In the summer of 1998, I was six years old.
The Colts had just come off of a 3-13 season, and I was just beginning to understand the game that my dad watched every Sunday. I was an inquisitive child, the type that wouldn’t stop asking Dad questions as he tried to fold laundry and watch the game at the same time (that was always the deal in our house, football meant the boys had to help with laundry).
The first thing I can ever remember my dad saying to me about football was how excited he was for the Colts’ new quarterback, some hotshot guy named Peyton Manning. I didn’t know much about the game, but I knew the Colts were my favorite team, and I knew that the guy with the funny name throwing the football was supposed to be good.
It was October 4, 1998.
The Colts and their rookie quarterback finally got their first win in Week 5, against the Chargers and the #2 overall draft pick Ryan Leaf.
It wasn’t a particularly good game, with Manning and Leaf both playing pretty poorly, and the game really being decided by turnovers. But, nevertheless, it was Manning’s first win, and the first one of my young fanhood.
I grew up in Yuma, Arizona. The only reason I was a Colts fan was because my dad had done a project on Johnny Unitas as a kid, and picked the Colts to root for, even though they were the worst team in the league.
I had no affiliation with Indiana, no family in Baltimore. I probably couldn’t even tell you where Indianapolis was on a map.
But the Colts were my team.
It was November 15, 1998.
After falling down 23-10 to the Jets at halftime, the Colts had one more chance to win the game, down 17-23, courtesy of a Manning touchdown pass in the third quarter. Now they received the ball on their own 20 yard line, with 3:02 left in the game. Manning completed his first two passes to Marvin Harrison, but after two penalties and three incomplete passes, it was 3rd and 20. Manning connected with Harrison for 10, but then got hit with a delay-of-game penalty.
It was 4th and 15.
Manning made the first clutch throw of his career, hitting Marshall Faulk for 18 yards and the first down. Manning learned from that delay-of-game penalty, and managed the clock, and field, flawlessly for the rest of the drive, ending with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Pollard with 24 seconds left on the clock.
This was first game winning drive of many.
After Manning’s rookie year I was a full-fledged Colts fan. I’ve always been competitive, and getting a team to latch on to was another thing for me to argue with my friends about.
For my 7th birthday I got a Peyton Manning rookie card, my first birthday present I can actually remember. It was exactly what I wanted, and I had drooled over it at the little hobby shop by the grocery store for weeks. I couldn’t have been happier.
It was January 15, 2000
The Colts had just lost to the Tennessee Titans in an ugly divisional round playoff game. Manning didn’t play a very good game, going 19/42 for 227 yards. Down 10 with just 3:11 left on the clock, Manning had led a 61-yard TD drive in only a minute and 21 seconds, but the Colts had no time outs left after the drive. After a failed onside kick, the Titans knelt on three straight plays.
I was only 7, turning 8, and I cried. The first of many playoff cries.
I used to idolize Marvin Harrison. I always said that he was my favorite player, but it wasn’t until after he left the Colts that I realized that my adoration of Manning far outweighed my love for Harrison.
Don’t get me wrong, Harrison is easily my second-favorite player. I spent countless hours on the front lawn, running pass patterns as my dad tossed me the ball. That was my first education of the game, as I learned post routes, flags, ins, outs, slants, button-hooks, and my favorite: the out ‘n up (or pump and go). I pictured myself as Marvin, running those routes until I was ragged.
But it wasn’t the same as Peyton. I wasn’t personally attached to Marvin in quite the same way.
It was November 24, 2002.
The game was airing on ESPN’s Sunday Night Football, and the Colts were down three with 1:40 to go in the game. It was snowy, windy, and downright nasty in Mile High Stadium. Manning hadn’t playing particularly well, but they had a chance to win now, starting at their own 20.
Manning hit Wayne and Harrison each to gain 11 yards, then took it himself for three, and then nine yards to get to the Colts’ 43. After catching the defense offside, Manning threw three straight in-completions, leaving the Colts with a 4th and 5. He calmly hit Qadry Ismail for a 16 yard gain, setting up the Colts for what would be a 54 yard, game-tying field goal.
Mike Vanderjagt hit the kick with just seconds left, sending the game into overtime, where the Colts received the kick. Manning relied on James Mungro for 21 yards on that drive, but hit crucial passes, notably his 3rd down pass to Marvin Harrison (his 11th catch of the night). On 4th and 5 at the Denver 33, Vanderjagt again hit a 51 yarder in the snow, this time for the win. Our family was ecstatic, and probably scared the friends we were with our celebration.
As a kid growing up in Arizona, we didn’t get to watch many Colts games. We were on the west coast, and only received three channels: FOX, CBS, and NBC. When the Colts were on (which was rarely), they were usually on during the early slot, and by the time we got back from church, it was half over.
When the Colts were on Monday Night Football or ESPN for Sunday nights, we would have to find a way to watch it at a friend’s house with cable. MNF was one that we always got to see. Every time the Colts played on ABC, my dad took me to Mr. Nelson’s house to watch the game. Even if it wasn’t his team playing (the Vikings), Mr. Nelson always let us stay until the end.
It was a good thing too, or we may have missed something.
It was October 6, 2003.
The Colts were down 35-14 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with 3:43 left in the 4th quarter. I’d convinced my dad to stay at the Nelson’s for just one more drive, but Dad said we would leave if they didn’t score on this drive. Fortunately, Brad Pyatt gave the Colts a short field with a 90-yard kick return. On third down, Manning’s throw to Troy Walters was just short of the sticks, but James Mungro scored on 4th and 1 from the three yard line.
Idrees Bashir made a leaping grab to get the onside kick, and the Colts had new life. Manning hit a wide-open Walter on first down for 15 yards, and then hit Harrison for another first down. After a false start by Tarik Glenn and a couple short passes, the Colts faced a 4th and 6 from the 28. Again, Dad reminded me that we’d be leaving if they didn’t score on this drive. Buying time, Manning found Harrison for a 28-yard touchdown, prolonging my stay at the Nelson’s.
Although they didn’t get the onside kick, the Colts’ defense held, and the offense got the ball with 1:41 left, on their own 15. The Bucs sniffed out the screen on first down, but Manning found Walters again for 12 yards on 2nd and 10, despite facing heavy pressure (which resulted in a roughing the passer penalty). On the next play, Manning threw a beautiful ball to a streaking Marvin Harrison for 52 yards. Two runs later, Ricky Williams scored for the game-tying touchdown, and Al Michaels and John Madden were stunned.
In overtime, the Colts defense again stood strong, giving Manning the ball back at their own 13. Manning marched down the field, converting three crucial third downs with passes to Harrison, Wayne, and Walters. Although, Vanderjagt missed the potential game-winner, a controversial call gave him another chance. Vandy tried his best to choke for the Colts, but it was their time, and the ball bounced off the uprights to win the game.
It was a great night to be a Colts fan.
In the summer of 2004, my family uprooted and moved from Yuma, Arizona to Middleville, MI. It was a hard move for me, but one of the positives was the possibility of seeing more Colts games, and maybe, just maybe, getting to see one live.
That possibility would become reality in 2004, as we got to see an unprecedented number of games on TV, and were even able to attend the wild card game against the Broncos. It was a fantastic experience, being able to see a game in the RCA Dome, and getting to see the city for the first time as well. But that game wasn’t the one that stuck out that season.
It was December 26th, 2004.
The Colts were battling for the #3 seed in the AFC, and Manning was searching for the touchdown passes that would finally pass Dan Marino’s record. Getting the ball at their own 20, Manning orchestrated a beautiful drive, although it almost stalled on 4th and 4 at their own 26. Although Tony Dungy tried to send in the punt team, Manning waved them off, and promptly threw a perfect pass to a tightly covered Reggie Wayne for 19 yards.
The drive was capped off by a 21-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley down the middle, and it was one of the prettiest throws I’ve seen, Manning throwing a bullet to the perfect place before Stokley even made his break. A fitting throw to break Marino’s record.
In overtime, Manning drove the Colts 58 yards on two passes to Stokley and Wayne, setting up Vanderjagt with a 30 yard field goal. The win was a classic Manning comeback, and one that my family and I got to watch in our new home, the first game that we would watch from the house I would spend the rest of my teen years in.
Throughout those first two years in Michigan, football was the easiest way for me to connect with other kids. I could always turn the conversation back to sports, and being in Lions country, I always found pride in the fact that my team was the perpetual winner, the 2004 Thanksgiving game was especially fun for me.
But, the fact that everyone knew that I was a Colts fan always came back to bite me. When the Colts season ended in a playoff loss, I knew I was going to face a constant barrage of ribbing for a few days back at school. Fortunately, my freshman year of high school didn’t include such a day.
It was January 21, 2007.
The Colts were down three with 2:17 left, after a miraculous comeback in the second half. After throwing a pick-six in the second quarter, the Colts found themselves down 21-3. But Adam Vinatieri hit a field goal with 11 seconds left in the half, and the Colts came storming out in the second half, scoring three touchdowns on their first three drives. But now, with just over two minutes left, the Colts were down again, 31-34.
“This could be the drive that changes so many things for Peyton Manning,” said Jim Nantz, as Manning took the first snap of the drive.
And Manning took control, as he had throughout the second half.
An eleven yard out to Reggie Wayne. First down.
Getting away from pressure, Manning threw an incomplete pass.
A 32 yard deep corner route to Bryan Fletcher. First down.
A 14 yard crossing route to Reggie Wayne, combined with a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty, put the Colts on the Patriots’ 11-yard line with 1:53 left on the clock. 69 yards in just 24 seconds.
Recognizing the time left, Manning and the Colts ran the ball three straight times. On the third run, on 3rd and 2, Joseph Addai burst through the hole for a touchdown, and the RCA Dome exploded. Indianapolis lit up. My family was in a frenzy. Bob Lamey could hardly get coherent words out of his mouth.
But it wasn’t over. As Tom Brady hit two long passes to get to the Colts 45, Manning sat on the bench, head bowed.
“I don’t even think Peyton is going to watch,” said Nantz.
But he did watch. And as Marlin Jackson made the biggest play of his life, Peyton Manning smiled bigger than he had in his entire career. Meanwhile, my house erupted in chants of “We’re going to the Super Bowl!” along with Bob Lamey and the rest of Indianapolis.
This was the Colts’ Super Bowl. The next week was a mere formality. This was the game that defined Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts, their fans, and one freshman in high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I used to cry when the Colts would lose a playoff game. It wasn’t just the loss. It was the knowledge that there wouldn’t be another game the next week. I loved all of those iconic games, but they always seemed to end in tears. The season, which had been successful more often than not under Manning, had given me so many moments, points in time where the elation I felt could not be matched, was now over.
That was the power of Manning. He gave a city, a state, a team, a family, and a boy so many of those highs, times that we’ll never forget.
But after each playoff loss, I knew that those moments were over, for at least another seven months. I knew that I would have to wait, and that the next season’s team wouldn’t be the same, and that those moments wouldn’t be the same.
But after that 2006 season, I never cried again. Part of it was because I was getting older. You weren’t supposed to cry because of some football game in another state.
But a big part of it was knowing that at any time, it could happen again. Manning, and the magic he brought to the Colts’ franchise, could create another improbable run that would end in the pinnacle of sports fanhood.
Maybe that’s why this ending has seemed so hard.
The era is now over. A quarterback, a team who has given me so many of those snapshots in time, is now gone. It won’t ever be replaced, it won’t ever quite be the same. As Jim Irsay said Wednesday, “There will be no other Peyton Manning.”
There will be another season, but it’s five months away, and Manning won’t be a Colt. There will be other wins, other comebacks, and other playoff runs, but it won’t be the same.
It was March 7th, 2011.
Jim Irsay had just spoken for six minutes, breaking down as he recalled the journey that he and his beloved quarterback had been through over the past 14 years.
But now, Peyton Manning stepped up to the podium. And all of Indiana, and fans across the world, stopped and listened. Schools piped in the audio over the intercom, fans watched the streaming video at work, and media members held their breath as Manning read his prepared statement.
“I sure have loved playing football for the Indianapolis Colts,” Manning said, his southern drawl coming out in full force.
He gushed about the Colts, about Indiana, and about Jim Irsay, lamenting the painful circumstances that forced this divorce.
“This town, and this team, mean so much to me,” Manning said, choking up as tears began to well in his eyes. “It truly has been an honor, to play in Indianapolis. I do love it here. I love the fans, and I will always enjoy having played for such a great team.”
Jim Irsay, crying in the background, listened as Manning described just how much the last 14 years had meant to him. We, the fans, watched and listened to Manning, feeling nothing but gratitude towards a man who may never know just how important he was to us.
“And as I go, I go with just a few words left to say, a few words I want to address to Colts fans everywhere.”
Manning looked up from his notes, directly into the cameras, tears glistening from the corners of his eyes, and spoke to Colts Nation.
“Thank you very much, from the bottom of my heart. I truly have enjoyed being your quarterback.”
And I cried. One last time.
Thank you Peyton Manning. From the bottom of all our hearts, thank you. We will never forget.