by Craig Barnes
(To read this story and many other interesting features found in the official program of Super Bowl XLVI sold at the game in Indianapolis click on the image on the left or Super Bowl XLVI in the menu above to order at reduced pricing.)
Many great NFL quarterbacks have been the catalyst of a team validating itself as a Super Bowl champion. Peyton Manning is the only one to also inspire a different feeling about football in a city and state.
“He has changed the way people in Indiana think about football,” says Dave Frick, who, in his former position as deputy mayor, played a major role in the deal that brought the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984. “We have a different value system from the rest of the country, and he fits it perfectly.
“Without the Colts and especially what they’ve done since Peyton became quarterback, we wouldn’t be having a Super Bowl here.”
Despite neck surgery that caused him to miss the 2011 season and leaves his future with the Colts or another team in doubt, Manning has firmly established his legacy. It will be as much about bringing the Super Bowl to Indianapolis as it will be about helping the Colts win a Super Bowl for the city.
“Winning the Super Bowl was great for our team, organization, and fans,” says Manning, “but having it in Indianapolis benefits so many people. It means so much to the community’s economy and pride. I couldn’t be happier because Indianapolis deserves it.”
In the days leading up to the 1998 draft—when the Colts made Manning the No. 1 overall pick—team owner Jim Irsay had a vision of what might be ahead.
“I thought, ‘Just maybe this guy is that special guy every franchise needs,’” he recalls.
“He has been put in the position to help our team accomplish some unique things. With the help of great teammates and coaches, he has done them by performing and being tough on the field and humble off of it.”
From 2000-09, the Colts won more games (115) and had more 12-plus win seasons (seven) than any NFL team. The highest of the many high points was Super Bowl XLI, when they beat the Chicago Bears, 29-17.
“At the parade following [the Super Bowl], thousands of people lined the streets in 15-degree temperatures,” says Irsay. “I knew then we were in a golden era that every franchise hopes to have where greatness and magic prevail.”
As one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, Manning has been at the heart of it all. He has a .678 winning percentage and has led the Colts to the playoffs 11 times and the Super Bowl twice. He is the only quarterback to total 40,000 passing yards (42,322) and 300 passing touchdowns (314) in a decade, doing it between 2000-09.
“If you had said in 1998 that we would be in two Super Bowls, win one, have a new stadium, and be hosting a Super Bowl,” says Manning, “people would have thought you were crazy.
“It’s a good feeling to be part of something that’s resulted in the fans of Indiana having the same passion for football they’ve always had for basketball and auto racing. They just needed a team to get behind, and giving them a winner made it easy.”
That team came in 1984 when the Colts relocated from Baltimore. They had modest success—with playoff appearances in 1987, 1995, and 1996—but the landscape and conversation changed drastically when Manning became the face of the franchise.
“Now people talk about the Colts year round,” says Manning. “They want to know what players we’ll draft, what free agents we’ll sign, and what is happening in OTAs [Organized Team Activities].
“I’m not sure that was going on when we first got here,” he adds. “Basketball and racing are still talked about a lot, but Indianapolis is a football town now.”
This year, much of the conversation has been about Manning, and more recently, the team’s future with or without him.
Almost immediately after being drafted out of the University of Tennessee, Manning helped the Colts become perennial playoff contenders and one of the NFL’s elite teams. They won the AFC East in his second season.
“Before he arrived, Colts tickets weren’t difficult to get,” says Bill Benner, long-time Indianapolis Star sportswriter who also worked for the Indiana Sports Corporation and Indianapolis Convention and Business Association and is now with the Horizon League.
“Since then, the waiting list has been in the thousands, and now we’re hosting a Super Bowl. Manning has been the linchpin.”
As football has gained ground, the Pacers (the city’s NBA’s franchise) have ceded some of their territory. They reached the league finals in 1999-2000, but have made it past the first round of the playoffs just twice since.
“We had three great teams in a row,” says Larry Bird, the Basketball Hall of Famer who coached the team during that era. “After we lost to the Lakers in 2000, Chris Mullin, Rik Smits, and Mark Jackson all left the team.”
Bird, who was raised in French Lick and starred for the Indiana State squad that made a magical run to the 1979 NCAA Championship Game, understands how the Colts benefited from the Pacers’ struggles.
“They have one of the greatest NFL players ever,” he says. “Peyton is a game-changer in every sense. I was never much of a football fan, but I watch him and the Colts all the time.”
While Indiana State’s time in the national spotlight was brief, Indiana University has a rich tradition and loyal following in basketball. Branch McCracken won NCAA titles in 1940 and 1953, and the legendary Bobby Knight added three more (1976, 1981, 1987) while never having a losing season in 30 years as the school’s head coach.
More recently, Butler University—under the direction of young coach Brad Stevens— became the first Indiana school to play in back-to-back Final Fours. Stevens has seen the Colts’ impact up close, attending several practices.
“They’re a blue-collar team, like the people here,” he says. “They know who they are, what they are, and how they’re going to do things. And Peyton is arguably the best player in football at the most important position.
“Our community and state love basketball, but they also pull for the Colts. They think Indiana is the home of basketball, and they’re biased in that regard.”
High school basketball similarly runs through the region’s veins. In 1990, a record crowd of 41,046 packed the Hoosier/RCA Dome for the single-class state championship game when Damon Bailey led Bedford North Lawrence to the title.
But in 1997-98, the Indiana High School Athletic Association, in a highly controversial decision, did away with the single-class event that began in 1911, replacing it with tiered tournaments based on enrollment. It hasn’t been well received.
“It killed basketball for many people,” says Bobby Plump, an Indiana basketball legend who in 1954 hit the shot that made Milan the smallest school to win the single-class state tournament. “We had a national treasure, and it was taken away.”
Plump’s last-second basket gave Milan and its 161 students a 32-30 win over Muncie Central (with an enrollment 10 times greater) and inspired the 1986 sports movie Hoosiers.
Bird never won the IHSAA tournament but insists the small schools loved taking their chances against the bigger ones.
“You thought that you could be the next Cinderella story,” says Bird. “Basketball was everything when I was growing up. The tournament was a big deal. Now on Friday nights, fans line up to get into football stadiums. That’s how it used to be for basketball.”
Fans still line up to watch auto racing, especially the Indianapolis 500, a fixture on the American sports calendar for more than century. The Brickyard 400 was added in 1994. Not surprisingly, the Indianapolis area is home to more racing teams than any state.
“Racing cars in Indiana is as big as racing horses in Kentucky,” says driver Tony Stewart, a Columbus native, “and the Indianapolis 500 and Kentucky Derby, two American classics, prove it.”
Stewart recently won his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, adding to his titles in 2002 and 2005 to make him one of nine three-time winners. In 1997, he was champion of the Indy Racing League (IRL). He hasn’t won the 500 but did capture the Allstate Brickyard 400 in 2005 and again in 2007.
He out-dueled Carl Edwards in 2011 as his five Chase victories gave him the tie-breaker when both drivers finished with 2,403 points. Even more amazing is that Stewart entered the Chase without a regular-season win.
“If it doesn’t go down as one of the greatest championship battles, I don’t know what will,” says Stewart, whose No. 14 car bears the same number as his childhood hero, A.J. Foyt, a four-time winner of the Indy 500.
Stewart grew up racing Midget, Sprint, and Silver Crown open-wheel cars and is the only driver to win championships in all of them. He moved to Indy cars and made his 500 debut in 1996, then began racing stock cars two years later.
“In high school, I was already racing all over the country, so I didn’t have time for football or basketball.”
Still, Stewart is a big fan of NFL and college football and isn’t surprised at the Colts’ growing popularity.
“Peyton has an infectious personality that wins the hearts of fans and teammates,” says Stewart. “He’s made it easy for the people of Indiana to accept him.”
And it has made Indiana embrace football at all levels. Manning’s PeyBack Foundation sponsors the annual PeyBack Classic with two or three high school games, usually at the start of the season.
“High school coaches have told me that football doesn’t play second fiddle to basketball like it did for decades,” says Manning.
There’s a good reason for that, according to the 75-year-old Plump. “We only had basketball, baseball, and track back then. Most high schools didn’t play football.”
According to the IHSAA, there were 770 high schools in 1954 and only 173 played football. Today, there are 410 high schools; 314 of them have football teams.
“A lot of Indiana kids follow the NFL more closely today,” says Hall of Famer Bob Griese, the only Indiana native to quarterback a Super Bowl winner (Dolphins, Super Bowls VII and VIII), “and they see the opportunities.
“When I grew up in Evansville, it was easier to shoot baskets. We had a basket in the alley, and you didn’t need anyone else. With football, you needed somebody else. You probably threw a wobbly ball, and they probably dropped it. They probably threw a wobbly ball back, and you probably dropped it.”
During his years as a college football analyst, Griese often checked flip cards for Indiana natives. “Even in the Big Ten,” he says, “I seldom found more than four or five on a team.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean the state’s colleges haven’t been ripe with talent. Indiana collegiate quarterbacks have combined to win nine Super Bowls, the most of any state. Joe Montana (4) and Joe Theismann (1) attended Notre Dame; Griese (2), Len Dawson (1), and Drew Brees (1) are all Purdue graduates.
The Fighting Irish, though, have always had more of a national focus than a state one.
“Notre Dame is as popular in New York, Boston, and Chicago as it is in Indianapolis,” says Bob Kuechenberg, who played for the school’s 1966 national championship team. “It’s as close to America’s college team as it gets.”
Kuechenberg, a starting guard for the Dolphins in Super Bowls VI, VII, and VIII, remembers schools in East Chicago, Gary, Hammond, Elkhart, Fort Wayne, Mishawaka, and South Bend playing good football.
“Indiana was known for basketball,” says the former Hobart High School star, “but the cities on the northern boundary were strong in football, too.”
With the NFL’s saturation, the 64-year-old Kuechenberg asks, “How could football not gain? Indiana now has the Colts and Manning. It makes sense it would produce more college and NFL players.”
Two Indiana-raised quarterbacks, Jay Cutler of Santa Claus (now with the Bears) and Rex Grossman of Bloomington (with the Redskins) currently play in the NFL.
Today’s IHSAA football playoffs allow all teams to participate. Since 2008, the finals have been played at Lucas Oil Stadium, and in that first year set a five-game attendance record of 56,050. Bobby Cox, commissioner of the IHSAA, attributes football’s attendance surge to several factors.
“The Colts are Indiana’s team,” he says, “and it doesn’t hurt to have a role model like Peyton. Since 1998, a generation of fans with an allegiance to football has emerged.
“Coaches share more information, allowing techniques, strategies, and planning to improve. An increase in media coverage has also helped.”
In 2009, the Colts signed a three-year sponsorship agreement with the IHSAA to keep the championship games—which were financially strained—at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“It’s the grassroots role that we should play,” Irsay says. “The people care about us, and I want them to know we care about them.”
Those high school finals were Indianapolis’ only championship football games for nearly two decades. But in the last five years, there have been two AFC Championship Games and the first Big Ten Championship (held in December). Now comes Super Bowl XLVI, the pinnacle of a vision born four decades ago.
The focus of the Indiana Sports Corporation, developed by a group of young executives who began meeting in the late 1970s, was to recruit sports organizations, teams, and events that would stimulate economic growth. Since 1979, there have been more than 400 national and international sporting events in the city with an economic impact exceeding $3 billion—a figure that doesn’t include events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Sports are part of our DNA,” says Susan Williams, president of the Indiana Sports Corporation. “When we get an event, many citizens feel left out if they aren’t involved.”
The Colts, Pacers, WNBA Fever, Indy 500, and baseball (with a Negro or minor league team for more than 100 years) give the city a solid base of professional teams and events. There also are 12 national sports organizations and nine Indiana associations headquartered in Indianapolis. The biggest and best known of those, the NCAA, arrived in 1999.
The city has hosted eight college basketball Final Fours—six for men and two for women —and a men’s Final Four will be played in Indy once every five years through 2039.
“We have partnerships with our teams and organizations,” Williams says. “(Former Colts vice chairman) Bill Polian was at the table when we presented our bid for the Big Ten Championship Game. That kind of unity matters.”
Frick, an original corporation member, also oversaw the construction of Lucas Oil Stadium.
“We made our first Super Bowl bid in 1989. But the [Hoosier/RCA Dome] didn’t meet the NFL’s seating requirements, and Minnesota got the game.”
Input was sought from the NFL for Super Bowls, from the NCAA for Final Fours, and from the Colts when the $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium was built.
“When we’ve hosted Final Fours,” says Frick, chairman of the local organizing committee through 2006, “visitors wanted to know, ‘How soon can we come back?’ We expect the same thing to happen with the Super Bowl.”
After losing out to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV, Indy was awarded this year’s game.
“We had confidence in our presentation,” says Allison Melangton, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Host Committee. “The right people were there to get the greatest one-day global impact and exposure event in our history.”
Melangton believes Indianapolis’ downtown grid and the city’s history in hosting big events make it an attractive destination.
“Everything is connected and convenient,” she says. “The airport is new (2008) and visitor friendly, and the city’s mid-America location benefits fans. Most important, our volunteers and professionals know what big events take.”
Irsay, who strongly supported the bid, offered some perspective on how the Super Bowl fits in the city’s big-event résumé.
“The Super Bowl is the event of events,” he says. “It isn’t so much what the Super Bowl can do for a community. It’s more what a community can do to make the Super Bowl a memorable experience.”
Manning believes Indianapolis has all the resources to be a great host city.
“This is bigger than the 500 and the Final Four,” he says, “but Indianapolis knows how to do it right. The downtown area is happening, and the close proximity of restaurants, hotels, and the stadium and convention center makes the city a natural.”
Manning then adds a final prediction that’s sure to have the locals smiling. “I don’t think this will be Indianapolis’ last Super Bowl.”