Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis was many things — the return of a beloved prodigal son, a battle of Colts’ No. 1-draft-pick quarterbacks and last, but not least, the visit from one of the AFC’s last reminaing undefeated teams — but most of all, it could have been a battle for the Colts’ fans soul.
Since March 2012, when Manning and the Colts parted ways and he elected to continue his career in Denver, Colts fans understandably felt conflicted. On one shoulder was Manning, the angel who had been kicked out of his Indianapolis heaven, and then there was Andrew Luck, the new angel, on the other shoulder.
The question going into Sunday’s Circus Maximus at Lucas Oil Stadium was how far would Colts fans go to pay their respects? It was a no-brainer that he’d get a warm pregame welcome. But what reception would Colts fans give him during the game? Would some go so far to cheer Manning at the expense of their team?
The Manning conundrum was a litmus test of the Colts fanbase. How far had Colts fans come in their own maturation during their 29-year association with the NFL?
Indianapolis, of course, came late to NFL football. The Colts moved from Baltimore in 1984, more than half a century after old-line NFL franchises like the Bears, Packers and others had been established and had the time to create that all-important passing of the loyalty torch from one generation to the next.
The Colts had some high points in the years prior to Manning’s arrival, but until he came the Colts hadn’t established that bond with its city and its fans that other franchises had. There was no Colts Nation in the 1980s and 1990s. Statewide interest in the team waxed and waned as the wins came and went.
Passage of time and the consistent success needed to strengthen those bonds hadn’t been there until Manning changed all of it.
The success of the franchise, the Colts’ Super Bowl championship, and the very building I sit in as I file this column can be attributed to Manning. It was hard to know how far Colts fans might go when their old flame came home.
To be sure, there were fans who wanted to pay respect to Peyton in the most demonstrative way they could. Orange Manning Broncos jerseys were dotted throughout Lucas Oil Stadium. When he emerged from the tunnel in pregame warmups, fans were lined at least three-deep to cheer him on.
The much-ballyhooed pregame Manning tribute was hit out of the park by the Colts, their fans and Manning himself. Manning was feted with a tasteful video love letter from the Colts that was appropriate without being overwrought.
It was a much-needed touch of class from the Colts, especially after owner Jim Irsay stepped in it earlier this week with unfortunate comments about the Manning era.
Manning and the fans’ response to the tribute was truly special. Acknowledging the standing ovation he richly deserved, an emotional Manning waved to the crowd in a two-minute bit of bliss that was completely genuine. It was pure love.
But the best tribute from the Colts fans was yet to come. Once the game started, Colts fans made Manning’s life a living, raucous hell.
The thought that there might be Colts fans rooting for Manning was quickly laid to rest in a deafening din. Colts fans were leather-lunged when it came to creating auditory havoc for Manning and the Denver offense.
It was exceedingly odd to see Manning have to run down his offensive line to make sure everyone got the play call .… in Indianapolis. There was a time when Manning would wave him arms in Indianapolis and 55,000 Colts fans in the RCA Dome would muzzle themselves in unison.
Hermetically sealed in the press box, I stepped out on the Lucas Oil Stadium video platform during one third-quarter third-down situation to hear just how loud it was. It was ear-splitting.
I doubt Manning would see it this way, but in a roundabout way, the sonic assault administered to him by Colts fans is the ultimate tribute. Manning and Colts fans have come so far together.
Manning helped mold Colts fans, created thousands more, and they grew up with him. As he succeeded and the Colts succeeded, that bond between team, city and state was cemented.
Time and success has made it so that generational loyalty barrier was breached. Now there are Colts fans who will pass their fandom on to their kids, who will never know a time when Colts loyalty was a passing fancy.
Colts fans proved it by enthusiastically supporting their team on Sunday even with their favorite son in the house.
Manning didn’t just make the Colts a Super Bowl success story. He didn’t just make this franchise one of the NFL’s best.
If you’re a Colts fan, he helped make you. And you loudly repaid him by demonstrating that your Colts loyalty would not be shaken by one happy return.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 208-2643 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.