I saw the best Colts team of my generation destroyed by madness. Or if not madness, then hubris. Hubris, and piss-poor judgment.
It was December 2009, and my first time visiting the sparkling-new Lucas Oil Stadium. The Peyton Manning-led Colts were playing the Mark Sanchez-led New York Jets. The Colts, who had clinched the first seed on the AFC playoffs, were 14-0—just five games from becoming the first NFL team to ever finish 19-0.
Leading the Jets 15-10 in the third quarter, Colts coach Jim Caldwell benched Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and numerous other key starters. The Colts ended up losing the game 29-15, and went on to lose the Super Bowl to the New Orleans Saints a few weeks later in a game that felt eerily like karmic punishment.
I continued to follow the Colts after that season in a mechanical way, but something had been broken. Now, three and a half years later, I’ll tune in to this Sunday’s season opener against the Oakland Raiders with the idle curiosity of a dog sniffing at an empty beer can on the side of the road. That is to say, I’ll be mildly intrigued, but I could take or leave it.
Try as I might, I can no longer summon strong feelings for the Indianapolis Colts. On that December afternoon, as the team’s starters seethed on the sidelines; as Jim Caldwell pretended not to hear the boos hissing from every section of the stadium; as team president Bill Polian looked on approvingly from his perch in the coach’s booth, my brain rewired itself to no longer care about my favorite football team.
While “love” is too strong a word to describe how I’ve ever felt about any professional sport, romance is a fitting metaphor for what happens between a fan and his favorite team. In a healthy romantic relationship, each party has a responsibility to acknowledge and try to meet the emotional needs of the other. When one party abdicates this responsibility, it leads to the relationship’s dysfunction or death.
The same is true of team-fan relationships. If a team ignores the needs of its fans, the relationship sours. When they Colts organization rejected the opportunity to pursue a perfect season, it told its fans, “We don’t care about your needs.” Or maybe they were saying, “We know what you need better than you do.” It doesn’t really matter; both net the same result.
Oddly, in recent years, Colts’ owner Jim Irsay has revealed himself to be a man who strongly craves fan approval. But by 2009 he had allowed Bill Polian—a ruthlessly pragmatic tyrant who seemed to take pleasure in eviscerating his critics, media, and fans alike—to assume carte blanche control of his team. Polian, who seemed like he should be working for a Washington think tank rather than a football team, approached his job with cold academic detachment. While that worked wonderfully when it came to choosing players, it was a fatal flaw when it came to public relations.
When Irsay finally fired Polian in 2012, I was cautiously optimistic. But I couldn’t ignore Irsay’s Twitter feed, where, unrestrained by the conventions of public speaking, his odd ravings confirmed the suspicion that he’s a spoiled and emotionally-stunted millionaire’s son who had the good fortune to inherit a football team. Irsay seems to have reigned in his Twitter antics lately, likely because Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz called him out recently for “erratic” and “irresponsible” tweeting, but it’s a bit late now.
I suppose it would be unfair not to acknowledge the other factors that have played a role in my declining interest in the Indianapolis Colts. I’m getting older, I just had my second child, and I have more pressing things to worry about than whether or not T.Y. Hilton can hold down the number-two receiving spot. But on the other hand, the Colts had me. They had me for more than 20 years. And then, just like that fateful game on December 27, 2009, they lost me.