Indianapolis was always a basketball town. Indiana has always been a basketball state. Hoosiers. Larry Legend. Isaiah. Reggie. There’s a basketball goal in every driveway, and a pickup game in every park.
So when the Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984, there was fanfare and jubilee, but wasn’t the excitement of football fanatics; it was more of an interest in the growth of the city. It was the same pride that a homeowner has in a pristine lawn. The Indianapolis Colts were our city’s garden gnome; our decoration to graduate our city into higher ranks.
No kids know their sidewalks like Indiana kids. I grew up knowing every crack, every depression, and every puddle. I dribbled a basketball down those concrete slabs every afternoon, sunshine or storm. Nobody acted out moves like they were Bill Brooks in our occasional pickup football games, but everybody wanted to be Michael Jordan in every game of 21.
20,000 Indy denizens showed up to greet the Mayflower moving vans, and then they all went home and shot free throws.
The passion that we have now, the sidewalk-chalk horseshoes and car dealership ads and tailgating ferocity, didn’t happen overnight. A lot of Indianapolis residents became Colts fans the moment they moved here, but it wasn’t pandemic like it is now. I sat in the Hoosier Dome many times when it sounded like putting your ear to a seashell. Now we have a brand new stadium, and nobody schedules fall weddings on Sunday anymore.
My journey from casual football fan to raging psychofan paralleled the city’s metamorphosis. The reason? A simple answer is Peyton Manning. A better answer is Bill Polian. But it was a handful of moments that catapulted the Crossroads of America into a football frenzy.
Prior to the Peyton Manning era, the team had occasional blips of marginal success. Jim Harbaugh led the team to the AFC Championship game in the 1995-1996 season, and if they’d had instant replay, that season Pittsburgh wouldn’t have scored on Neil O'Donnell's five-yard touchdown pass in which Kordell Stewart stepped out of bounds at the back of the end zone and came back in to make the catch.
Indeed, the fact that I’m still bitter is ample evidence that I was a Colts fan then too.
But I wasn’t "live or die" like the whole city is now. We were used to close-but-no-cigar, and we all knew that it was a fluke season rather than a dynasty.
Even when Peyton led the Colts to a few division titles and a pocketful of early playoff exits, the city wasn’t a true “football town.”
The excitement was always tertiary, easily allowed to dissipate. We had all been hurt by putting our hearts into the Pacers and watching Reggie Miller fall just short.
Our relationship with the Colts was like a second stint with a high school girlfriend that has dumped you viciously before. You just don’t allow yourself to be too attached because you don’t want to get your heart broken again.
And then there was Marlin Jackson. That’s who tipped the scales. It wasn’t the player, it was the moment.
Jackson was playing the nickel cornerback. Tom Brady, running the hurry-up offense, was at the Colts' 45-yard line. There was 17 seconds left on the clock. Brady threw a pass over the middle, intending to hit an underneath crossing route. Jackson stepped in front of the pass and picked it off. He took a hesitant half-step while he thought about what he should do, and then fell to the ground like it was a newborn in his hands instead of a football.
Jackson said later, "I thought for a quick minute, 'What am I doing? If I go down, we're going to the Super Bowl.' "
The Colts had just made the biggest comeback in AFC Championship Game history, and it was pandemonium in Indianapolis.
After years of falling short to the Patriots, just like the Pacers had with the Bulls and Lakers, the team had finally slain the dragon that had haunted the city for years. Everybody sprinted down the streets screaming as an instantaneous reaction to radio broadcaster Bob Lamey saying “and it's… INTERCEPTED!” I didn’t even hear him finish his famous commentary, yelling into his mic “WE’RE GOIN' TO THE SUPER BOWL!” But when I heard it on the SportsCenter highlights the next morning, I literally wept.
I consider that to be the moment that my obsession with the Colts reached its unquenchable immortality, and I consider the same to be true for the city of Indianapolis. A city isn’t really a “football town” until the passion becomes impervious to failure, unaffected by unfair weather. I was never just a fair-weather fan of the Colts, because there had never been fair weather before.
But now, the whole team could move to Zanzibar and I would watch every game without feeling the slightest bit betrayed. My passion for the team has outgrown my hometown pride.
The season culminated, or course, with a Super Bowl victory over the Chicago Bears in the rain. I was there, in the 17th row of the upper deck at Dolphin Stadium, behind the Bears’ end zone. It was cold in the rain, and there weren’t any ponchos for sale because it supposedly never rains in Miami in February. So I covered my fading Marshall Faulk Jersey with a modified trash bag borrowed from a janitor. I stayed until the field was devoid of life and litter despite the threat of hypothermia.
The true quenching of my city's thirst for a championship was epitomized by the wry expression of utter vindication on Peyton Manning’s face when he gripped the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the first time and stared into its reflective surface. At that moment, Indianapolis gained more than the pride of triumph and fame in history books. It gained a hero.
And then, suddenly, you could strike up football talk with anybody in the city. Fans donning opposing teams’ jerseys became endangered species at home games. If you didn’t see somebody wearing a Colts jersey in the mall, well, that meant the mall was closing.
The whole city feels a bond with each other and with the team that wasn’t there before. It’s a real “football town” now. It hasn't faded after a few seasons without winning the sport's top prize, and it isn't in any danger of drying up, no matter the drought. These days, all the kids in Indianapolis want to be Peyton Manning, even while shooting free-throws.