watch the 1984 footage of the Mayflower trucks hauling all things Colts through the snow to Indianapolis without a little lump forming in my throat. I was nothing more than a twinkle in my parents’ eyes in 1984, but I remember hearing all about the Colts’ disappearance as I grew up in the ‘90s, listening to my grandfather bemoan the loss felt statewide. The members of the Baltimore Colts band choke back tears in the documentary as they listen to the original broadcast, the mayor’s devastating speech, and then they reveal how, against all odds, the band played on.

The one part of the Colts dynasty that didn’t make it onto a Mayflower truck? The band uniforms, which were very luckily at the cleaner’s that evening. Band president John Ziemann recounts being told that the business couldn’t legally hand over the uniforms, but that he was more than welcome to “take the truck for a walk.” When Ziemann opened the truck doors, the uniforms were all accounted for, accompanied by a sign that read “Go Get ‘Em!” The film documents the band’s retention and use of the uniforms during public parades alongside a barrage of Baltimore Colts highlights: some good (Johnny Unitas leads the team to a last-second championship win over the Giants in 1958), some bad (infamous fan “Loudy” Loudenslager sits in an empty Memorial Stadium as the first Indianapolis Colts game is underway), and some very, very ugly (I’m referring to what else but Irsay’s drunken, pottymouthed tirade at the BWI Airport). But eventually, Charm City arrives at a happy ending when, shortly after a spirited performance on the steps of the Maryland State House, the band brings football back to Baltimore and finds a new home with the Ravens franchise.

As much as is wrong with professional sports today, particularly in the wake of running back Ray Rice’s very public domestic assault (the NFL truly does have the memory of a goldfish), The Band That Wouldn’t Die is a great reminder that football can be a unifying force when done right, and that heroes like John Ziemann are often found in the unlikeliest of places.

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