Stories from the stands: AFC North

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Baltimore Ravens
Steve LaPlanche

Two images are all you need to appreciate the depth of football fanaticism, Baltimore football fanaticism, mind you, of Steve LaPlanche, otherwise known simply as "Sports Steve."

The first is of a 6-year-old LaPlanche being given a blue and silver Baltimore Colts wool cape by none other than Johnny Unitas as the legendary quarterback left the field.

The second is of LaPlanche being the lone soul protesting while a Mayflower truck hauled off the Colts' belongings in the middle of a snowy night in 1984 to a destination in Indianapolis. (The black-and-white photo of him standing next to the Colts sign in the wee hours with the flakes falling and the moving van approaching is classic.)

LaPlanche, 55, a captain with the Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Department, has followed every football team that has called Baltimore home, from the Colts to the USFL's Stars to the Canadian Football League's Stallions that played for a spell in Charm City, to his current love interest, the Ravens.

He's been to every home game, for all of those teams, since 1956, so it's not hard to understand why he's a Ravens fan.

"They're our football team," LaPlanche said. "I think the organization is class from top to bottom. I can't say that about every team in the NFL, but I can say it about the Ravens. It's just great to have football back in Baltimore."

And it certainly didn't take long for the new team to earn its keep after moving from Cleveland in 1996 -- the Ravens won a Super Bowl in 2000.

"The Colts had some great defenses, but the 2000 team was the greatest display of defense from start to finish that I have seen," said LaPlanche, whose home is in Pasadena, Md. "It definitely won us a Super Bowl."

LaPlanche and his great game-day getup are as much a part of Ravens football as Ray Lewis' pregame dance routine.

Sports Steve wears a purple jester's hat, a custom-made wool cape replete with embroideries and 50 pounds of beads and face paint that represents a raven flying out of the clouds. He is the fan featured in Madden 2005 (the one with Lewis on the cover).

After so many years of going above and beyond the call of fan duty, he says he has gotten more than enough back from his beloved Baltimore teams.

"If I died today, I've received my fill of joy through Baltimore football," he said.

LaPlanche is a giver even outside of football, frequently appearing at local charities in his Ravens garb. He once jumped into Chesapeake Bay, get this, once an hour … for 24 hours … in January, and raised $12,664 for Special Olympics Maryland during its Super Plunge challenge.

— Brett Borden

Cincinnati Bengals
Gene Boldman

Gene Boldman is one of those mild-mannered guys who does his job and doesn't make much of a fuss.

But here's the thing: On Sundays, that job, as he sees it, is to cheer for his beloved team as his alter ego, "Bengal Gene," who is anything but mild mannered.

"I just go and cheer. I try to get the crowd into it," said Boldman, 51, a jet refueler at a Cincinnati-area airport who lives in nearby Wilmington, Ohio.

He has the tiger-stripes face paint and the Bengals regalia down; fans could only hope the team's as prepared as Boldman.

He attended both of the Bengals' Super Bowl outings and has been a season ticket-holder since 1980.

He travels to many away games, as well. He recalls trips to Cleveland and Pittsburgh, home of two division foes, where he gets called all kinds of names.

He especially likes interacting with Bengals players, many of whom know him by appearance.

One former player he was particularly taken with was linebacker Takeo Spikes.

"He'd get pumped, we'd get pumped," Boldman said.

And so goes the mild-mannered way of Gene Boldman.

— Rich Martin

Cleveland Browns
Debra Darnall

It was August 1999 and the Browns were preparing for their first game as an expansion team.

After taking a nearly four-year hiatus from supporting the NFL -- even watching the Super Bowl -- following her bitter reaction when the original Browns made off for Baltimore, Debra Darnall was, well, genuinely excited … overjoyed, in fact.

So much so, Darnall, a decorative interior painter by profession, had transformed her Volvo into a helmet on wheels, complete with a giant bone on it, and hit the road from her then home in Columbus, Ohio, to support her "new" squad.

A routine stop at a diner for a meal with friends led to a local television station being tipped off to her uniquely partisan rig and asking if a crew could follow her to the game the following day, filming her all the way.

That is how the legend of "The BoneLady" was born. She was even invited on stage for the pep rally that very day.

"My whole life I've been a Browns fan," said Darnall, who now hails from Lakewood, Ohio, and completes her Browns persona with an ornate costume and bonnet. "I like to say that if you grew up in Cleveland in the '60s or '70s, there wasn't a whole lot to be proud of except the Cleveland Browns.

"It's not just about the game, it is about how the city feels about itself … about its Browns."

— Kristian Dyer

Pittsburgh Steelers
Don Galla

From peewee football to church-league softball, Don Galla has always thrived on competition. He claims to have once benched 475 pounds in high school.

"I was into it big time," said Galla, 55, of Smithsburg, Pa., now in his 25th year as a power-company lineman. "I've been a sports nut all my life."

Call it good fortune, then, to have enjoyed a peak of NFL fandom during a time when his Steelers were on top of the world.

Indeed, it was the early 1970s when Galla started attending Pittsburgh games, and he rode the Steel Curtain all the way through four Super Bowl wins during that decade. (Well, technically, the fourth Lombardi came in January 1980.)

His competitive nature spilled over to his appearance as a Steelers faithful, and he began painting his body for games. He gave it up in the '90s, however.

"Took too long," Galla explained. "It's kind of hard to paint my back. My mother used to help me out. Yeah, it's awfully hard to do the back."

But he won't be outdone when it comes to his hat, no way.

"It's remarkable. It's the ultimate hat," said Galla, married 33 years to his wife, Laura Beth, who we can only presume is very thankful that these days he only paints his face black and gold, to complement his hat.

A foam affair with large, yellow segments up on top like a bunch of bananas, the terrible chapeau is an eye-catcher and crowd-stopper.

"I can't tell you how many people ask me to stand in a picture with them," said Galla, who attends four to seven Steelers home games a season and managed to be in the stands when Pittsburgh appeared in Super Bowls XXX and XL.

So, yeah, Mr. Competitive's still got his hat … oh, and, along with fans of the Cowboys and 49ers, bragging rights for the league's most Super Bowl victories.

— Brett Pauly