This Time Around

Colts Running Back Ahmad Bradshaw (Photo: Colts)

Colts Running Back Ahmad Bradshaw
(Photo: Colts)

Something kind of unsettling happened this morning. My husband turned on Mike & Mike on ESPN (as he usually does when he’s getting ready for work). And as the dog and I cuddled in bed (as we usually do when he’s getting ready for work), I watched part of the show…and they were saying good things about the Colts. Really good things.

They talked about their dominating offense, their stifling defense, even threw out the letters “MVP” when discussing Andrew Luck.

Later that day, I turned on some other sports shows. Also good. All good. Almost too good.

Considering the lack of attention the Colts have had from the national media, you’d think I’d be thrilled to hear them finally taking this team seriously. The sports world is just seeing what I’ve seen for a few seasons now: up and coming stars, putting the pieces together, preparing for glory, and getting closer every week.

And now, we have people saying this could be the team and this could be the time. The only problem is, I’ve been there before. And I know the baggage that comes with it. The last time the Colts were the darlings of the NFL, I got caught up in the madness. And so did they. There was talk of disrespect when no one paid attention, talk of destiny when they did.

The first time around, I related to the younger players, the guys who had never been there before, the guys who couldn’t wait for it, wanted it so badly they could taste it, and got restless when it didn’t happen on their timeline.

This time, I trust myself. I listen to my gut. I identify more with the veteran players: Robert Mathis, Reggie Wayne, Adam Vinatieri. The guys who’ve been down this road before. The guys who preach patience and focus and process. The guys who know it’s as much about timing as it is about talent.

This time, I’m older and wiser. I’ve been through more ups and downs (in sports and in life) and I have better perspective because of it. This time, I’m not going to let the media tell me how to feel about my team. Especially those who only see it in person once or twice a season.

Trust me, I want the Colts to get there as badly as anyone. I can’t wait to see this team win a conference championship, make a run for the Super Bowl, and hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

But this time, it’s not so much about what happens. It’s not so much about when it happens. This time, it’s about the ride.

And so far, I’m enjoying the ride.

Even if we just picked up a few (thousand) more passengers.

Go Colts!

Pacers Prepare For Season Without Paul George

Pacers forward Paul George  (Photo: Matt Detrich/Indy Star)

Indiana Pacers Forward Paul George
(Photo: Matt Detrich/Indy Star)

Most Pacers fans can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news that first fateful Friday in August of 2014. Whether it came by television, text, or tweet, it was equally stunning. Star forward Paul George suffered a leg injury during a Team USA exhibition game in Las Vegas. Play was stopped and would not continue out of respect. The gruesome images explained why. The words “career ending” were thrown around on sports broadcasts and in social media.

After the shock, came sadness and disbelief. Followed by the cold, hard reality. The Indiana Pacers would face the coming season without their star player, their All-Star, or as fans call him, their “PaulStar.”

Pacers President Larry Bird summed it up in a press conference days later.

“I can sit up here and try to sugarcoat it all you want me to, but you just can’t replace Paul George.”

-Larry Bird, Pacers President

Who will fill Paul George’s size 12 shoes? It’s tough to say. But he’s not afraid to say his teammates are up to the challenge. And George hopes the fans are as well.

“This team is going to be a team that goes out there and competes. I look forward to them still having the same drive and the same commitment and being the team everybody loves in Indiana.”

-Paul George

The Pacers didn’t fold in 2012, when All-Star forward Danny Granger was sidelined with a knee injury. If anything, it created an opportunity for a young player with talent, drive, and untapped ability. A player who looked to Granger as a friend and mentor. A player who would be named to the NBA All-Star team himself the following season.

A player named Paul George.

The good news is that Paul George will likely resume his basketball ascent, which means the Pacers haven’t had to make dramatic changes to their marketing. Todd Taylor, senior vice president and chief sales and marketing officer, says the players are very clear about their desire to be sold as a team.

“From the first guy to the last guy, they’re all very likeable. They like each other. And I think their play really reflects that. And I think that matches the Midwest and Indiana specifically. I think that we take a great deal of pride in being from the state that they play the game as close as you would want the game to be played, still knowing that they are the best on the planet.”

Still, Taylor sees an opportunity for an individual player to step up, step into the spotlight, and contribute to the team in a big way. The Pacers may have to take a step back to move forward. But then again, they may not.

“There’s been plenty of great teams out there that should have won a title and didn’t. And there’s been teams that kind of came out of nowhere and they won a title…so you never know when the next storyline is going to develop.”

-Todd Taylor, Senior Vice President, Indiana Pacers

It’s what makes sports the ultimate, longest-running, and most successful reality television show in history. And whether they’re watching a team that’s built for a championship or a team that’s building for a championship, the Pacers are banking on the fact that fans will want to be there to see it unfold in person.

The Pacers hope the goodwill they’ve built with their success (including back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals) carries into this season. That regardless of losing Paul George, pride and team loyalty will bring fans out to Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

And that the basketball they see there will bring them back.

Go Pacers!

Colts Pass a Milestone and Turn Into Unicorns

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Well, well…here we are. As Phillip B. Wilson kindly reminded me, the Colts passed a major milestone last week.

It’s not a club record or anything like that. I guess it’s more of a made up milestone. But that doesn’t make it any less significant. Or any less true.

Former Colts general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian used to say (and still does) that, “You don’t know who your team is until week six.” It’s something I believe and preach on a regular basis.

So, let’s review what we’ve learned about the Colts in the first six weeks of the season.

1) Schedule

Some things you just can’t control. The NFL schedule is one of them. Part of the reason I was so disappointed the Colts had to play the Broncos week one was for the reason I just stated. “We won’t even know who they are…they won’t even know who they are.” Yes, I whined. A lot.

The Colts opened the season with two tough games against two (all but certain) playoff teams and performed admirably. Do I wish they had a do-over against the Broncos? Absolutely. But they probably will. In January.

After losing to the Broncos and Eagles in prime time games, the Colts started the season 0-2. Then, they went on to pummel their divisional rivals, the Jaguars and Titans, which put them back to even and earned them the title of  “Slayer of Cupcakes.”

After bagging themselves a bird and a steak (Ravens followed by Texans), the Colts have gone from 0-2 to 4-2 and now sit alone atop the AFC South at 3-0. But with games against the Bengals, Steelers, Giants, and Patriots in the coming weeks, there will be no talk of cupcakes anytime soon. Which is unfortunate. Because I love cupcakes.

2) Offense

Admit it, we were skeptical in the beginning. All we heard about during training camp was the “exotic offense” the Colts were going to run. And yet, the first few games, it looked a lot like the “no coast offense” we had no love for last season. But as the weeks went on, the Colts offense started looking more and more exotic. With the war chest Andrew Luck has of finely tuned offensive weapons, we may have to start calling the Colts the “Unicorns” (which would be awesome). Because what’s more exotic than a unicorn?

3) Special Teams

If the Colts offense is a unicorn, the Colts special teams is the more rare and even more exotic pink unicorn.

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Three onside kicks recovered? In six games? And all three successfully? Since when do the Colts even attempt onside kicks? The only onside kick I can even recover from my memory is the one successfully executed on the Colts in the Super Bowl by the Saints (and we don’t talk about that one). Once the bane of the Colts existence, Pat McAfee, Adam Vinatieri, Matt Overton, and the rest of the Colts “Fourth Down Army” is putting the “special” in special teams.

4) Defense

And who would have thought that despite losing the sackmaster himself, linebacker Robert Mathis, for the entire season…the Colts would be amongst the top teams in quarterback sacks? Erik Walden, Bjoern Werner, Cory Redding, D’Qwell Jackson and others have divided the work up nicely. No LaRon Landry? Sergio Brown steps in…no problem. No Arthur Jones? Ricky Jean Francois steps up in a big way. When defensive coordinator Greg Manusky says, “Next man up,” his guys don’t just walk up…they jump at the opportunity. And no, I’m not going to compare those guys to unicorns. Because they could hurt me.

It hasn’t been perfect. There’s room for improvement. And there’s a whole lot of football left to be played. But judging by Bill Polian’s theory, I can only tell you one thing: We’re starting to see who the Colts are. And the more I see, the more I like.

Now, in the famous words of Bill Belichick, “It’s on to Cincinnati…”

Go Colts!

Gregg Doyel Will Be Game Changer at Indianapolis Star

Indianapolis Star Columnist Gregg Doyel (Photo: CBS Sports)

Indy Star Sports Columnist Gregg Doyel

I have to admit, I was skeptical about who the Indianapolis Star would find to replace sports columnist Bob Kravitz after he left to join WTHR.

The position of sports columnist is an important one because like it or not (and like him/her or not), that person has the unique role of being the sports voice of the city. Yes, there are many voices today. You will find no shortage of opinions searching blogs, social media, and sports broadcasts. But there is a special importance placed on the opinions that are published on the front of the local sports page. And there’s a unique responsibility that goes along with that.

You can’t throw just anyone into a city and expect them to know, understand, and be able to communicate the complicated relationships between sports teams and fans. Sometimes, we don’t know what we think. Sometimes, we don’t know why we think it. And other times, we don’t understand the feelings we have or why we don’t have any feelings at all. The right person can help us sort all that out. Not by telling us what to think, but by giving us the right information so we can make up our minds in an informed way.

I learn a lot from reading other sports writers. And one person who I have enjoyed reading the most is CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel. He’s a great story teller, he connects with people, he’s passionate about sports, and it comes through in his writing. I never question where he stands on an issue. And he doesn’t shy away from engaging with readers.

And Doyel doesn’t just write about athletes. In fact, some of his best work is about regular people. Small town folks. Hoosiers. If you didn’t catch his story on Dugger, Indiana, read it. You’ll see what I mean.

The first time I ever heard about Gregg Doyel was years ago on 1070 The Fan. Dan Dakich was interviewing him on his show and I was struck by his energy, his honesty, and his humor. I started following him on twitter and reading his work and I’ve been a fan ever since.

So, imagine my surprise when I got on an update on my phone from the Indy Star Wednesday morning announcing Gregg Doyel as their new sports columnist. To be honest, I didn’t even think that was a possibility. But living in Cincinnati and covering Indianapolis teams on a semi-regular basis, Gregg Doyel was the perfect hire. He will have no problem stepping in and quite frankly, stepping up the game in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis has a lot to offer Doyel in sports. And Doyel has a bright stage to offer Indianapolis.

In the competitive world of sports journalism, the one thing that will keep readers coming back is a talented writer who can move them to think, feel, or change. By those standards, the Indianapolis Star just hired one of the best in the business.

Indianapolis deserves Gregg Doyel. And he deserves Indianapolis.

Former Colts Safety Giving Hoosiers a Heads Up

Colts Youth Football Commissioner Mike Prior  (Photo: Colts)

Colts Youth Football Commissioner Mike Prior
(Photo: Colts)

The rise in popularity of football in the state of Indiana is well documented. In 2013, MaxPreps, a division of CBS Sports, ranked the Indianapolis metro area fifth in the country for high school football behind Atlanta, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

What isn’t talked about enough is how that happened in a basketball state.

Part of it, is the arrival of the Colts in Indianapolis and the first generation of Indiana kids growing up with a professional football team in their backyard. But, the other part is a grassroots effort on the part of the team, headed by a 13-year NFL veteran, former Colts safety, and captain of the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl XXXI championship team.

Mike Prior is now an eleven-year veteran with the Indianapolis Colts in the position of youth football commissioner. He estimates they bring the horseshoe to 20,000 Hoosier kids every year through outreach programs consisting of camps and clinics for students grade K-12. They teach fitness, nutrition, skills, and most important, safety.

“It really is all about safety. And when you teach the parents, you teach the coaches, (they) know how to coach better. And just learning and looking for signs.”

–Mike Prior, Colts Youth Football Commissioner

Along with Prior, former Roncalli High School wide receiver Phil Andrews (now Colts youth football/alumni relations coordinator), spoke to members of the Colts Blue Ladies group on Tuesday night. Knowing safety is a big concern for women, they added a mom’s safety clinic to their program last spring. The idea being, the more well-trained eyes…the better.

“The main mission of Heads Up Football, the two main points are to have better trained coaches that are informed about proper equipment fitting, hydration, concussion awareness, but then also having the parents more informed because the parents are the coaches every day.”

–Phil Andrews, Colts Youth Football/Alumni Relations Coordinator

The Colts also host Friday night football tours at area high schools and hold a statewide college recruiting combine every spring. They also sponsor the IHSAA Football State Tournament, which is held at Lucas Oil Stadium.

And in case you’re wondering if other NFL teams do this, the answer says Andrews, is no. While they don’t really have a way to measure their impact, he says they don’t really need one.

“No matter what, you always have a kid come up and tell you this was the funnest day of their life.”

And that’s how the Hoosier state became a football state.

One kid at a time.

Note: Mike Prior was honored by the National Football Foundation with the Contribution to Amateur Football Award in April. He also serves as an assistant football coach at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis.