I heard a buddy of mine talking the other day about what turned him into a fan of the particular team he follows -- in his case it was the Bengals, and as you can imagine, it wasn't exactly a pleasant recollection. That got me thinking. Then I gave up. Not because of adult onset ADHD, but rather because there was nothing there. There's not a pinnacle moment in my life that "turned me into" a Colts fan.
I was born one.
When the convoy of Mayflower trucks bound for Indianapolis departed Baltimore in the dead of night in 1984, my development had just reached the point where activities like soiling my diapers and sucking on a pacifier were now being replaced by a much more exciting existence as a walking and talking human being.
I attended my first game in '87 -- a riveting preseason tilt against the Bengals -- and over the course of the next decade I faithfully cheered as the Colts failed to reach double-digit wins in a season. My formative years were spent praising (and then quickly cursing) first round picks like Jeff George, Steve Emtman, Quentin Coryatt, Sean Dawkins, and Trev Alberts.
I saw four coaches come and go, and watched as 11 different men lined up behind center in the starting quarterback role.
The defining moment of the era? Aaron Bailey's near catch of Jim Harbaugh's Hail Mary pass during an improbable run to the AFC Championship Game in 1995.
At the time, I can’t even say I was that disappointed the Colts didn't advance to the Super Bowl. It would have been nice and all, but certainly not something I anticipated happening. I was happy with the Colts simply being there, and content in viewing a dropped Hail Mary as a positive moment in the history of the franchise.
And I wasn't alone in that thinking. The entire Colts nation -- small as it was in those days -- didn't know anything different. Nine wins and a drunken-punchers shot at possibly making the Super Bowl was more than we dared to hope for.
And then came Peyton Manning and Bill Polian.
The next ten years were a polar opposite of the previous decade. In the process of becoming one of the most stable franchises in modern NFL history, the Colts racked up numerous division titles, hosted playoff games, fielded multiple Pro-Bowl players, and of course, brought the Lombardi Trophy home to Indy.
And while it's only been 25 years since the team took up residence in the Circle City, I can honestly say that from the forgettable Don Majkowski to Floyd Turner combo to the record setting offensive unit currently roaming the sterilized turf of Lucas Oil Stadium, I've witnessed every peak and valley imaginable to any loyal fan of an NFL franchise.
There is one moment though, one particularly gut wrenching moment, which I'd consider pivotal in making me the matured enthusiast that I am today.
The date was January 15th, 2006.
Most Colts fans have pushed the memory of that day deep into the recesses of their brain, never to be seen again. Others tried, and succeeded, in drinking the events out of existence with a large bottle of whiskey immediately following the game. I tried both -- believe me I tried -- but the calamity that was January 15th, 2006 is permanently imprinted in my mind.
As good as the years between Manning's arrival and the start of the 2005 season were, there was something missing, and not just the obvious Super Bowl title.
Despite winning 34-of-48 games since Tony Dungy's hiring in 2002, the Colts were continually coming up short when faced with any kind of significant challenge in the playoffs. Actually, that's being too kind. Bludgeoned repeatedly with a marble paper weight might be a better description for the 85-to-17 point discrepancy in games in which Dungy's calmly led clubs were eliminated from postseason play.
Entering the 2005 playoffs though, Colts fans were convinced things were going to end differently. It was finally our time. The squad started the season off with 13 straight wins, clung together during tragedy, and ended the regular season with an emotional win in Dungy's return.
More importantly, they entered with a hungry, well rested, and fully healthy team. Of course, it didn't hurt that perpetual Colt killers, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, were fronting an underachieving and un-intimidating Patriots squad either.
So the stage was set for a successful playoff run, and when my parents informed me they wouldn't be attending the second round home game against the Steelers, I became the proud owner of two priceless tickets.
Rolling to the game dressed in my trusty Dallas Clark jersey, I was as excited as I can ever remember being prior to attending a sporting event. My sister and I hit up several downtown bars, mingling with like-minded faithfuls and getting into the proper spirit for what we thought was about to be a fun-filled afternoon in the Dome.
Hell, I was so giddy that morning, I even gave a buck to a homeless man outside the stadium with a sign reading "Why lie, it's for booze."
"Everyone deserves to celebrate today," I said to my sister as we walked up the steps leading towards the stadium.
That was the high-point of the day.
For the first 45 minutes of the game, things couldn't have gone any worse. The Steelers -- a team the Colts had dismantled in front of a Monday Night audience just a month prior -- completely, and utterly dominated every aspect of the game. On offense, they ran the ball, ground the clock and scored three touchdowns. On defense, they embarrassed the Indy offensive line by sacking Manning three times, and relinquished only a field goal.
To top it off, our seats were positioned right next to a quadrant of always standing, towel-waving, unconscionably obnoxious Pittsburgh supporters.
Calling those first 45 minutes a nightmare wouldn't be accurate because at least in a nightmare you have the vague feeling that things aren't really happening, that you're still in a deep slumber. No, those first three quarters were more like when you're actually being attacked by a rabid wolverine, and you’re praying it’s just a dream, but deep down, you know it's for real.
And then, on the second play of the fourth quarter, Manning hit Clark for a 50-yard touchdown, and things began to change. The crowd started to murmur, if only slightly. By the time the defense forced a Chris Gardocki punt some eight minutes later, the murmur had become a dull rumble. After Edgerrin James scored on a short run, narrowing the lead to three points, the Dome was officially swaying.
When the offense got the ball back with 2:31 left on the clock, and a full field in front of it, I was absolutely certain we were about to witness a game-winning, career-defining drive by Captain Manning.
Four plays and two sacks later, the Steelers had the ball on the Indy two-yard line with a little over a minute left to play, and needless to say, I was an emotional mess.
In a blind fury, I stormed out of my seat and headed for the exit. Walking into the tunnel, head in my hands, trying to conceal a primal scream (or a public waterworks display...that part's still a bit hazy), I was the epitome of a broken fan. And then I heard it. A sudden outburst of screams flowing into a roar of humanity so loud you'd have thought a stealth bomber was doing a fly-over inside the stadium.
I immediately turned heel and backtracked into the fluorescently lit arena in time to see a sprinting Nick Harper -- who'd been stabbed by his wife in the thigh less than 24-hours earlier -- being tripped up by a diving Ben Roethlisberger. Colts ball on their 42-yard line. One minute to make something happen.
Reaching my seat, I was greeted with high-fives and hugs from a group strangers, and then promptly told to go back to where I was. Not wanting to jinx things, I happily obliged. And it was there, completely alone in the bowels of the RCA Dome, that I listened as the following events unfolded;
22-yard completion to Reggie Wayne. 39 seconds to play. Looking at a 53-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
Eight-yard snag by Marvin Harrison. Mike Vanderjagt is frantically warming up his leg.
An incompletion, followed by another unsuccessful attempt to make a first down. Fourth down and two yards go. 21 seconds left. Dungy gives the nod to Vandy, and the cocky kicker steps onto the field to attempt the biggest kick in Indianapolis Colts history. He lines it up as the crowd grows deathly silent.
Keep in mind, I was watching all of this happen on a 16-inch television posted above a concession stand window. As the “idiot kicker" gauged the uprights, I decided I couldn't watch. Closing my eyes, I let the crowd be my commentator.
The ball was snapped, the hold was perfect, the kick went up, and...OOOOoooohhhhhhhhhhhhhh...that horrible, horrible sound – like someone letting the air out of a ball -- was all I needed to hear. Wide right. Way wide right. Game over. Super Bowl hopes dashed yet again.
Now, I know what you're thinking. How could that game, one of the most heartbreaking moments in the annuls of the franchise, be a pivotal moment in my lifelong love affair with the team? And I get where you’re coming from. That loss stung, for a long time. Still does, actually. But what it made me realize -- much later mind you -- was how much the success of the Colts means to everyone involved.
Success wasn’t just about achieving validation for Manning and Dungy, or putting a cherry on the top of Polian's distinguished career, or even rewarding the Irsay family for bringing the team to town.
It was also for the long suffering fans who were here when Mike Pagel was handing off to the likes of Randy McMillian and George Wonsley. It was about my friends who gather every Sunday at a bar to drink beer, cheer on the Horse, and talk trash to renegade Bears fans. It was about my unborn child getting to hear stories from his dad about the time the Indianapolis Colts finally won a Super Bowl.
Put simply, it was about more than football.
And all it took for me to realize that was a crushing defeat at the hands of a hated opponent.
Thanks Pittsburgh. I owe you one.