I happen to be a Colts fan in South Jersey. Front-runner you ask? Depends on how you define it.
My mother went to high school—where I too am a recent grad—with Franco Harris, and since then my family has been Steelers fans.
To be different from my family, I liked the Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys—though looking back it was a jerk move. My first favorite athlete was Mark Brunell and I also had a significant Jacksonville phase.
So how do the Colts jump into this?
I loved the Phillies, who will always be my favorite sports franchise and I was a huge Flyers fan. I am mildly interested in the NBA, but to call myself a fan would be a disrespect to real fans. I never felt an association with the Eagles other than thinking Ricky Watters was a beast.
Again, as a seven-year old or so, I was really into sports.
I followed ESPN as much as I could and my only real moment of academic brilliance was knowing the starting QB for every team. I was a sports whiz, and though such feats aren' very impressive; I'm happy to toot my horn for a moment.
Enter Peyton Manning.
When watching ESPN one day, I remember seeing a highlight for the Tennessee Volunteers and Peyton Manning—the star junior QB of the team. I vaguely remember him throwing a bomb to Marcus Nash and it sold me immediately.
I remember his press conference announcing he would stay for his senior season. I hated seeing the losses to Florida and I can still recall the Heisman Trophy commercials consisting of Manning, Michigan's Charles Woodson, Marshall's Randy Moss and Washington's Ryan Leaf. Then the draft commercials.
I told my dad, wherever Petyon is drafted , I'd be a fan of forever.
I'd hopefully keep with that and have a reason to like an NFL team. I can see my dad saying, "well it's either the Colts or the Chargers for ya" and getting all excited to see which it would be. All I knew about the Colts was that Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback and was a pretty tough guy.
Lo and behold, the Colts drafted Manning and this is where the story starts.
The first season for Manning in Indy was rough. I didn't have the mental capacity to understand if he was actually having a good season, but later I was excited to see the Colts in the playoffs consistently.
My earliest playoff memory was getting ready to go to a recreational league indoor soccer game and seeing Mike Vanderjagt miss a field goal against the Miami Dolphins.
Basically, from that point on, every year brought promise, expectations, and then a let down.
Close but no cigar is not a fun thing to relive every year. Then there was this whole, "can't beat the Patriots" stigma following the team.
Then, after an Asante Samuel pick six I nearly gave up.
I remember sitting in my room, stunned to the point of silence in front of my TV. I didn't have the heart to turn it off. I went to hang out with my now deceased dog and tried to convince myself it was just a game.
I felt helpless, an emotion usually reserved for those who have experienced a death in the family.
Sure, it was just a game but are there any other things in this world that can skyrocket our blood pressure other than an NFL game? Unless it's an immediate blow-out, you are usually taken on a roller-coaster of emotions: either elation or murderous thoughts.
Even after the Colts marched down the field to make it 21-13 on a Peyton Manning sneak, I was convinced the game and season were over. I was still in "I'm watching only because I won't see them again until August" mode, when the Colts forced a punt.
Then I faced an all-too familiar feeling.
The dreaded optimism.
Usually optimism is followed by reality in which you realize you should never be optimistic with football.
Sure enough, optimism was followed by...hope.
Dan Klecko, our makeshit fullback of all people scored (quickly followed by one of Peyton Manning's best passes on a 2-pt conversion) and then hope was replaced by reality when Hobbs nearly went the distance on a kickoff.
I was in a state of disbelief, there's no way a comeback like that could be all for naught could there?
I remember talking to someone on my sports message board and mentioning that there was no way this could be it. He, a Patriots fan, said "remember Manning isn't clutch" just as Stephen Gostkowski nailed a field goal to make it a 3-point ballgame.
Jim Nantz of course sounded excited as he wondered if this could be the main chapter in Peyton Manning's career, while Phil Simms doubted that a Belichick team would lose in the playoffs.
We all know what happened here.
Manning led the team down to inside the ten when Joseph Addai capped off an impressive rookie campaign by running up the middle for a TD. I clapped a few times but still thought, "one minute is too much to give to Tom Brady."
Then Marlin Jackson successfully picked off Brady and I was in such a state of shock that I am convinced it has not yet worn off.
That game completely changed my outlook on sports. Even during the Phillies, Flyers, March Madness or Wimbledon; I still think back to that game. As the two teams face tonight, I am eagerly awaiting another chapter in what may be the best rivalry between two quareterbacks in a long time.