You wouldn't really know what Peyton Manning's departure from the Indianapolis Colts means unless you lived here then, in those days. The Paul Justin days, the Lindy Infante days. The days where punter Chris Gardocki and kicker Cary Blanchard were the best players on the team, where Robert Irsay made ill-informed roster decisions at the drop of a hat.
The days where this was an Indiana Pacers town and an Indianapolis 500 town. And not much more.
Sure, you might have an approximate guess. Some semblance of an idea. But you wouldn't really know what Indianapolis was like in the days before Peyton Manning, what one player—one man playing a children's sport, for crying out loud—helped this city become.
A Pacers Town
Most kids growing up in Indianapolis during the mid-90s—the days of Tamagotchi pets, Warhead candies, Pokémon cards and Pogs—quickly learned one name. One name whose significance seemed to trump U.S. Presidents, movie stars, famous musicians and world leaders.
This was Reggie's town, his Circle City cathedral. The cul-de-sac courts held testament to this, snuggled tightly in suburban subdivisions, three-point arcs outlined in washable chalk. Every kid wanted to be Reggie. Every kid wanted to play basketball. Schools never had enough balls to go around at recess. The courts were crowded with upwards of 20 to 25 students, leaving the soccer fields alone with their overgrown grass in the distance.
There were unspoken rules. Reggie rules. When trading basketball cards, nobody parted ways with a Reggie. Too valuable, too important, too prominent in the front fold of everyone's card binder. You would just as soon deal a mint-condition Michael Jordan than dare put Reggie on the open market.
When claiming basketball personalities on the court, emulating your favorite players, no one ever chose Reggie. It was sacrilegious. You chose Shawn Kemp, you chose Gary Payton, you chose Dikembe Mutombo or Penny Hardaway. You did not choose Reggie, largely for the same reasons you'd never claim to be the Messiah, the Chosen One. You couldn't reproduce Reggie's long-range lethality in the same sense you couldn't turn water into wine, so why bother?
Miller, of course, was not the only Pacer of prominence. But he sold the Pacers to the people of Indianapolis. Made them believe. Made this more than a city that housed the Pacers, that constructed Market Square Arena. Miller made this city believe in something. He strengthened community bonds one clutch shot, one game-winning basket at a time.
He made Indianapolis a Pacers town. Not just a town that hosted the Pacers.
It was everywhere, of course, in every detail of the city, of life in the city. I would imagine, somewhere else, maybe in Des Moines or something, kids had normal birthday parties with balloon animals or piñatas or Star Wars costumes.
In Indy, you had a Pacers party, hosted by Boomer, the Pacers' cat-like mascot. You didn't play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey or musical chairs, you played knockout, had a three-point shootout. You didn't wear conical hats, you wore Pacers caps, you wore your most unwrinkled blue-and-gold jersey.
All the while, you were half-aware that the Colts existed. Yeah, there was something called the RCA Dome. The Colts were a football team that played there sometimes. But that was about it. Jim Harbaugh was the closest the Colts got to Reggie Miller in those days, and Jim Harbaugh was no Reggie Miller.
The discrepancy was never more evident than a third-grade field trip I remember taking to downtown Indianapolis, quite the adventure for a young suburbanite. We were learning about the city, its history, its landmarks. We visited Monument Circle and the City Market and the top floor of the Bank One Tower. We even got to walk on the playing surface at the RCA Dome and tour the home locker room, where one player had left his shoes sitting at the bottom of his cubby.
The tour guide alluded to them and asked us to guess who the player was, who could possibly wear such large shoes.
Who Is the Most Beloved Athlete in Indianapolis Sports History?
"Rik Smits," one boy offered.
"Nope. Guess again!"
"You guys are guessing all Pacers players. Remember, this is where the Colts play!"
"These are Tony Mandarich's shoes. Do you guys know who that is?"
"No," one boy began, "but can we see Rik Smits' shoes now?"
We did, in fact, travel to Market Square Arena next. I don't remember if we bared witness to the footwear of the Dunking Dutchman, but we did stand in awe of the place, of the room where so many of our heroes convened, preparing to battle the likes of the Knicks, Bulls and every other team that registered along the same level as those four-letter words our mothers tried to wash out of our mouths.
I can remember every detail of that locker room. I can remember doing everything short of kneeling at Miller's locker and lighting a candle. But all I could tell you about the Colts and the RCA Dome was that Rik Smits' shoes were nowhere to be found.
That was Indianapolis prior to the 1998 NFL draft. A Pacers town. A 500 town. And a town that boasted a big dome no one really seemed to care about.
Learning to Love the Colts
Some moments are scripted. Fated. Bound to happen. Somehow authored more perfectly by happenstance and the randomness of the known universe than Tolstoy could have managed himself.
Before Jim Irsay ever committed to Peyton Manning, before the top pick of the 1998 NFL draft was ever announced, Manning marched into Irsay's office and offered the Colts owner an ultimatum that would change the city of Indianapolis forever.
"I would like to play for you," Manning told Irsay, "but if you don't pick me, I will kick your ass for the next 15 years."
Irsay made the wise choice. He selected Manning over Ryan Leaf. He committed to a new future, a new franchise, something far removed from what his father had done, from the laughingstock of a sparring partner the bitter old man had allowed the club to become. He committed to Manning, who, in turn, committed to changing the way people viewed the Colts.
Most rookies would have balked at the challenge. Manning wasn't just being asked to quarterback the worst team in football, a team that had previously gone 3-13. He was being asked to become their leader, the man who would deliver them from football hell.
The Colts, of course, didn't perform much better in Manning's rookie season than they had before he arrived. Again, they finished 3-13.
But something was different this time. This wasn't the same old joke; the punchline was different somehow. The Colts were losing close games now. They were scoring points. Though he also threw 28 interceptions, Manning set a rookie record with 26 touchdown passes.
There was hope. Maybe just a glimmer, maybe just the faintest tease of a better tomorrow. But it was there. And for the first time since I had been alive, save a few miraculous runs by Harbaugh and then-coach Ted Marchibroda, people were actually starting to wonder just what happened underneath the inflated roof of the RCA Dome.
If there was promise in the 1998-99 season, it was finally realized, made evident, in the 1999-2000 season. All the Colts managed to do, in the course of just one year, was turn a 3-13 record into 13-3 record—still the greatest single-season turnaround in NFL history. A large part of that, of course, was then-general manager Bill Polian's drafting prowess, unearthing Edgerrin James and a plethora of other talented players. Alongside Manning, the team fielded a triplet attack that left most defenses feeling bewildered, helpless and confused.
Though that season ended with a disappointing, early home playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, where Eddie George jerseys easily outnumbered Colts jerseys two-to-one or greater, people began to take notice.
They bought Manning jerseys. They were intrigued by the newly-minted Pro Bowl quarterback, by the explosive running back from Immokalee, by the diminutive wide receiver who treated microphones like claymore mines.
Slowly, but surely, they started to come around. The bleachers at Terre Haute's Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, where the Colts began holding their training camp following the 1998 season, were suddenly filling up. Fans wanted to see what exactly their hometown team had to offer, what they had been missing for all of these years.
After a decade in which the team only accumulated 66 wins, or an average of just under seven wins per season, the Colts were finally poised to matter. To fill the RCA Dome with more than dead air and silence, the palpable resignation of the masses.
They sure caught my attention.
I didn't grow up a football fan or football player. I wasn't even functionally-aware of players not named Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith or Jerry Rice. I played basketball, practicing fadeaways in a Shawn Kemp jersey—thankfully, not indicative of my later life choices—six sizes too big. I played street hockey and soccer. Football was an abstract concept.
At least until my parents took me to a Sunday Night Football game in which the Colts hosted the New York Jets, two days before Christmas 2001.
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The Colts lost the game. They had lost the season, effectively, when James tore his ACL. I didn't care. I was enthralled the entire time. I had only been in that stadium once before, as a third-grader in search of Rik Smits' shoes.
This time, though, it was so different. So much more interesting and alive, full of people, full of cheers and chants and curse words and echoing acoustics. The exterior was illuminated with spotlight-trained snowflakes dancing across the dome's roof. There were Colts fans, Jets fans, beer men and vendors, cheerleaders and mascots, painted faces and staggering drunks. There was a city, a community, under one roof. All of us were watching this one game—a game I slowly began to understand.
I was 12 years old when I had my gridiron epiphany. It made sense now, this game. Why people loved it. Why the fans filled the stadium. Why so many people hurried home from Sunday Mass. If I'd only truly known the game for a night, I knew I loved it. I knew I wanted more of it.
And I knew this Manning guy was pretty special.
A City on His Shoulders
Football has never been just about football for Manning. How could it be, growing up in the Manning family? At the risk of reciting the obvious family tree, father Archie was a signal-caller for the New Orleans Saints, brother Cooper was a star receiver in high school and younger tag-along (and future two-time Super Bowl MVP) and Eli was also drawn to the pigskin at an early age.
For Manning, football has been life. Calculated at an early age. Followed through in middle school gameplans, burning the midnight oil in a prep film room. Football has been a job, serious business, something worth straining the eyes into the wee hours of the morning for.
Along the way, football has been a bridge. A vessel to commercial spots, to a Saturday Night Live hosting gig, to comedy sketches and self-deprecating celebrity. Football has been a route to establish charity foundations, to better the Indianapolis community, to better all communities. Football has paved the path for the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital, for countless opportunities to positively shape the lives of the young and old, the sick and healthy, the rich and poor, the fortunate and less-fortunate.
None of that is to say that Manning is an absolute saint. He was infamously involved in a 1996 Tennessee training room incident in which he dropped trou and gave a female athletic trainer a rather cheeky surprise. He also famously called Mike Vanderjagt an "idiot kicker...who got liquored up and ran his mouth off."
Manning also received heat for infamously calling out his offensive line following a shocking 2006 AFC Divisional playoff loss at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers, though anyone who watched the game completely understood why he did so.
Regardless of how anyone views Manning, it can't be argued that he has always understood one core concept of athletic celebrity: Football is about more than the game of football.
In Manning's case, football has also been about the city of Indianapolis.
When Manning first arrived, Indy was still viewed as a hick town. India-no-place. Naptown, in the derogatory sense. People went downtown to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July or catch a Pacers game. But it was nothing special, nothing that stood out.
Until people started coming downtown. Until there was a reason to go downtown. Until restaurants and malls and businesses started reaping the rewards of a new sense of community pride, of Colts pride.
Until the team's success, due in no small part to Manning, resulted in the construction of Lucas Oil Stadium.
Until Lucas Oil Stadium and the related Indianapolis Convention Center expansion made a Super Bowl bid possible.
Until Indianapolis hosted Super Bowl XLVI, to glowing reviews.
Of course, it wasn't all Manning's doing. Several people deserve credit to guiding the Colts on an incredible, decade-plus long journey, a journey that now looks to be waning, if not over entirely. Irsay deserves credit for ignoring his father's missteps, choosing to be his own man. Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James deserve credit for the role they played in making the Colts a formidable franchise. Polian, for all his flaws, deserves a staggering amount of credit for authoring the blueprint to sustained success.
But let's be honest. None of it would have been possible without Manning. This was always his team, his city.
Without him, the Colts don't dominate the AFC South, don't hang a Super Bowl banner, don't appear outside of the local media market. Without Manning, the Colts don't pad wins, and without wins, without visible success, the Colts don't attract fans downtown, and Lucas Oil Stadium is never built.
From day one, the first moment then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced his name as the first pick of the 1998 NFL draft, everything was on Manning's shoulders. A team, a franchise, a city.
I'll be damned if he didn't carry all three without complaint.
A Lasting Legacy
Manning leaves Indianapolis as the greatest player in franchise history, and there's not even a close second. Indianapolis will never have another Manning.
Sure, they will probably draft Andrew Luck, and Luck will probably enjoy a very successful NFL career. But he will never mean as much to the city, to the community, to the culture of Indianapolis, as Manning did.
If you're lucky, you see a player like Manning—with his influence on elements both inside and outside of the game—come along maybe once or twice in a given generation. That's it. And though Manning may not leave the game revered as the greatest quarterback in NFL history, he still leaves as one of the greatest, most important players to ever take the field.
Beyond his gaudy numbers, Manning helped revolutionize the game, reminding the NFL of how important a franchise quarterback could be. His film room habits and blitzkrieg of a no-huddle attack will be forever revered, consistently referenced by historians of the game. It's because of the success of Manning, and the game tape evidence of his various aerial assaults, that the NFL has largely shifted to a pass-first attack. That the most successful teams are often those with Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers at the helm.
Manning's most impressive feat, though, might have gone unnoticed by the masses. Most historians will not have ever noted it, and it will never appear on NFL Films highlights narrated by Steve Sabol. There are perhaps 50,000 people who witnessed Manning's most impressive feat, and most of them have likely forgotten it in the wake of his career, of all he has accomplished since.
The quarterback's greatest achievement, his crowning moment in the history of this city and the franchise and what the franchise means to this city, took place on Sept. 21, 2003, in a home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Indianapolis won the game, 23-13, but that wasn't the impressive part. Nor were any of Manning's stats, nor any particular play, nor any particular quote or measurable accomplishment.
His greatest accomplishment was announced in the gradual murmur of a crowd, the birth of a chant. Rather, the re-birth of a chant, the lightbulb click of a moment when the crowd got it and Indianapolis changed forever.
The cheer, as the crowd caught on, as it all finally made sense, wasn't even for Manning. It was for Reggie Wayne, who enjoyed the breakout game of his career to that point, tallying 10 receptions for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
"RE-GGIE! RE-GGIE!" the crowd roared, hearkening back to the Market Square days, those days where the rafters shook in appreciation for Reggie Miller, where the same chant was used to shower the star Pacers guard with the adoration of an entire city.
It was as obvious then as ever. This wasn't just a Pacers town anymore, nor was it just a 500 town, nor was it just a Colts town either.
This was Indianapolis.
This was because of Peyton Manning.