Many fans but fewer fanatics in Indy

INDIANAPOLIS — INDIANAPOLIS -- Maybe it's because this is basketball country. Maybe it's Midwestern modesty. Or maybe it's that their football team is still relatively young and its roots lie, shall we say, elsewhere.

Whatever the reasons, Indianapolis' support for their Colts - while solid - doesn't seem to reach the trash-talking, chest-thumping, paint the town (insert your team color here) fever pitch of some other NFL cities.


Here, in the birthplace of Wonder Bread, life goes on and, by the way, there's a football game this weekend.

Baltimore might see Saturday's game as the cure for a long-nursed grudge, but even the most rabid Colts fans, and truly rabid ones are hard to find, view it as just another in a series of chances to get to the Super Bowl - maybe this time ... we might be able to win ... wouldn't that be nice?


Indianapolis doesn't seem a city pumped up. But maybe it just doesn't get that pumped up. Even the sign welcoming newcomers at the airport is humble. "Indianapolis: Building a world class city," it says - as if to admit there's still a ways to go.

Here, the Colts don't dominate the front page, or the airwaves. Few cars are festooned with Colts flags. Horseshoe logos aren't stamped on every available surface. With the exception of a few Internet forums, civility and humility prevail. But that doesn't mean there's no passion.

"I think we express our passion in a more positive way," said Bill Benner, a former sportswriter for The Indianapolis Star who is now associate director of communications for the city's Convention and Visitors Association.

"Our fans are far more apt to root for the Colts than against other teams or their fans. There's not that deep-rooted anger. I don't want to call it an East Coast mentality, but we're not like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and a lot of other NFL cities. We treat opposing fans pretty civilly.

"We're nice people here in the heartland, and we tend to pride ourselves on our friendliness. We have a slogan - 'Hoosier Hospitality' - and it's going to sound corny, but it really is the way we are. We want people to like us."

Colts fans are still on the road to becoming fanatics - but, as Benner sees it, the transition is almost complete, with a popular (and seemingly nice) quarterback, the passage of a generation since they relocated from Baltimore and another playoff berth this season.

For now, though, Colts fans are viewed as quieter than most, nicer than most, younger than average, more white-collar and, arguably, less hardy, accustomed as they are to watching their home games in a climate-controlled, 72-degree dome.

"Compared to other NFL cities, we don't have that longstanding tradition," Benner said. "Perhaps there's a lack of hardiness. The RCA Dome is a pretty sterile place. But that, too, is changing. It's becoming a little more blue collar, and less something that the society types do. It's becoming a bit grittier."


Even after 23 years, it seems, the Indianapolis Colts are still becoming Indianapolis' home team.

"There were so many divided allegiances here," Benner said. "People grew up Bears, Packers and Lions fans. It has taken a while for people to discard those allegiances and become Colts fans, and more to the point, passionate Colts fans - where it's not just something you do on Sunday, but something your heart is into."

Gary Zigler is a case in point. Zigler, who drives a bus for Hertz at the airport, has lived his whole life in Indianapolis. His team? The Green Bay Packers.

Growing up without a home team, Zigler has been a Packers fan since childhood. "They just always intrigued me since I was a kid. It might have been how they always played in the cold, or maybe it was because of Vince Lombardi, I don't know, but they're my team."

Asked where to find Colts fans, Ziglar answered, only partly in jest, "there's not that many around."

"I like the Colts, don't get me wrong. I'm glad we have a team here. But I don't like the way they got here. It was a sham thing, and it led a lot of other team owners to do the same thing" - namely, he said, forsake their fans for a better deal in another city.


Some say Colts fans lack fervor, some say they're just quieter about it. In reality, it's probably a little of both, along with the team's relative newness. The Colts don't have deep-rooted support because the team doesn't have deep roots in Indianapolis.

"It's not like it is with the steel foundries of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with all these rooted people who grew up watching the Steelers and Eagles with their parents all their lives," said Todd D. Dashley, a funeral home vice president. "We don't have a rich history, and it takes a generation or two for those roots to set."

Added to that, Indianapolis, as a health and technology center, has seen its population become more transient - with more professional people moving in who are already loyal to another team, and moving out before they have a chance to become loyal to the Colts.

And the team's recent history of playing solidly into the post-season but falling short of the Super Bowl has worn on fans as well. Last year, they lost at home to Pittsburgh when the Steelers quarterback made a shoestring tackle of a Colts player in the closing moments to stop Indianapolis from winning.

"Having gotten close twice and failed, there's a lot of skepticism, and some frustration," Dashley said. "The general consensus is we won't win against the Ravens."

But the biggest reason it has taken so long for Indianapolis residents to become ardent Colts fans is the same as the reason it has taken Baltimore's so long to get over losing the team - because the links formed with sports teams in childhood are such strong and emotional ones.


It's why Robert Irsay is still cursed in Baltimore, why people still remember the Brooklyn Dodgers, and why Luke Rumschlag was pounding on the bar at a downtown Indianapolis sports bar Monday night.

"I don't give two [expletive] about the Colts," said Rumschlag, who sat inside the Ram Restaurant and Brewery, his attention riveted to the Florida State-Ohio State Bowl Championship Series game. He and three friends arrived at the downtown sports bar in Ohio State garb, complete with painted faces. They didn't attend the school, but grew up near it.

"This is the only game that matters," said Rumschlag, a criminology student whose parents were Ohio State fans. "I came home from the hospital in an Ohio State T-shirt."

The Ram is one of many sports bars - a Champs, a Champps and a Champions are all located within a few blocks of each other - in downtown Indianapolis, which has undergone a cultural makeover in recent years.

In a yearlong campaign in 2005, the city poured $375 million into its cultural institutions. A new $675 million downtown arena with a retractable roof, Lucas Oil Stadium, is scheduled to open in 2008 to replace the 23-year-old RCA Dome.

The city, the nation's 12th largest, has more memorials than any other U.S. city, except for Washington, D.C. Monument Circle, the large circular plaza downtown from which the Soldiers and Sailors Monument rises, is the main attraction. During the holiday season, as with Baltimore's Washington Monument, hundreds flock to see the initial lighting.


There is certainly some emotion associated with Saturday's game: The Colts' official fan club was offering free posters yesterday at its restaurant, the Blue Crew Sports Grill. A "Blue Friday" rally, featuring music, cheerleaders and former players, is scheduled tomorrow at the Circle Centre Mall, a $320 million retail and entertainment complex downtown.

Inside Circle Centre this week, the Colts Pros Shop was doing a steady business, but was far from swamped.

"Being divisional champ is losing a little bit of the luster," said Matt Mason, store president. "Hopefully we can continue in the playoffs this time."

With a generation in Indianapolis now having grown up with the Colts, he expects fans to become more loyal, if not more vocal. A lot of residents grew up supporting other teams, he noted, "and you can't expect them to change that just because they live in Indianapolis."

But any sense of a rivalry between Baltimore and Indianapolis, Mason thought, was a media concoction.

"I don't think there's any bad blood. It's been 23 years now. I think the only people who care about it are the media."


Bad blood was spilling out on Craigslist, though, and a handful of other Internet forums, with fans of the two teams badmouthing each other's towns, teams and fans on the Internet site's "rants and raves" section.

But even cloaked in the anonymity of an Internet posting, the Colts fans were civil more often than not, and harsh postings were often followed by another, apologizing for what the previous resident said.

A Ravens fan explained he did not "hate" the Colts. "I do however, LOVE the Ravens. To me it equates to getting your second dog after the first one dies. You'll always love that first one, and you love the second one just as much. I'll always love the Baltimore Colts, but they are buried out back next to Old Yeller."