Along For the Ride
I know the exact moment I became a Colts fan. It was the morning of April 18th, 1998, the spring semester of my sophomore year in college. I set my alarm because at that point in my life I could still sleep late. I got up and went out to the living room TV so I wouldn’t wake my roommate and I turned on the NFL draft. Until that very morning, the Colts were still going back and forth between Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf for their 1st overall pick. I’d already promised myself I’d become a fan of whatever team chose Peyton Manning. So, when Paul Tagliabue stepped to the podium, I was glued to the screen and at that very moment, I became a Colts fan. I turned off the TV and went back to bed because again, at that point in my life, I could still do that.
So maybe I got to the party late. Maybe I didn’t suffer through the moving from Baltimore to Indianapolis or the bad seasons. But nevertheless, I wanted to engross myself in being a Colts fan. I wanted to soak up every bit of history so I could defend my team to the death. I wanted to learn to wear my team colors when they won AND when they lost. I wanted to understand how to hold my head high no matter what the outcome because I’d rather have bad times with my team than good times with any other team out there. On that Saturday morning in April 1998, I had no idea just how much I would fall in love with these people who took a chance on Peyton and made him the cornerstone of the franchise.
In the Colts, I found owner Jim Irsay (the polar opposite of his demonic father), quite possibly one of the most genuine human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. This man LOVES his job, and he cares so deeply about every player, employee, and fan that he makes sure the product he gives us is the highest quality he can make it. In 13 short years, he has transformed the franchise from a laughing stock to one of the most respected franchises in the league. I found Bill Polian, who doesn’t always make popular decisions, but I have never seen a man more capable of recognizing talent in some of the most obscure places. In a world where having the right pieces in all the right places is the only way to have success, he is the chess master. And I hope he has taught his son (likely the general manager/president in waiting) every last facet of what he knows and looks for and sees. I found Bob Lamey, the heartfelt voice of the Colts who is employed by the franchise but has the heart of a fan. I grew up in a family of Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans who, try as they might, never could get me on board that ship, but the one impression that lasted the longest with me was how deeply rooted Gene Deckerhoff (the voice of the Bucs) was in being a fan of the team. When Gene is disappointed in a performance, you hear it in his voice, and when Bob is disappointed in a performance, you hear it in his voice. Equally so, when they’re excited about something, it’ll make you jump out of your seat. In my head, I can still hear Bob calling the end of the 2006 AFC championship game that sent the Colts to their first Super Bowl since 1971. “Intercepted Marlin Jackson. Marlin’s got it. We’re going to the Super Bowl. We’re going to the Super Bowl.” That soundbite still makes me tear up. I found the city of Indianapolis, one of the quietest metropolises in the country aptly nicknamed “Naptown.” These people allowed themselves to subvert their traditional basketball and racing history and become a football town…to become a group of people who supported their team to the bitter end no matter what.
When it all first started…my obsession with the Colts…it was clearly geared towards Peyton Manning, but over time I decided that if I was going to pull for Peyton, I was going to have to pull for the Colts, too. And if I’m going to pull for the Colts, I should know a little something about them. Where “little” here means every last piece of information I could get my hands on. At this point, I feel like I’ve studied them as much as Peyton studies game film, but yet every now and then I unearth a story about one of the players that adds just one more layer. When I say “we” in reference to the team, I don’t feel strange saying it because I feel like so much a part of them. I will never, ever know what it’s like to play football, to win or lose a game as a player, or to talk to the media when you’re just dying inside for throwing an interception, allowing a touchdown, or shanking a kick wide right…but those guys who suit up every fall are now a part of who I am, so I say we.
I love that we have so many undrafted free agents on the team. I love that the leader of the defense is one of them, and given the choice of any other defensive player in the NFL, I’d still pick Gary Brackett every time. I love that the defense gets pissed off when a team goes for it on 4th down and that somehow, someway they become a brick wall because of it. I love that Bill Polian takes wide receivers and tight ends and running backs that other teams wouldn’t bat an eye at and throws them at Peyton and says, “make them incredible.” But I love even more that Peyton does it and does it so well…turning a no name Division III receiver into one of the most talked about players in the league. I love that the offensive line protects the pocket as if it’s their own son or daughter. I love that Antoine Bethea gets mad when he forces an incomplete pass on 3rd down because the ball hit the ground instead of him intercepting it. I love that when the most athletic player on defense is placed on injured reserve for the umpteenth time in his career, no one in the entire organization from top to bottom, Jim Irsay to fan, blinks because the next man up will fill the void and fill it well. I love that all but 2 starters (offense, defense, and special teams) have played their entire careers for the Colts. I love how much fun they have out on that field and how tight knit of a group they are off the field. I love that these men are some of the finest people to ever walk this planet. They have their priorities straight, which is to say faith and family come first.
Every player that has come through this franchise is a family member. And when they leave to retire or go to another team, I always try to keep track of where they are and wish for them the best. At some point during their time with the Colts, I know they made me smile. And that is why at a time like this when we fell one game short of the ultimate goal, I still smile, I still hold my head up proudly, I still love them just as much as I loved them the day before the game…maybe even more. There are a million people out there who would love to finish a season 16-3. There are a million people out there who would love to have an explosive offense like the one led by Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday…to know that a series starting on the 99 yard line is just as likely to end in the end zone as a series that starts anywhere else on the field. There are a million people out there who would love to have a scrappy defense that never gives up and demands respect with every play. There are a million people out there who would love to know that when their defensive end gets hurt in a game, that there is absolutely no doubt in his mind or ours that he’ll be playing in the next game…injured or not. There are a million people out there who would love to have as much confidence as we have in a 42 year old kicker.
As a fan of the Indianapolis Colts, I have led a charmed life, but in April 1998, I had no idea I could love a franchise as much as I love them. I had no idea that I would fight for them when they lose just as hard as I fight for them when they win. I had no idea I would feel so deeply for them that I would physically hurt when they hurt. Have I questioned them from time to time…of course…what fan hasn’t questioned their team, but when I look back at the last decade of football, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I may have lost years off the end of my life just from the stress alone, but these guys have shown this girl one heck of a good time. Jim Irsay always says the journey is more important than the destination, and he’s right. If you don’t enjoy the ride along the way, what’s the point of any of it at the end.
Thank you, Indianapolis Colts for the last 12 years. I look forward to going into battle with you for the rest of my life.
Believe in Blue
Make it Personal
United We Stand