January 9, 2002
Fan on the Lam
By Dave Sabo
As the 2002 NFL regular season came to a close last weekend, I reflected on the end of a season past. Actually, more than a season’s end, it was also the end of an era. As Ric pointed out in Post Patterns a couple of weeks ago, it’s been 5 years since the HOUSTON Oilers played their final game.
On December 22, 1996, the Houston Oilers beat the Baltimore Ravens, 24 – 21, at hallowed Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. I had the great fortune to be there in person and, while I fully expected to enjoy a wide-range of experiences and emotions, I got a whole lot more than I bargained for.
This is my story.
I’d planned on attending the last game in Baltimore as soon as I saw the schedule. I was living in Laurel, MD at the time and bad seats (of which there are many at old Memorial Stadium) were available. As it turned out, that was the fourth Oilers game I attended that season including their wins in Atlanta, New York and at The Dome in their last game ever with the hated Steelers.
Neither the Ravens nor the Oilers were playing for anything more than pride that Sunday. I don’t recall Baltimore’s record, but Houston was playing for a modicum of respectability as a win would even their record at 8 and 8. I’d bought a pair of tickets and had planned on going with my roommate, but he had an opportunity to go home for Christmas and took it. I ended up taking a girl friend I worked with.
Kickoff was at 1 o’clock and Memorial Stadium, with its neighborhood location on 33rd St. in North Baltimore, has a long and storied tradition of pre-game tailgating. So my friend, Nikki, and I got there about 10 AM, set up the grill and cracked open a couple of cold ones. Nothing like beer for breakfast. Outdoors. In 40 degree weather.
At this point, I must stress that one of my ironclad rules of attending spectator sporting events is never, NEVER, under any circumstances, get drunk while attending at the opposing teams building. There’s usually gonna be enough ugliness without throwing alcohol into the mix. I point this out only to assure you that at no point during the day’s festivities was I intoxicated. Nikki and I split a twelve-pack tailgating (we MAY have snuck a couple of those inside) and I don’t buy over-priced beer at stadiums.
Back to the story. About noon, we packed up the grill and headed on in. We’d met a great bunch of folks outside and met more inside. Easily the most non-threatening opposing crowd I’d
ever met. We settled into our seats. Row AA on the Oilers sideline at the 30. Front row, baby! And about 2 feet below the playing field. We could rest our elbows on the ground in front of us.
Had a real nice view of the backs of the Oilers kneecaps. Luckily, about 15 rows up, a guy in a Ray Childress jersey had a couple of empty seats next to him and invited us on up. Pretty sweet.
Other than Eddie George having a stellar day (particularly on one bruising, Earl-like romp), the game was nothing special. It was a cold, wet, overcast day and the game was sloppily played. I talked a lot with Childress-jersey guy and we both reminisced. No tears were shed, but as the final seconds ticked off, I’ll admit my throat tightened up a little bit. My life with the Oilers began all the way back with Fred Willis, my first Oiler hero, and lasted for 23 years. It truly was the end of an era.
Normally, the story would end here, but I’d figured this was my last chance to get some ink from the last guys to wear Houston Oilers uniforms. I brought a black sharpie and an extra cap to be signed if the situation arose. We moved down to the railing and started yelling to no avail.
At this point, I noticed Eddie George being interviewed on the sideline by NBC. Everyone else had begun trudging toward the tunnel in the south endzone, moving away from the sideline. A section away from us there was an open gate in the railing. OPEN gate. Not closed and certainly not locked. I’d noticed a couple of people pass through this gate to the field beyond without any hindrance. There was certainly nobody guarding it.
I walked over, climbed up two steps, went through the gate and jogged over toward where George was wrapping up his interview. I waited until he began moving off and I dropped into step beside him. I said something like, “Hey, Eddie, great season. I wish y’all were staying; you’re beginning a great career” or something to that effect. He said, “Thanks.” And kept walking. I, walking alongside him, asked if he’d please sign my cap. He stopped, took it and the pen and asked my name. I told him and he signed. Or rather tried to. For whatever reason the pen wouldn’t write. He said, “I think your pen’s broke.” And I told him not to worry, I’d bothered him enough, thanks for the great season or something like that and then he shook my hand. Really nice guy. And freakin’ huge. You can’t believe the size of that guy. Unbelievable physical specimen.
The whole encounter lasted, maybe 30 seconds. From the time my feet hit the grass until our handshake, maybe a minute and a half. I turned around and started jogging back toward the stands. And that was when I was nearly tackled.
I was stunned at first and made an attempt to get loose, but the guy (a “security guard”) had me in a half nelson. Once I saw who it was, I tried to explain myself and figured that’d be that. I started to speak and he told me he didn’t want to hear it. I thought about making a break for it, but I figured that if I did get loose and started a chase, I’d just look guilty. At this point, I’m still thinking I hadn’t done anything wrong and maybe this was all some kind of mistaken identity deal when he started yelling for a nearby cop.
For some reason, this actually came as a relief as I thought a cop would have a lot more to be concerned with than a harmless autograph seeker. That relief was short-lived when the guard said, “Here, I caught this guy running around on the field!” That’s when the argument ensued.
You have to remember that this was a couple of months after the infamous Yankees – Braves World Series where there were two incidents of fans running onto the field of play during the game and causing a delay. In my mind, this was a different situation entirely. I hadn’t crossed any barrier (the gate was open and unguarded), the game had been over at least 15 minutes, I never crossed the sideline onto the actual field itself and I wasn’t out there making a spectacle of myself to get on TV or something. I was just looking for an autograph.
Eventually, the guy left me with the cop and I tried to plead my case. At first he didn’t want to hear it, but I explained it calmly and quickly and he said that while I shouldn’t have left the stands it didn’t sound like I was out to make trouble and he’d see what he could do. I thought I might get let off. Unfortunately, his sergeant wasn’t concerned about specifics. “Take him to Central” was his only response.
The cop told me to turn around and put my hands on my head, the whole drill. When I told him he wouldn’t need the cuffs, he said he had no choice and not to make it harder on myself. For a split second, I thought about making a break for it. Then I remembered every episode of “Cops” I’d ever seen and decided against it. Nothing seems to piss cops off more than making them run after you.
He cuffed me, read me my rights and walked me through the concourse to a holding cell they had beneath the stands (evidently the Eagles aren’t alone in that respect). Nikki followed us to get all the why’s and where’s and how’s to get me released. It was also at that point that I found out she couldn’t drive a stickshift. I’d driven and didn’t have an automatic.
Eventually, I’d be taken to Central Booking in downtown Baltimore. Once there, I’d be processed and, if there was time, arraigned that evening. Then, depending on any prior record and lack of outstanding warrants, probably released on bail (nobody had any idea how much that would be). Of course if there was a heavy load at Central, arraignment might have to wait until Monday morning. Great. I had just started a new job 6 months before. A government job that required me to hold a high-level security clearance. So now I had another worry: was I gonna lose my job just for being arrested? First things first.
The plan was for Nikki to call a mutual friend to pick her up, go back to their place and wait for me to call from Central. Then, they’d come get me and drive back to Memorial to get my truck. All I could do was wait
There was one other guy in the cell. He was drunk and belligerent. He was yelling about who he was gonna be suing and trying to recruit me for his campaign. I was all for making this as easy on myself as possible, so I ignored him. After about half an hour, they took the both of us out the back gate and into the paddy wagon. Cold metal benches. Cold, SLICK, metal benches. I was still cuffed so I slid the length of the bench on each turn. Whoopee!!
At Central Booking, belligerent guy had had enough. There was a struggle, which he lost and lost badly. That was the last I saw of him. The same cop that had cuffed me had hung with me the whole way and let me know what was up as we went on. In all actuality, he was really cool about the whole situation when he didn’t have to be. It made it a lot easier.
They booked me, took my belt, shoelaces, wallet, keys, watch, parka and the George jersey I was wearing over a sweatshirt. They took mug shots and printed me and let me make a phone call. Nobody was home so, I left a message. Finally, it was off to a cell. It was just before 6 PM.
I was expecting the big holding cell full of, like, fifty guys, but I got put in a small cell with 2 other guys. One was sleeping. The other guy was there for smacking his wife around. He claimed he was innocent, of course. The cell was about 5′ X 10′, had 2 concrete benches built into the long walls and a combo toilet/sink. Yep, I was suddenly stuck in an episode of Oz.
A few minutes after settling in, the guards came around with dinner. A paper sack with two dry bologna sandwiches, a carton of milk, a carton of OJ and an apple. I got a sack, sleeping guy got a sack and wife-beater got an appointment with a judge. Now it was just me and sleeping guy. I ate and as soon as I finished up they came around again and got sleeping guy. Turns out he was smacking his wife around, too. One of the guards told me that Sundays during football season are “Domestic Violence Nights.”
Sleeping guy didn’t take his sack with him so I ate his dinner, too. What was the worst that could happen? They’d throw me in jail? After eating another couple of sandwiches, I figured the only thing left to do was sleep, which I did until they came to get me.
I was one of the last to see a judge that night. I was told I was being released on my own recognizance (no bail!) and was given a court date. I was being charged with “Trespassing on Conspicuously Posted Property”. I started pleading my case and was cut off. Save it for court. After spending about a half an hour in the big holding cell with every crack addict and wife beater in Baltimore, I was a free man. It was a quarter to eleven.
I called my friends, they picked me up, we got my truck and I went home. I got to sleep at about 2 AM. I went in to work the next morning and quietly told my supervisor the whole story. He said he didn’t know what would happen to me, job-wise, and my wisest course of action was to just keep quiet until I went to court in February.
So, what did happen, you ask? Well, first, I soon discovered that I’d be defending myself because that whole if-you-cannot-afford-an-attorny-one-will-be-made-available-to-you right we have is a crock. I was making about 25K and working part-time on the side when this all happened and they said I made too much money to get a public defender.
I went to court by myself with a plan to explain that there was not conspicuous posting in or around the area warning against trespassing, there was no notice on my ticket stub, the gate I walked through was open and unguarded and the statements attributed to the security guard on my charging papers were out and out lies. After waiting half the day, my case was called. Before I had even made my way to the bench, the assistant district attorney was saying that all charges were to be dropped and the matter closed. The judge agreed and I was free to go. I didn’t even have to sign anything.
I wasn’t sure what had happened so; on her way out of court I stopped the assistant DA and asked what was up. Basically, it went like this. Memorial stadium is owned and operated by the City of Baltimore and is municipal property. In cases like mine, the representative of the City, i.e. the mayor and/or the city council, brings the case. Since neither then-mayor, Curt Schmoke, nor a member of the city council appeared in court to press charges, I skated.
Ain’t America great?
So, that’s my story. I was present when the Oilers era ended in Houston and as a season ticket holder, I fully intend to be present when the Texans era begins in Houston. Only this time I’m keeping my butt planted firmly in my seat.
Dave Sabo is an Archives Specialist with the National Archives and Records Administration. A native of Spring, TX and a life-long Oiler fan now languishing in the heart of Redskins country (Laurel, MD), Dave is utterly convinced that ‘Skins owner, Daniel Snyder, is, indeed, the anti-Christ. Eddie George Return to Houston Pro Football If you have a question, comment or suggestion, contact Dave Catch up on past installments of The Armchair Quarterback