I was 10 years old when the Mayflower vans rolled out under the cover of darkness. They were headed to Indianapolis with the remnants of a proud franchise packed tightly inside.
The Baltimore Colts skittled out of town when no one was looking, or at least that’s what they thought. They were in a rush to find their new home in Indianapolis, even taking different routes to confuse the police.
My memories of the event are somewhat hazy but I distinctly remember watching the footage late at night, I wasn’t excited, just curious—why would they be leaving like that, what are they afraid of?
I was too young to understand the controversy and the emotions of betrayal in Baltimore and I didn’t care.
In those early days there were some die hard fans that were genuinely excited about having an NFL franchise, but to most people the Colts were nothing more than a curiosity and it remained that way until the mid 90’s.
Three or so years later, I got to attend a game against the San Diego Chargers in person.
It was pretty neat but nothing spectacular; there was no sense of pride or anything special surrounding the game or the team.
Even though my state had a pro football team I went along rooting for different ones, and so did a lot of people, especially Bears fans who seemed to come out of the woodwork everywhere you turned.
As the years rolled on the Colts went from curious side show to perennial losers. There was a sad atmosphere surrounding the team, “the Colts suck!” could be heard everywhere and often.
Things started to change in the mid 90’s. The Colts assembled some decent teams and people took notice, and so did I. They had a catchy nickname, “the Cardiac Kids”, and an exciting quarterback with equally catchy name, “Captain Comeback.”
These teams gave the diehards something that they had been thirsting for, credibility.
The pinnacle came in the 1995 playoffs when they made an improbable march to the AFC championship game. Jim Harbaugh’s Hail Mary fell out the hands of Aaron Bailey and so did the hopes of the newly Colts crazed.
I distinctly remember that moment where wild exhilaration slipped into to despair. It seemed to be a sign that they were ready to become an elite team but it didn’t last long and they returned to loosing, at least that’s the way I remember it.
The losing culture festered again and perhaps grew stronger. Local radio entertainers even mocked the team by singing weekly songs entitled “Lord help our Colts.”
The radio personalities didn’t realize that the ultimate hope lay right around the corner as the Colts got so bad that Peyton Manning fell into their laps with the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft.
During Manning’s early years I began to attend games frequently to witness and participate in the growing enthusiasm. Tickets were still easily available, and in 1999, I paid a ticket scalper just $30 to sit in the fifth row to witness an epic game against the Dolphins.
I saw a Colts fan punch out a Dolphins fan and Dan Marino beat us with a fourth quarter touchdown pass.
That game left quite an impression on me. Something radically different had happened in the Dome that day, something I had never seen before at a Colts game. People actually cared. There was a charged atmosphere in the Dome that I had never seen before.
I grew into a fan without even knowing what had happened. It was bigger than me, it wasn’t a choice, there was an energy mass in the Dome that day, an unyielding force of nature that stuck its claws in me and wouldn’t let go for a few hours.
I wanted more.
The team went on to complete the biggest one season turnaround in NFL history. They went from 3-13 in Manning’s first year to 13-3. The turnaround was outstanding but the city still seemed slow to catch up.
When the playoffs came around I paid another scalper $20 to watch their first game against the Titans and he seemed all too eager to give the ticket away for less than face value. The Colts lost and the Titans marched on to the Super Bowl.
The turnaround brought in a lot more fans but something was still wrong. The Colts kept taking steps backward and I started to get discouraged again but help was once again right around the corner.
In 2002 Tony Dungy was hired as head coach and I officially crossed the line into super fan status. I was already a huge Dungy fan, my Grandmother lived near Tampa and I new a lot about him and followed his teams.
The man who spells his name with a capital D was coming to town and I knew that Colts were finally going to be a consistent winner and Super Bowl threat. I couldn’t have been happier with the new coaching choice. Indianapolis would finally have a real football team, one that wins with class and dignity.
The Colts did exactly that, but I was still a little dismayed with a perceived lack of support. At the end of the 2003 season, I scored playoff tickets for divisional game against the Broncos. One of my friends couldn’t go so I had an extra ticket.
I walked around and stood on corners near the Dome and waved it around. There were no takers and it soon dawned on me that I would never sell it. I had to get into the dome before the game started so I tried to give it away but still no takers.
I folded it up and put it my pocket wondering, how could this be? One of the most exciting teams in football and I can’t give away a stinking playoff ticket? This can’t be true, what is happening here?
Luckily this didn’t last long and the team kept getting better. In next couple of years the city of Indianapolis finally became football crazy. I would go to work for blue Fridays when everyone was wearing Colts gear and it seamed like the whole city was blue.
Go Colts! This became the rallying cry for the entire city. You could approach anyone in the city at virtually anytime and place and yell “Go Colts!” and you were almost certain to get the same reply.
This newly rabid enthusiasm peaked in 2005 when the Colts were flirting with a perfect record and tragedy struck. Tony Dungy’s teenage son had committed suicide. The news rocked me to the bone.
My own brother had taken his life years earlier in a similar part of Florida where Dungy’s son did. When the news broke I lived it all over again. I experienced every emotion from confusion to guilt to sorrow as vividly as the day it happened to my family.
I felt an amazing connection to coach Dungy and the team during this period and I lay awake at night and was sure that he was doing the same thing.
In the Colts I saw a team that embodied me, the things I wanted to accomplish, the same fears I faced in real life. I felt the Colts struggles were my own—the struggle to get over the hump, the struggle to move on in life and keep winning, to overcome tragedy and become successful.
If Dungy and the Colts could get over this terrible tragedy so could I. If they conquered their personal demons I could too.
The Colts didn’t go on to win the Super Bowl that year, they lost a controversial game against Pittsburghwhere they were given a second chance but Mike Vanderjagt missed a field goal.
It left a nasty and sour taste in my mouth but soon realized life goes on and I still loved football. I witnessed the professionalism and dedication of the Colts players and coaches during training camp and began to look forward to the season again.
The 2006 season was an emotional roller-coaster and when the Super Bowl run finally came, it crept up on us. The problem with sustained winning is lofty expectations. Hope can quickly turn to despair as the Colts had a lot of bitter playoff disappointments.
The Colts had the worst run defense coming into the playoffs and an increasingly leery fan base sensed another bitter ending and early exit from the playoffs. They surprised us though and made a run through the playoffs to face arch rival New England at home for the AFC championship.
I happened to be in New England for that AFC championship game. I was in Connecticut and felt like I was in the heart of the lions den. I thought about going to a sports bar to watch the game but didn’t want to risk the possibility of being beaten senseless by a gang of overzealous Patriot fans.
I chose instead to sit alone in my hotel room, alone like I had been in years past when tragedy struck.
As the Patriots went ahead 21-3, my heart sank into a black hole. There was such a painful feeling in my stomach, they weren’t going to make it, the Pats had gotten us again, and there would be no Super Bowl parade when I got home.
Maybe people were right, they would never take the next step and neither would I. Maybe the Colts really did suck.
I couldn’t bear to watch anymore and went outside. I could tell things were going badly by the cheers and screams of joy that came from seemingly every hotel room around me.
Eventually I wandered back inside, I sure didn’t want to give up on my team and they never gave up on me. I was treated to the most satisfying and exciting Colts victory I could imagine.
I went to work that next day sporting Colts gear and an all day smile you couldn’t get off with a blow torch or a belt sander.
I returned home for the Super Bowl and was downtown on monument circle blasting my horn and dancing in the streets with fellow fans after the game. People from all walks of life came together in celebration that night.
I saw the full transformation of the city when I went downtown in the frigid cold for the impromptu parade. It was cold enough outside to burn your skin yet the RCA Dome was filled to capacity in a matter of minutes with screaming fans.
We had come a long way from Lord help our Colts to packing the Dome with just 30 minutes notice. It was only years earlier that I stood near the Dome and couldn’t give away a playoff ticket.
Stick your hand out with a ticket during this years playoffs like I did in 2003 and you are likely to be dragged by a frenzied mob from one end of the street to the other trying to hold onto it. They’ll scoop your bloody carcass up with a forklift and some crazed fan will take your seat.
These are the reasons for my now fanatical devotion to the Colts, a team and an organization that set out to build tradition and erase the mindset of an entire population and succeeded.
What they accomplished was simply awe inspiring.
They taught me that you can overcome obstacles and tragedies and succeed. Perseverance and dedication pays off, it won’t come easy and it won’t happen overnight but if you keep working at it, it will happen.
I learned this from men like Tony Dungy, Bill Polian and Peyton Manning. These were men that took unmerciful criticism for years before accomplishing the ultimate goal.
When September rolls around, invite your friends and loved ones, its time to crack open a beer and fire up the grill. It’s time for football, and there is more at stake than just a game.