Benner/Sports and Colts and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Hoosier Hysteria now wears pads and cleats

August 28, 2010

Although I am a full-blooded Hoosier with basketball as part of my DNA, football—and football season—has become the part of the sports calendar I look forward to most.

And, finally, it is upon us.

The prepsters already have kicked off. College football begins this week.

And the National Football League—the real NFL, not the twice-as-long-as-it-needs-to-be preseason—is just another week away.

I love it at all levels.

The television series “Friday Night Lights” is so aptly titled because there is nothing that pronounces the season’s beginning more than the distant glow of the football lights on a late-summer Friday’s eve.

When I was a youngster, growing up on a farm in what was then rural Center Grove, I could easily see the high school’s lights come up as the sun went down. By the time I was in junior high, sitting under those lights watching the Trojans play became a ritual. And then, as a high schooler, playing under those lights was the ultimate thrill. It didn’t matter that we weren’t especially good (and certainly a far cry from the big-school powerhouse Center Grove is today). Just putting on the uniform was a cloak of honor.

Now, in many areas of Indiana, those Friday nights under the lights also represent the defining, all-encompassing community event, the figurative melting pot that is, more and more, becoming Hoosier Hysteria, only in pads and cleats.

I ascribe that to the very nature of high school football which, unlike basketball with both boys and girls teams, has Friday nights all to itself. Then there’s the overwhelming popularity of the NFL in general and the Indianapolis Colts in particular. Football is America’s game, plain and simple, just as appealing to Hoosiers as it is to Ohioans and Texans and Floridians.

Still, for my money, the only thing better than high school Friday nights is college Saturday afternoons. For years, as a scribe for the local daily, those Saturday afternoons fell into the category of “work,” but they never felt like it. My travels took me to all the stadiums in the Big Ten (my favorite was not Ohio State’s Horseshoe or Michigan’s Big House, but crazy Camp Randall in Wisconsin) and most of the great venues in the country (and, for the record, nothing can quite compare to a day game at Notre Dame, a night game at Louisiana State or any Rose Bowl).

Now, as season-ticket holders at Indiana University, we fit our weekend schedules around game days in Bloomington. Tailgating with friends has become a ritual. Ours is not as elaborate as some, but there’s something special in the shared conviviality and repast … not to mention that the Bloody Marys can be pretty good, too.

And even with the struggles the Hoosiers have endured (not to be repeated this season, of course, and more on that in a moment), there is nothing I look forward to more than those trips down State Road 37. I know others would say the same about journeys to West Lafayette, South Bend, Greencastle or Crawfordsville, just to name a few.

Candidly, Colts games don’t have the same feel, but that doesn’t mean we anticipate them less, only differently. Unlike IU, where a victory—any victory—is cause for celebration, a Colts triumph has a more matter-of-fact feel to it, at least until the playoffs arrive. Part of it is being absolutely spoiled by the presence of Peyton Manning and this incredible run of playoff seasons. We take it all for granted, but we shouldn’t. Even though Manning probably has at least five more years of excellence in him, the window that has been wide open for so long is starting to slowly close.

So, we need to live in the moment and not fret the future. It will get here soon enough. For the Colts, I see no coming off a Super Bowl-loss swoon, but another division title and deep playoff run.

And one other prediction: Curtis Painter won’t play a meaningful down. And if he does, the season’s over, anyway.

In the college ranks, new coach Brian Kelly will lead the Fighting Irish back to a bowl, but Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick won’t get swept up in the euphoria and immediately extend his contract. Meanwhile, Purdue will ride new quarterback Robert Marve and Indiana will rely on senior Ben Chappell to both reach the Old Oaken Bucket game with winning records and bowl games on the line.

Of course, that’s what I call for every year. One of these times, I’ll be right.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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