"Bringing home a championship

It’s been more than a week since the Colts’ victory over Chicago in the Super Bowl. We’ve had our first real snowfall since then, state legislators are still scratching their heads over what to do about property taxes and a few of the Pacers again tried their best to give our city a reputation for after-hours fun rivaling, say, East St. Louis. 

Life, in other words, has gradually gotten back to normal around here.

The Colts, though, have proven themselves to be the best football team in the land — and this gives our local version of normal a gloss it never had before. After Bob Sanders intercepted the Bears’ hapless quarterback for the last time on Super Bowl night, you could practically feel our frozen city thaw with relief. And the next day, when the team was welcomed by tens of thousands at the Dome, the frigid air was suffused with gratitude.

Other teams, the Colts included, had made it to a national stage in the past. None, though, had managed to bring home the prize. The Colts made football history in Miami, but they added an exclamation point to the continuing saga of this city. It was a kind of gift.

Under these circumstances, it’s tempting to be smitten by the Colts. Last week, after returning from Miami, the mayor felt it necessary to issue a proclamation calling on everyone to keep wearing blue and showing their Colts colors as a way of demonstrating their continuing support for the team. As if the Colts’ self-esteem needed a boost. The mayor came off sounding like a homely guy who can’t believe he’s just gotten lucky with the hottest girl in school.

It’s true: Indianapolis is lucky to have a professional sports franchise as classy as the Colts have turned out to be. Jim Irsay and Bill Polian have done a remarkable job building an organization based on loyalty, dedication and honest effort. In Tony Dungy, they’ve found a coach who exemplifies these qualities, and in Peyton Manning, a prodigious talent to lead the way on the field.

But you can’t help but think that the Colts have also been lucky to find themselves in Indianapolis. Sure, this is a small market; players may not benefit from some of the perks associated with bigger cities, but they’re not under an in-your-face media microscope, either.

In the two weeks leading up to the big game, the Chicago press went out of its way to make fun of Indianapolis. We had pie, they said — and the Colts — but what else? When Chicago’s Mayor Daley deigned to make his bet of city goods, like deep-dish pizza, with our Mayor Peterson, Chicago pundits wondered what Indianapolis could possibly offer in return.

There was no real way to answer those slights. Indianapolis, with apologies to the hardworking folks at the Convention and Visitors Association, is a great place to live, but I understand why many people wouldn’t think of visiting. Pinning down our virtues can be tricky. The shorthand way of talking about them is to refer to our “quality of life.” But that’s not to say there still aren’t plenty of neighborhoods in this town that need a lot of work, or that too many people here are in distress with no clear way out.  

In a way, it was perfect that the game wound up being against Chicago, our big, bruising cousin on Lake Michigan. For years, Chicago has been tagged “the second city.” The chip on its shoulder over this has been as big as its ambition to prove that it’s a world capital.

Indianapolis is more modest. For whatever reason, we’re not comfortable with the kind of ambition that pushes its way into rooms and demands attention. In Chicago, good manners are a sign of weakness; here, they’re part of how we create space for one another. Many observers have noted the humility that seems to be at the core of Tony Dungy’s way of dealing with the world. That’s a characteristic that fits Indianapolis, where Dungy has become a quiet hero.

On the night of the Colts’ victory celebration, we left the Dome a little after eight o’clock. From the top of the stadium steps we could see snow covering the roof of St. John’s church where the carillon played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” We followed the crowd downtown — kids whooping and hollering for joy, their breath making momentary clouds. Then we got in our car and drove north on Delaware Street. In minutes, we were on the Old Northside, passing stately trees and porch lights. We’d found the heart of another winter night in Indianapolis. It felt familiar; it also felt grand.