IF MEMORY serves,
I had gone to my local Hills department store in southern Indiana that fall
afternoon in 1985 in search of bubble gum and batteries. As I walked into the
store, I passed an athletic-looking man, clearly bored beyond belief, seated
alone at a display table. He looked faintly familiar, and I paused briefly. He
shot up out of his seat, hand extended. "Hi, I'm Mike Pagel of the
I looked down at a
stack of glossies and realized that, much to my surprise, Pagel was there at my
hometown Hills! In the middle of his season! To sign autographs! With no line
to move along, I, a high school student at Bloomington North High School,
chatted amiably with a starting NFL quarterback for 15 minutes or so. In
retrospect, it probably marked the first time I interviewed a pro athlete. If
nothing else, it added a twist to my errand running. "Try to make it to a
game this season!" Pagel exclaimed as I left the store.
That's how bad it
was for the Colts those first few years in the heartland. The franchise left
Baltimore under cover of darkness early on March 29, 1984, everything but
Johnny Unitas's chin strap thrown into an armada of Mayflower moving vans.
Unionized Paul Reveres, the midnight riders were told to pilot their vans west
and not stop until they saw cornstalks. But upon arrival in Indianapolis the
team was met with general indifference. Down south, Bob Knight was at the
height of his powers. Up north, Notre Dame was captivating fans. The
Indianapolis 500 was still the biggest event in auto racing.
Indiana's NFL fans
had never complained about driving a few hours to Chicago--the city that always
seemed to dwarf our entire state--or to Cincinnati for a game. A new baseball
team? That would've been cool. But who needed a football team, especially one
that played in the Hoosier Dome, a blight on the Indy skyline that looked, at
least from my high school perspective, like nothing so much as a giant zit in
need of popping. Even the franchise's charm offensive--the kind that had the
starting QB spending an afternoon at Hills in Bloomington--did little to
capture the locals' hearts, much less imaginations.
problems, those early Colts teams were simply awful. The Colts went 12--36
during the franchise's first three seasons in Indy. If you could distill those
abysmal years to a single scene, it came late in a game on Oct. 26, 1986,
against the Dolphins. The Colts' head coach, Rod Dowhower, became so excited
about a possible game-winning drive that he slipped and split his pants.
Indianapolis didn't score, and the coach left the field with a towel draped
around his waist. Colts, the joke went, was an acronym: Count On Losing This
Sunday. As a matter of ritual, Indy musician Duke Tumatoe went on the popular
Bob & Tom radio show every Monday and sang updated lyrics to his mournful
blues ballad, Lord Help Our Colts.
toward the Colts gradually changed, triggered by a convergence of factors. The
team improved steadily, traded for stars on the order of Eric
Dickerson--suffice it to say, a better running back than sideline reporter--and
even began making the postseason. (Or, as former coach Jim Mora calls them, the
playoffs, PLAYOFFS?) Eventually we stopped feeling like mistresses, unwilling
to commit our hearts fully. Our guilt over cuckolded Baltimore abated. So had
the fear that the team would eventually leave us, too.
If the community
embraced the franchise, the Colts hugged back. Consider owner Robert Irsay. He
came to Indy with the reputation of a heartless misanthrope, a man who had
dumped his wife of 39 years without so much as a phone call. Yet when Irsay
died in 1997, he was hailed as a local philanthropist, a man who often let
Hoosier charities hold benefits on his estate. ( Indiana can have that effect on
By the time
Indianapolis drafted a certain drawling, fair-haired quarterback from
Tennessee, in 1998, the Colts had supplanted the Hoosiers, Pacers and
Boilermakers as the state's team of choice. Indiana, a fiercely red state, was
all but hemorrhaging Colts blue. And in many ways the Colts' ascent refracted
larger cultural shifts taking place in the state. Bob Knight had become an
increasingly polarizing figure and eventually hightailed it to Texas. We were
transitioning from an agricultural state to a leader in biotech and life
sciences. Indianapolis-- India-no-place, no more--became an appealing
headquarters site for multinational companies. As Indiana was thriving and
evolving, it was only fitting that the football team representing the state was
The franchise once
reduced to dispatching players to department stores to troll for fans will open
the 2008 season in the nearly $700 million Lucas Oil Stadium, a facility funded
largely by the state. The Super Bowl triumph--over Chicago, no less--was the
last stitch, embedding the Colts in Indiana's tapestry.
Lord help our
Colts? Nah. Let Him turn his attention to other teams now.