The jerseys hang in my closet.
84, 21, 18, 12. Blue and white.
I have to choose one Sunday. It’s a Colts home game, and a jersey is required attire. What’s more, with Peyton Manning coming back to Indianapolis, all eyes are on the city. What I choose to wear says everything about who I am as a fan.
I could choose the blue No. 84. It says "Indy" on the back. A reader gave it to me to commemorate the cover of my book. After all, I have never rooted against the Colts. I'm from Indianapolis. It’s home. The team is part of that.
I rooted for them on Dec. 21, 1997, in Minnesota. They lost 39-28 to the Vikings, ensuring they had the first overall pick in the 1998 draft. They used that pick on quarterback Peyton Manning.
It is not in my DNA to root against the home team, even when losing is “better” for the franchise than winning. My No. 84 jersey symbolizes the year the Colts came to town.
I could wear my No. 12.
The last season-and-a-half has been a dream for Colts fans. The second coming of Peyton arrived way ahead of schedule. Since Manning left, I’ve watched the Colts go 9-2 at home as Andrew Luck has developed into some weird hybrid of Aaron Rodgers and Steve Young, all while carrying himself exactly like a young Manning. You can almost make out each component part of his ridiculous game and name the legend that it reminds you of.
He’s like the Voltron of quarterbacks.
No. 12 will be a popular choice. Some fans are glad Manning is gone. They blame him for things like Mike Vanderjagt spraying field goals, Nick Harper’s wife stabbing him and Hank Baskett not staying down on the ball.
They are actively angered whenever anyone expresses an affinity for Peyton W. Manning or feels conflicted over whom to root for or which game to watch on Sunday. They can’t wait to turn their backs on a decade-long run of playoff appearances and division championships. They were promised parades, and they feel like Manning cheated them by only delivering one.
Then again, I could wear former Colts safety Bob Sanders’ jersey. I could be nonpartisan in the debate. There will be the smattering of Nos. 87, 88, 93 and even 21 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Wearing the jersey of any of the Colts greats of the past decade (especially the No. 87 of Reggie Wayne or the No. 98 of Robert Mathis) is a politic way of supporting the past without engaging in the great Luck vs. Manning debate.
These fans love the Colts and appreciate the great things Manning brought, but they still just want the blue and white to keep winning, to keep delivering happy Sundays.
One option not available in my closet is the orange No. 18.
Oh, it will be popular. There are Manning fans who didn’t care about the Colts before he came, and now that he has moved on, so have they. They still show up at 'The Luke' occasionally, but they wear bright orange jerseys as an open declaration of their contempt for the home team. The Colts are small potatoes, and they prefer to chase the Madison Avenue icon wherever he goes.
He is Peyton Manning, after all.
He’s kind of a big deal.
I hate the orange 18. I’d go naked before I’d consider wearing it. I’m not entirely convinced it isn’t a code name for an FDA-banned food dye prohibited because it makes kids develop a rash that looks like the Buick logo.
No, there’s really only one choice I can make.
Blue 18 it is.
Sure, I feel torn about the return of Manning. His departure was protracted and painful. It was awkward. Everyone knew he was gone for months before he was actually cut. When he finally said goodbye, it was tearful and surreal.
Hoosiers have a natural inferiority complex about the rest of the country. We are fiercely proud of our state and culture, but we feel like Woody on his first day at Cheers when compared with New York or L.A. So when the biggest icon in football thanked us from the bottom of his heart that day in March 2012, it was personal. It was the dissolution of a covenant Manning had made with each fan individually.
We cheered. He worked.
We defended him. He prepared.
We celebrated. He won.
Before Peyton Manning arrived, the Indianapolis Colts were 50-62 in home games from 1984-1997. During his tenure as quarterback, they went 76-28. That’s a lot of happy Sundays in the Circle City. He kept his end of the bargain. He won so often in Indianapolis that we built a bigger stadium so more of us could cram in to watch the spectacle.
Manning had that way of connecting with fans. He was more than just a quarterback, or even “the” quarterback. He was “our” quarterback. He was “my” quarterback.
My entire writing career would not have existed without him. My first website, called 18to88.com, was mostly dedicated to defending him to the unwashed hordes of Tom Brady sycophants. It felt like the least I could do.
Now, 19 months after his tearful press conference in which he thanked me for the privilege of being my quarterback, he returns to Indianapolis as a horse of a different color, but I’m still going to wear a blue 18.
Maybe what I feel isn’t even conflict as much as it is a sense of indebtedness. The jerseys in my closet aren’t laundry to me; they are tributes. If we can’t keep loving players and cherishing memories after they move on, then what’s the point of any of it? Why build Halls of Fame or Rings of Honor? Why retire numbers so no one else can use them if I can’t wear No. 18 as a way of saying thanks?
Come Sunday night, I’ll be rooting for the Indianapolis Colts to take down the de facto top seed in the AFC. I hope they win 56-51 in a game where Manning throws seven touchdowns and Luck throws eight. If Wes Welker coughs up a fumble or three, I’ll yell myself hoarse.
I want the Colts to win.
But I’ll do my cheering in a blue 18.