Before Peyton Manning, there were moving vans.
Infamously, the Colts were spirited out of loyal Baltimore in 1984 by a fleet of trucks dispatched by the mayor of Indianapolis to ensure the crazy Hungarian, Bob Irsay, didn’t change his mind and head toward Phoenix, or worse, that a judge somewhere would issue an order and deprive Indiana’s capital of a tenant for its dome.
It was almost 30 years ago. Today the Colts make a playoff appearance unexpected by many, with Manning now gone, a rookie quarterback (Andrew Luck) at the helm, and the team’s coach ill for much of the season. Ironically, the opponent is the Baltimore Ravens, a franchise formerly known as the Cleveland Browns before the late, much loathed Art Modell moved his team from Ohio to Maryland to replace the one “stolen” by the Hoosiers.
I’m guessing that younger Indianapolis fans in Southern Indiana may not remember the sheer, unrelenting, dysfunctional weirdness transpiring from the very moment Irsay creatively acquired the Colts in the 1970’s. Even before leaving Baltimore in the dead of night, the team was on a long-term downward spiral, setting a record for defensive futility unmatched until “bested” by the New Orleans Saints during the recently concluded NFL season.
Every Stat Tells a Story: The 1981 Colts, by Mike Tanier (Football Outsiders)
"This may sound stupid, because we are giving up 35 points per game, but we're playing better defense," McCormick said, somehow straight-faced. "We're 1-13, but we've still got pride."
The owner’s drunken ineptitude continued unabated during the early years in Indianapolis, culminating in an infamous Sports Illustrated profile of Irsay in 1986.
Now You See Him, Now You Don't, by E.M. Swift (Sports Illustrated; December 15, 1986)
Getting a fix on Indianapolis Colts owner Bob Irsay's background isn't easy, but this is certain—he has turned one of the NFL's best franchises into a laughingstock.
By the mid-1990’s, the elder Irsay was aging and burned out, soon to die, and control of the team passed to his son, Jim Irsay, whose reputation generally has been sound, but even so, by 2002 there was much speculation that the siren call of a Los Angeles metroplex, abandoned by Al Davis’s Raiders, might lead to a second Colts move westward.
Irsay marches to different beat: Owner builds his own life yet is facing same decision as dad, by Scott MacGregor (The Indianapolis Star; November 3, 2002)
Though Jim Irsay hasn't yet taken the steps his father did in the early 1980s -- shopping the Colts to the highest-bidding city -- the similarities then and now are striking: the owner complaining of an antiquated stadium, a market that may lack support for the team, a city that must come up with more financial help.
The emergency was staved off by Lucas Oil Stadium (and more governmental support than we’ll likely ever fathom). But this is professional sports, and it’s all about the money. It may not be the verdict you like, but it has the virtue of being hypocrisy-free.
Enjoy today’s game. I haven’t witnessed a down all season, but it may finally be time to start watching.