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The band plays on

BALTIMORE -- Heading home from his tryout that snowy March night, David Ciofalo was beaming. His family had just moved from New Jersey and here he was, at 17, the newest member of the Baltimore Colts' marching band.

Carrying his new snare drum, he walked in the house, bragged to his dad, turned on the nightly news and crumbled. Mayflower moving vans lined up at the Colts' practice facility.

The same day it began, his dream had ended.

"It was like I had just won a new car," Ciofalo said, "and then they were like, 'Oh no, sorry, there's been a technicality. We had to draw again. It's not you.' "

He got off easy. For most of Baltimore, Robert Irsay's whimsical decision to move the team to Indianapolis in the middle of that March night, taking everything Colts with him, was like jamming a steak knife through their hearts, creating an unbearable pain that would take decades to heal.

But John Ziemann believed he had just the right antidote -- music. When the Colts left the band uniforms behind -- they just happened to be at the cleaners that fateful day -- Ziemann tracked them down, re-energized his group and kept the band together.

Later that fateful night, his first night in the band, Ciofalo called Ziemann and asked what he should do with his new drum. Ziemann told him.

"Bring it to rehearsal next Wednesday."

Fast forward 20 years and there's Ciofalo again, standing on the 50-yard line at M&T Bank Stadium beaming, a snare drum wrapped around his waist. And there's Ziemann, in his trademark purple blazer, pacing up and down the sideline like Bear Bryant during the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl.

The Baltimore Ravens are about to take the field against the Cleveland Browns, but not before the largest marching band in the NFL performs the Ravens' fight song and marches to spell out "Ravens" in script. One of just four NFL marching bands, it is a rarity in the era of deafening, piped-in, the-louder-the-better stadium music. But it's what this band stands for that means most.

When everything else Colts left Baltimore behind -- "all the way down to cutting the phone lines," Ziemann said -- the all-volunteer band stayed. It played at pep rallies, parades and private concerts. It played on the steps of Maryland's statehouse and at opposing NFL stadiums. And band members sold everything from frozen pizzas and M&Ms to textbooks to help stay afloat.

"The fans needed something. The band needing something. I needed something," Ziemann, the band's president, said. "And I was bound and determined not to let this thing die. No damn way was that going to happen. Not under my watch."

Today, the Colts Marching Band has become Baltimore's Marching Ravens. It is made up of more than 250 performers ranging in age from 14 to 63, the ranks including doctors, lawyers, nurses, secretaries, bank presidents and housewives. Even a street vendor marches. But it's Ziemann, his wife Charlene and Ciofalo who have the stories to tell. They are the ones who were there that gut-wrenching night, and they are the ones who are still there today.

Ziemann likes to tell the story of the day he called the dry cleaners, asking if he could pick up the uniforms the Colts left behind.

"They told me they couldn't give them to me," Ziemann said, "but that they were outside in the back of their truck. And if I wanted to take their truck for a walk that night, that was fine by them."

So, in the middle of the night, Ziemann and a handful of band members went to the cleaners, picked up the truck and delivered the uniforms to the attic of a plumbing shop, where one of the band members worked. Two weeks later, they moved them again, hiding them in a mausoleum. Two weeks after that, the uniforms found their way into Ziemann's basement.

After band members consulted with a lawyer, the uniforms reappeared a month after the team left, showing up at the first pep rally to bring football back to Baltimore.

The results were deafening.

"Usually, as a drummer, you can't hear a thing. Just the beat of the drum," Ciofalo said. "But when we'd put those Colts uniforms on and perform back then, you knew they were raising the room because you could hear them. They drowned out the drums. That doesn't happen."

In 1996, when Ravens owner Art Modell -- one of the handful of NFL owners who invited the Colts' band to play in Cleveland -- brought the Ravens to Baltimore, he insisted that the old band be a part of it. Today, it's one of the only visible connections from Baltimore's football present to Baltimore's football past. Late Sunday night, when Ed Reed returned an interception an NFL record 105 yards, clinching a 27-13 Baltimore victory, one couldn't help but think that, in a small way, Ziemann had a hand in making it happen.

Seventeen years earlier, when both the Maryland house and senate criticized then-Gov. William David Schaefer for seeking stadium financing for a team that didn't exist, Ziemann took his band to the statehouse steps and played the Colts' fight song.

"The governor didn't know we were coming," Ziemann said. "He had a tear in his eye. A lot of people did."

The next Friday, the legislature approved a financing authority to build two new stadiums -- one for the Orioles and one for a football team.

"The Colts' marching band made the difference and turned the tide in winning the vote for the new stadium complex," Schaeffer said at the time. "This wouldn't have happened without them."

The never-sit-still Ziemann, the guy who joined the band 42 years ago and still can't eat on game days, said he's never taken the time to sit back and soak up all that his group has accomplished. "Too much to do," Ziemann said. But Ciofalo has. It hits him every time he stands on the 50-yard-line, drum around his waist, sticks by his side, waiting for the performance to begin. This is when he realizes how close this came to almost never happening. This is when he thinks about stealing band uniforms, selling pizzas, peddling books, doing everything imaginable to stay together.

"Our visibility at each NFL game we went to, the parades we played in, it was paramount," Ciofalo said. "That was this city's way of saying, 'Hello, NFL, we're right here in the middle of your stadium and everybody loves us! Give us a team!' "

Eventually, they did. And on Wednesday, when the band gets together for its weekly practice sessions -- just like it did on March 29, 1984 -- the transformation will be complete.

The Ravens just moved into a new, $31 million, 200,000-square-foot training complex, and team owner Steve Bisciotti invited Baltimore's Marching Ravens to practice there.

"We finally have a home," Ziemann said. "It took 57 years, but we finally have a home. No more shoveling fields, no more tiny band rooms. We finally have a home."

They've more than earned it.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.