I do not envy Jim Irsay one bit.
In my 30-year-plus memory of sports, I can’t think of a more excruciating decision than the one he has to make on Peyton Manning and his future in Indianapolis Colts blue and as one of our city’s best-known citizens.
I label myself in this order: Indy sports fan, regular sports fan and human being. You read that correctly: I regularly surrender my humanity to watch Fresno State take on BYU on Tuesday Night College Football.
As such, I, like most everyone in Indiana, am riveted to the Manning story. But I approach the debate today, not as a fan, but as a communicator and a historian of all things Indianapolis.
I am an unabashed Manning fan. Months after he was drafted in 1998, Gov. Frank O’Bannon, my boss at the time, and I met him at Colts training camp when he helped us promote new resources to help students study for and pass ISTEP. He was everything he was billed to be. He was personable, humble and exceedingly nice to us.
Something I also noticed was how well he and the governor interacted, even though it was for just a short time. Even though Manning grew up and went to college in the South, he reminded me of something else: a Midwesterner. Few times has such an iconic and high-profile athlete ended up in a city that fit his personality perfectly.
Fourteen years later, the good people of Section 337 at Lucas Oil have to put up with me in my “18” jersey losing my voice, as well as my mind, at every home game.
The reason it’s all so heart-wrenching is that Manning has been one of the most important figures in our city’s history. Not just sports history, but history, period. And yes, I’m counting him among the Harrisons, Lillys, Pulliams, Walkers, DeHaans, Binfords, Lettermans of Indianapolis, and even the Lugars, Hudnuts, Goldsmiths, Petersons and Ballards of our city.
Yes, I understand our society’s overall priorities might be misplaced when it comes to sports. But let’s face it: That train left the station a long time ago, particularly here.
It’s no coincidence that every local newscast across the country looks the same—news, weather and, guess what? Sports. It’s no surprise that when IU beats Kentucky or the Colts beat the Patriots, it trumps stories about education reform, unemployment, abandoned houses and pretty much anything other than a snowstorm.
This catapulted Manning into the unique position of being perhaps Indianapolis’ No. 1 ambassador to the outside world. Like me, you’ve heard an anecdote about someone from Indy traveling in Paris, London or Timbuktu and telling a cab driver where they live. The first two words out of the driver’s mouth are usually “Peyton Manning.”
That’s why this dilemma literally makes my stomach hurt. Forget the Hall of Fame play and the dollars and hours he’s given to Indianapolis; Manning has been the best advertisement this side of the Indianapolis 500 our city has ever had.
Super Bowl XLVI is providing us with the unprecedented opportunity to make another big splash on the national and international scene. But Peyton has provided Indianapolis with ink and air time nearly every day of every year for 14 straight years. That, my friends, is publicity you just can’t buy.
A few years ago, my buddies and I were doing what we do: putting back some beers and talking football. I wondered aloud if the Colts were preparing for life post-Manning even though I hoped it was five or six years away. Would the post-Manning Colts still be able to attract fans, suite and season-ticket holders, sponsors and media attention?
I ask a similar question about the rest of the city, too. Manning has been our reliable, always-on-message, PR cash cow for a decade. Once he’s moved on, whether it’s this year or in five, we have to think about what image of Indianapolis replaces him in the national consciousness.•
Campbell, president of Campbell Strategies, was a deputy mayor under former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.