OWINGS MILLS, Md. – The photograph still looks beautiful almost 29 years later.
A late-night snow covers the ground and giant flakes zip through the frame like dozens of glowing comets. It could be a Christmas card if not for the giant Mayflower moving vans chugging through the drifts, committing a crime for which there has never been punishment: Grand Theft of a City's Heart.
Of all the abandonments of any team in professional sports, this always seemed the worst. How could a team that was such a part of a city's soul run to Indianapolis without even saying goodbye? Colts owner Robert Irsay was trying to keep the Maryland legislature from seizing his team, so 15 Mayflower vans arrived at the team's headquarters at 2 a.m. on March 29, 1984. The movers packed quickly and most of the trucks were gone by the first light of morning.
And the city that adored its football team woke up to learn its beloved Colts had run away in the night.
The Colts return to Baltimore on Sunday for a playoff game against the new team, the Ravens. This time, the Colts will fly, bringing only one van from Indianapolis which will carry helmets, shoulder pads, uniforms and other equipment. But if the drivers of those Mayflower trucks could all come back here, rolling down Owings Mills Blvd. as they did on that snowy night, they would see how football has brought new life to the scene of an old crime.
They would notice the sprawling new campus of Stevenson University, a mostly-women's college that has taken over the land around much of the old Colts facility. They would find a gleaming 3,500-seat stadium where the edges of their trucks rested that fateful night.
They would learn that a few years ago Stevenson was looking for ways to expand its male enrollment and the idea came to add a football program. They would discover that in the three years football has been on Stevenson's campus, the ratio of women to men has gone from 70-30 to 66-34 and is expected to soon be 60-40 which would make it a truly co-ed campus.
And maybe those drivers would understand that their legacy won't have to forever be tire tracks in the midnight snow and a frantic run to the state line.
If only they could speak to Tim Campbell, who is Stevenson's executive vice president and chief financial officer. He would tell them what he tells everyone, that Stevenson wants to be a Division III power in many sports including football and that he believes sports will make it a bigger, stronger place.
"I think we were trying to have a well-rounded university," Campbell says. "We thought football was a good way to get a few more male students."
Built in 1979, the old Colts headquarters looks drab from the outside – a square brick two-story structure with a flat roof. After the Colts left, the USFL's Philadelphia Stars moved to Baltimore a year later and used the Colts fields for practice. Then the City of Baltimore bought the property from Irsay and used it as a training center for its police department until 1996. That's when the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore – in moving vans, of course – and became the Ravens. They, too, used the facility until a new one was finished across town in 2004.
Stevenson, founded as Villa Julie College in 1947, bought the building not long after the Ravens left. Officials gutted it and turned it into an athletic office, though old reminders of its history remained including an indoor racquetball court and a deep hot tub lined with Colts-colored tiles.
When the Ravens left Memorial Stadium for the new M&T Bank Stadium after the 1997 season, they brought the wooden locker stalls from Memorial Stadium and installed them at the old Colts facility. Stevenson inherited the stalls and moved them into a locker room at the stadium when it was finished just before the first game in 2011.
This gives the Stevenson Mustangs, who went 2-8 in each of their first two years of existence, the unique experience of dressing in the old Ravens lockers while relaxing in the old Colts hot tub.
"It's kind of surreal, [29 years after the Colts left] to be working in that facility," says Stevenson's football coach, Ed Hottle.
The job of building a football program at a college founded as a finishing school for secretaries and nurses is Hottle's, a man in his mid-30s from outside Washington, D.C who played football at Frostburg State. He was hired in 2009, given a credit card, an office the size of a couple of closets and the task of having a full football team ready to play Division III football by the fall of 2011.
Another man might have been overwhelmed by the job. Most football coaches, accustomed to a measure of stability, would have been terrified. But Hottle had already spent the previous five years performing something of a minor football miracle at Gallaudet University in Washington. Gallaudet, you see, is a college for the deaf and hard of hearing. And Hottle, who is not deaf, had to take the school's football team from club status to Division III.
So in other words, his two head coaching jobs have been at a school for the deaf and starting a men's football program at a mostly-women's school.
"I probably have had two of the toughest jobs in the country," Hottle says. "It's been a big challenge but also rewarding."
There are, of course, certain challenges to starting a football team at a school filled with women. When Hottle arrived he put out word around campus that he was looking for prospective players and was somewhat surprised when almost no one responded.
"It dawned on me then that there was a largely female presence," he says.
Yet on the other hand a women's school does have its advantages.
"It's a great recruiting tool," he says laughing.
And in many ways starting football at Stevenson has been far easier than coaching at Gallaudet. The task at Stevenson is convincing enough talented football players with parents who are willing to spend roughly $30,000 a year to send their children to a school in a western suburb of Baltimore.
When Stevenson was looking for someone to lead its new football program, Hottle knew this was exactly what he wanted to do. He felt he already knew how to take a team into Division III. He wanted a program his wife and sons could be a part of, which was an issue at Gallaudet where sign language was a natural barrier. He also wanted to build something from scratch.
"When you start something like this it's definitely interesting," he says.
He was prepared for the population of a largely female campus to protest football as a bastion of male culture. Such things have happened at far more traditional schools, but instead the opposite occurred at Stevenson. The students embraced football. The school formed a band. It built dormitories on a hill above the stadium and on Saturdays hundreds of students make their way down the path and into the stands just as they would at any bigger school with a football team.
"It's a pretty neat facility," Hottle says of the stadium with seats only on one side of the field. "It's a very steep stadium and with the crowd it's pretty ominous to other teams."
Since Hottle grew up outside of Washington and was a huge football fan as a child, he occasionally heard about the Colts and Baltimore. He remembers seeing television footage of the Mayflower vans pulling onto Owings Mills Blvd but since he was a Washington Redskins fan, he didn't give much thought to Baltimore and could never imagine how much those moving vans would come to affect his life.
Hottle laughs. Were it not for a rash decision to take a football team away in a snowy night in an attempt to beat the state legislature, Stevenson might not have found the perfect place to build a stadium and start a football team. And then he might not have found the chance of a lifetime to invent a football program where one never existed.
Even a mostly-female college.
"It's been a challenge," he says. "But it's also rewarding."
And far, far from the night the Mayflower vans rolled into the snow carrying a city's soul in the back of their trailers.
Yahoo! Sports staff write Eric Adelson contributed to this story.
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