30 for 30: The Most Memorable Moments in Indy Colts History
This year marks three decades of Indianapolis Colts football. To celebrate, we drew up the 30 most memorable plays and players, moments and milestones, from Indy’s run as an NFL city.
We have grown tired, frankly, of listening to Baltimore whine about its departed football team. And we hereby serve notice: Indy isn’t hearing that noise any longer. We’re even.
Baltimore acquired its first NFL franchise—the Colts—on January 23, 1953. On March 28, 1984, owner Robert Irsay moved the club here. The Baltimore Colts played 31 seasons. On September 7, the Indianapolis Colts started their 31st season. This city has already hosted more games. Whose team? Indy’s, with an extra point.
Why is Baltimore even complaining? It took the Colts from Dallas and is currently home to a franchise yanked from yet another city—the Baltimore “Cleveland Browns” Ravens—which has brought home two Lombardi Trophies. Pining for the Colts is like hitting on your ex when both of you are happily remarried.
In 30 years, Indy has shared as many good times—and bad—with our Colts as Baltimore ever did. We’ve laughed. We’ve cried. Most of all, though, we’ve cheered.
When the trucks rolled into town in 1984, Indianapolis, literally overnight, became the proud new home of an NFL franchise. The city wasn’t the only winner: The Mayflower moving company’s then-chairman and CEO John B. Smith lived next door to Indy Mayor Bill Hudnut (pictured). Mayflower got not only the job but also prime placement in news stories across the country, and its role in local history still resonates. Ad man Ken Honeywell of Well Done Marketing breaks down the publicity boon’s X’s and O’s:
“It would be tough to spend enough money to get the kind of publicity Mayflower got. To attempt a campaign—I’m going to try to place these stories in national media—is going to cost you at least tens of thousands of dollars a month. And it’s going to be difficult, because interstate moving is a low-interest category. All those public-relations people, working all those hours to schmooze with all those editors and place all those stories, are never going to land you on the front page of the sports section.
“A lot of advertising is about creating top-of-mind awareness. If you’re going to call a mover, you’re probably going to call Mayflower, because it’s the name you know, and you know it because of the Colts.”
Like all good break-ups, the relationship between the Colts and Baltimore wasn’t officially over until the team gave back the city’s stuff. Baltimore sued the Colts, the Capital Improvement Board, Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut, and others in an attempt to stop the move and then to recover damages resulting from the relocation—a federal case that was settled out of court in December 1985 and, in part, mandated the return of Johnny Unitas memorabilia.
The Colts’ true coming-out party didn’t happen until four years after they arrived. In October 1988, John Elway and the Denver Broncos trotted into town for the city’s first-ever showcase on Monday Night Football. “For me, there was a personal piece with that game because of the Elway trade,” offensive lineman Chris Hinton says of the Halloween matchup: In 1983, Denver had sent Hinton packing to acquire Elway after the first-overall draft pick refused to sign with Indy.
The Colts galloped out of the gate and quickly reduced the Broncos to horsemeat. Running back Eric Dickerson racked up 159 yards and four touchdowns in the first 19 minutes. Dickerson took himself out of the game, a 55-23 win, despite Hinton’s best efforts to dissuade him from reining it in. “I wanted him to get 400 yards.”
Hinton himself got caught up in the be-costumed Hoosier Dome frenzy. “They had masks of the Monday Night crew, and during the game, I put on a Dan Dierdorf mask,” he says. “It actually became a football card of mine.”
The “Unlucky” One
After losing quarterback Chris Chandler to injury in the 1989 season, Colts management didn’t have to look any farther than their own backyard to find a franchise thrower—or so they thought. Ahead of the ’90 draft, they invited Jeff George, a Warren Central product, for a private workout. As then–offensive coordinator Larry Kennan remembers, George, returning from spring break, got off the plane and came straight to the Colts facility in his beachwear. But once he got dressed and took the field, he was all business, zipping the ball with perfect accuracy. The Colts brass were blown away. Kennan, who conducted the workout, says that to this day, “George is the best all-around passer I’ve ever seen.”
Despite flashes, George never really got it going in Indy and ended up playing for seven different teams in 14 seasons. Kennan chalks up George’s disappointing career to unfortunate circumstances. “He was just unlucky,” Kennan says—an apropos assessment, considering how well the Colts’ most recent top-pick QB has fared.
Former Colts receiver Aaron Bailey still remembers it all—every painful detail—in slow motion. The ball, a silhouette against Pittsburgh’s January sky. The tangle of elbows. The hands grabbing at his wrists. The jump. The surprise kiss of leather on his fingertips. The turf pounding his helmet. The referee waving his arms. The agony.
The 1995–’96 season had come down to this one play at Three Rivers Stadium. After squeaking into the playoffs and pulling off two upsets, Jim “Captain Comeback” Harbaugh had the offense at the Steelers’ 29-yard line, down four, with five seconds on the clock. One shot at the AFC title and a trip to the Super Bowl. In the huddle, Harbaugh called the “Hail Mary”: High-jumping 6-foot-1 receiver Brian Stablein would leap for the pass and tip it into Bailey’s waiting arms. But when Harbaugh lofted the pass toward the end zone, it was the 5-foot-10 Bailey who found himself in a forest of black and gold, fighting for the ball.
“At the end of the play, they said the ball hit the ground,” Bailey says. “You always want to make the ref make a decision. On that play, that’s what it was.”
A few years ago, Harbaugh confessed to Pro Football Talk that the play still haunted him. Bailey, now an educator and a high-school coach in Michigan, knows how he feels. “It just makes you grind your teeth,” says Bailey (pictured). “But you’ve got to find a place and put it up in that place, box it up and kind of leave it there.”
Jim vs. Jim
No Colts quarterback was more emotional than Jim Harbaugh. “He wears his heart on his sleeve,” says former Indianapolis guard Joe Staysniak. Harbaugh’s heated ways got the better of him in 1997 duringan altercation with former Bills QB Jim Kelly. Several weeks earlier, Kelly, the host of a TV show in Buffalo, had called Harbaugh a “baby” who “overdramatized” injuries. When they met later that season at an NBC production meeting in San Diego, the Jims squared off. Harbaugh showed he could throw more than passes, but he fractured a bone in his hand during the punch-out and was sidelined for a month without pay. There was a silver lining: The Colts wobbled to a 3-13 finish, snagging first position in the upcoming draft.
“With the first pick of the draft, the Indianapolis Colts select: quarterback, University of Tennessee, Peyton Manning.” —Paul Tagliabue, NFL commissioner, April 18, 1998
Ryan Leaf of Washington State, whom some “experts” considered the better prospect, went second. As it turned out, Manning moved the chains. Leaf wore them.
Sports reporter Tim Bragg thought it was a good question but had no idea head coach Jim Mora’s answer—“Playoffs?!? Don’t talk about … Playoffs? You kidding me?”—would be so celebrated 13 years later. Mora’s 2001 press-conference rant, after a 40-21 home loss to San Francisco, became the focus of a Coors Light commercial, achieved YouTube immortality, and landed Bragg on an ESPN segment on the quote’s 10-year anniversary. Thing is, Bragg, then with WRTV-6, hadn’t even finished the question before Mora pounced: “I asked, ‘You guys are 4-and-6, and you’re probably going to have to win out to make the playoffs. Do you think you guys can do that?’ He just kind of cut me off at ‘playoffs,’ and you’ve heard the rest.”
Bragg left journalism in 2004 and now teaches physical education and health at Raymond Park Middle School in Warren Township, where he coaches football. He has never pulled a Mora, though. “We don’t get any media coverage,” he says, “but I have had run-ins with a few parents.”
Report: Colts to L.A.?
In September 2002, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported the Colts were packing up the moving vans again. Indy fans were understandably apoplectic at the “news” the Colts might skip town. But the report had little—if any—grounding in reality. “L.A. was never on the radar at all,” says Jim Irsay. “I think that whenever a team is working out their long-term lease and new stadium in a town, that question comes up.”
If the Colts did kick around a move to Los Angeles, James K. Hahn, L.A.’s mayor at the time, was as much in the dark as everyone else. “No one ever contacted me about it,” he says. “I would think that if they were serious about coming to L.A., they would have contacted the mayor.”
“Our Idiot Kicker”
We might’ve recalled Mike Vanderjagt as the most accurate NFL field-goal kicker of all time, but we won’t. In 2003, Vanderjagt appeared on a Canadian TV show and called out Peyton Manning for a lack of fire. A few days later, at the Pro Bowl, the QB took exception. “Here we are,” Manning told ABC sideline reporter Lynn Swan, “I’m out at my third Pro Bowl, and we’re talking about our idiot kicker, who got liquored up and ran his mouth off.”
In 2006, Vanderjagt shanked a potentially game-saving kick against the Steelers in the playoffs, then added insult to injury by nailing one from close to the same distance on The Late Show with David Letterman. The Colts bounced him before the next season. According to reports, he went on to grab a middle-schooler by the throat after the kid taunted, “Wide left, wide left.”
Vanderjagt’s latest indignity: Jeff Dye, a comedian and host of MTV’s Money from Strangers, worked a Vanderjagt bit into a standup act, recounting his drunken theft of the retired kicker’s framed Pro Bowl jersey, which hung in Vandy’s, his Florida bar. Dye says he received a pitiful voice message from Vanderjagt. “Hey, come on, man,” he reportedly pleaded. “Give me my jersey back.”
We’d like to laugh. But the last thing Vandy needs is another kick to the groin.
Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison remain the most successful quarterback-to-receiver bromance in NFL history. In 2005, the combo surpassed Steve Young and Jerry Rice’s career touchdown mark, and the pair still holds records in career completions (953), TDs (112), and yards (12,756). Reggie Wayne, another favorite Manning target, had a front-row seat to the action and saw what made the icons click. “They understood each other,” Wayne says. Read about the Peyton-to-Marvin connection in Manning’s own words.
Bob Lamey Nearly Fumbles the Freakin’ Call
Radio producer Bill Remeika was manning the booth for the WFBQ broadcast of the AFC Championship in 2007, when Lamey’s play-by-play made him do a double take. It was the kind of moment when, Remeika says, “Your mind tells you one thing, but your ears hear something else.”
Just under two minutes into the fourth quarter, with the Colts trailing by a touchdown, Peyton Manning handed off to running back Dominic Rhodes. Rhodes tucked it, darted toward the goal line, and then lost control of the ball.
That’s when Lamey gave listeners “the sound bite of the playoffs,” in Remeika’s words—and one for posterity.
Lamey: He fumbled the football. Fumbled the freakin’ football.
With time ticking away on the seven-second tape delay, Remeika looked up at the other two men in the booth and asked, “What did he just say?”
They rewound the audio for another listen. By then, center Jeff Saturday had recovered the football for a touchdown, sending Lamey into a frenzy. But Remeika still had to make sure the announcer, “a consummate professional” who for one moment “slipped into fan mode,” hadn’t dropped an F-bomb.
Lamey hadn’t fumbled.
The Superest Sunday Ever
First Black Head Coaches in the Super Bowl
Tony Dungy didn’t just win Super Bowl XLI in 2007—he and Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith scored one for racial equality. The longtime friends made history by becoming the first black head coaches to lead their teams to the big game. Floyd Keith, former executive director of the Black Coaches Association, credits the Rooney Rule, an NFL stipulation that teams interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching and general-manager vacancies. Dungy, who had been head coach in Tampa before coming to Indy, got the Colts job before the rule went into effect, but a few teams were implementing the procedure on a voluntary basis. Smith was hired a year after the practice became mandatory. “Without the Rooney Rule, we wouldn’t have seen the progress we did at that Super Bowl,” says Keith, who lives in Indianapolis and remains friendly with Dungy. “You couldn’t have tried to script it any better. It wasn’t just the fact that Dungy’s a wonderful coach. He’s a wonderful guy.”
Hester Houses the Opening Kickoff
In just his rookie season, Bears speed demon Devin Hester had already established himself as the most dangerous kick-returner in the league. But the surging Colts didn’t seem too worried. “Before the game, we’re like, ‘Kick it to him—we’re not scared,’” says Robert Mathis, who was playing on the coverage unit. Hester subsequently became the first player in Super Bowl history to return the opening kickoff for a touchdown. “On the next kick,” Mathis says, “I was like, ‘Hey, do NOT kick it to him. Kick it to him, and I’m going to fight you.’” See the video of Hester’s run-back.
What About Bob?
In 2007, Bob Sanders walked away with NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. Then the built-like-a-hand-grenade safety just seemed to walk away. Nicknamed “The Eraser” by coach Tony Dungy, the 5-foot-8, 206-pound Sanders keyed the Colts’ Super Bowl run by helping to transform the offensively dominant team into a defensive menace: That season, the unit was among the three best in the league, allowing just 262 points. Sanders capped the season by forcing a fumble and making a tide-turning, physics-defying interception in the Super Bowl. Starting the following season, however, injuries sidelined his once-promising career. “Big Hit Bob” saw action in only six games in 2008, two in 2009, and just one a year after that, before the Colts finally cut him. In 2011, Sanders suited up in two games for the San Diego Chargers, and though he hasn’t officially retired, The Eraser hasn’t left a trace.
The quarterback delivered a number of strong-armed performances for the Colts, but none left a mark like the one he made in 2007 as a guest host on Saturday Night Live. Last year at a banquet, Manning revealed that the football he used to clobber a trio of child actors for the now-famous United Way skit was a Nerf. To sell the bit, the director and one of the parents implored him to hit the kids in the face, but, said Manning, “I had to have a little talk with myself before I could do it.”
Manning might’ve been acting when he told one of the children, “Get your head out of your ass. You SUCK.” Don’t let him fool you, though: “Everybody thinks the United Way skit was so funny,” says resident Colts humorist Pat McAfee, “but that’s how he talked to [wide receiver] Austin Collie on a daily basis.”
RCA Dome (1984–2008) vs. Lucas Oil Stadium (2008–?)
“Lucas Oil Stadium is definitely an improvement,” says Brad Beaubien, former director of Ball State’s College of Architecture and Planning Indianapolis Center. “It’s a much bigger facility. It’s a much more modern, open facility. It has windows, and the Dome didn’t really have any of that.
“The gable peak reflects the Hoosier fieldhouse look, which is what they were going for. It also extends our skyline south of the railroad tracks. Before that building, there was really nothing there over four stories or so. If you’re looking at it from the south, it’s front and center, so it adds to the skyline.
“Lucas Oil also has historic flair. It’s brick, with the industrial sash-window feel to it. It’s very different from the new Dallas stadium, which is more contemporary. So it’s relatively traditional as well—very Hoosier. I think it fits in our traditional kind of society.”
How many times has New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had Indy’s number? More than we care to count. But in a midseason showdown on November 15, 2009, it looked as though the Colts were inside the head of the “Evil Genius” for once. The Pats were up six with 2:08 remaining, and facing fourth-and-2 from their own 28-yard line. “We thought they were going to punt,” says safety Melvin Bullitt. Most coaches would have.
Instead, Belichick, loathe to give the ball back to the Colts’ potent, Manning-led offense, made the unbelievably risky call to go for it. Bullitt stuffed running back Kevin Faulk just short of the first-down marker. “We knew, just from film study, that in that situation they most likely would go to Wes Welker or Kevin Faulk, so I just took my chances and rolled with it,” says Bullitt. “You understand why no one wants to give the ball to Peyton Manning, right?” Indeed, we do: When Indianapolis took possession, he marched down the field for a game-wining score.
The fourth-and-2 stop was bittersweet for Bullitt, now retired and running a gym in Garland, Texas. “That was the beginning of the end of my career, because that’s when all my shoulder issues started,” he says. “If you watch that play closely, I couldn’t get up after that because my shoulder had dislocated. That’s something not many people knew. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
You wanted it. The Colts wanted it. Heck, even owner Jim Irsay wanted to see his 2009 roster muscle in on the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ claim as the only NFL team to finish a season without a loss. Instead, after securing home-field advantage in the playoffs, the Colts rested their star players in the last two regular-season games—which they lost. “I could have stopped it,” says Irsay. “Probably, deep in my heart, I was with the fans, saying, ‘Let’s go for it.’ But I didn’t stop it because I only intervene when I really think a decision is wayward.”
The Saints’ Super Balls
Odds are, you won’t like this: Had Indianapolis recovered New Orleans’s surprise onside kick to open the second half of Super Bowl XLIV, the Colts would’ve had a 68 percent chance of winning a second NFL title. That’s according to Brian Burke, founder of Advanced Football Analytics, a website where stats geeks go for deep coverage.
Trailing 10-6, Saints coach Sean Payton caught the Colts sleeping after halftime with the unconventional move, but not Burke. Earlier that season, he had published two research studies on surprise onside kicks. “[That kick] was a really big deal in my world,” says Burke. “No one could recall anything like this ever happening in a Super Bowl.” In fact, less than 1 percent of all kickoffs to start the second half of NFL games since 1999 have been onsides.
McAfee’s Morning Swim
In an ocean of NFL player transgressions, it was a drop in the bucket—or canal, if you prefer. In the predawn hours of October 20, 2010, police found a buzzed Pat McAfee, dripping wet from a dip in the glorified ditch that runs through Broad Ripple. The stunt made national news—and a punch line of the free-spirited punter. But after a run of “I Swam with Pat McAfee” T-shirts, TV commercials, a popular Web series, 200,000 Twitter followers, a wildly successful #ChuckStrong charity campaign, and a comedy-club standup routine, McAfee has had the last laugh.
Turns out McAfee is a pretty good guy, which is probably why one of the officers at the scene in Broad Ripple that morning didn’t want to talk about it. Asked to recount the details, he replied, through an IMPD spokesperson, that he did “not feel comfortable speaking with members of the media about the incident,” out of “concern for the well-being of Mr. McAfee,” who “may have been experiencing a terrible low in his life at that time.”
His thoughtful, sympathetic response almost chastened us into leaving out the subject altogether.
What stunned Indianapolis in 2011 wasn’t so much that Peyton and Ashley Manning were brand-new parents. It was that, in a city all but bereft of celebrities, the closest thing we had to a Beckham-and-Posh couple managed to hide nine months of pregnancy without so much as a rumor.
On at least one night in 2010, during a Christamore House charity gala, a famous friend might have helped vouchsafe Ashley’s secret, if indirectly. Although Manning would’ve been several months pregnant at the time—and presumably starting to show—all eyes were on her companion: model and Mellencamp ex Elaine Irwin. “When you looked at the two of them across the room, you just naturally fixated on Elaine, because she’s so freaking striking,” one attendee told IM. “Ashley is a pretty girl, but sitting next to Elaine would not be where I would want to sit. Elaine was just jaw-dropping.”
It would be like Lord Nelson hugging Napoleon. Grant hugging Lee. Wile E. Coyote hugging the Road Runner.
On July 25, 2011, Colts center Jeff Saturday, an NFL Players Association rep, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who had recently lost his wife, Myra, to ovarian cancer, announced the end of a lockout—and months of contentious meetings over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement—with a big, warm embrace.
“Understand, I didn’t know Jeff Saturday at all,” says Kraft. “When I first met him, I was thinking, ‘Jeez, this guy, we had like a decade with the Patriots and the Colts, and he’s an All-Pro center for our arch enemy. That was a very emotional moment for me. It was completely unexpected. And it’s unbelievable how that moment resonated. Still, three years later, I have people mentioning that. It really hit a chord in America.”
“My vision that I’m living is to see two more daughters get married, dance at their weddings, and then hoist that Lombardi several times.” —Chuck Pagano, November 4, 2012
The Colts had beaten the Miami Dolphins 23-20 for a third-straight win. But what Indianapolis fans (and fans of life, for that matter) cherish about that 2012 game came afterward in the team’s locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium: the surprise appearance of head coach Chuck Pagano, who had missed much of the season to receive treatment for leukemia.
Pagano’s tear-jerking postgame speech—his first address to the team since taking a leave of absence a month earlier—is now a YouTube classic. Edited from most of the bite-size video clips, however, are the moments leading up to it. “Whenever he came back into the locker room,” says punter Pat McAfee, “we gave him—I think it was a three-minute clap and ovation.”
The visit capped a turbulent year, and the speech became a rallying cry. “When you’re a professional athlete, you shouldn’t need to be motivated, because it’s your job,” McAfee continues. “But something like that gives you a little kickstart.”
The day after the speech, doctors announced that Pagano’s leukemia was in remission. It hasn’t returned.
Denver Has No Luck
Fans were emotional about No. 18’s first visit to Indy as a Denver Bronco on October 20, 2013. But Reggie Wayne, for one, was unmoved by Manning’s new colors. “That’s part of it,” he says. “For the first week or so, you sit down and think things are going to be weird. But once you start catching passes from Andrew, all that’s forgotten.” In the 39-33 Colts win, Luck threw for three touchdowns and ran one in for another—an auspicious start to the next 30 years.
Additional reporting by Mike Botkin, Adam Doster, Megan Fernandez, Alexis Hobbs, Rob Hunt, Kevin Kryah, Jon R. LaFollette, James Layne, Heather Lloyd, Daniel McFadin, Joseph Ruley, Adam Wren, and Lauren Yoder