Horseshoes and Warped Halos
Super Bowl XLIV features Peyton Manning, the greatest quarterback since Johnny Unitas, leading the Colts against a team representing a town of sinners that dares to call itself the Saints.
With the return of the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 7, all is well in my pro football world. Quarterback Peyton Manning’s finesse at rallying the Colts from fourth-quarter deficits with his precision passing is a sight to behold. Manning is capable of moving a team the length of a football field in mere seconds.
It was late Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas who mastered the “two-minute offense” that revolutionized professional football in the 1950s and ’60s. Manning has perfected that tactic. Manning’s style features the hunched shoulders, fast feet, and lightning-quick passes that defined the Unitas legend decades ago. Come Super Bowl Sunday, I’ll no doubt once again believe that the Colts’ blue horseshoe logo is actually a “U” for Unitas, just as I had presumed as a kid.
Like most fans of the former Baltimore Colts, I had no use for the team after late owner (and alleged drunk) Robert Irsay whisked the franchise out of Baltimore one night in March of 1984. Two months earlier, a reportedly intoxicated Irsay had appeared at a press conference to promise the city that he would not move the franchise out of town, though he did remind fans that “it’s my goddamn team.” Negotiations over improvements to Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium had begun to crumble, prompting the Maryland state legislature to pass a law allowing the city to seize the team under eminent domain when it appeared that the owner might take them elsewhere. At midnight the day after the legislation was passed, Irsay had the team’s equipment and other assets loaded into 15 moving vans bound for Indianapolis. The vans were provided at no cost by the CEO of Mayflower Transit Company, a close pal of then-Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut.
Irsay acquired the Colts in 1972 in one of the oddest deals in professional sports history: he swapped teams with then-Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom, giving Rosenbloom the Los Angeles Rams in exchange. The following year, Irsay committed an unpardonable sin when he traded Unitas to the San Diego Chargers. Rosenbloom, who had signed Unitas for the Colts in 1956 for a mere $7,000, drowned off the coast of Florida in 1979. Though his death was ruled accidental, an episode of the PBS investigative series “Frontline” suggested that mobsters had Rosenbloom murdered. Robert Irsay died in 1997. His son Jim Irsay now owns the team.
It took a quarterback from the Manning clan to rekindle my love for the Colts 14 years after the team moved to Indianapolis. For those not familiar with the Manning football dynasty, patriarch Archie Manning was an All-American at Ole Miss who starred in a 33-32 loss to Alabama in 1969 in the first national telecast of a college football game in prime time. (Bear Bryant once referred to Archie as the greatest college quarterback he ever saw.) The sports world was captivated by a hot-shot quarterback called “Archie” leading a team nicknamed the Rebels whose fans enthusiastically waved Confederate flags. The elder Manning would spend a dozen years as the lone star of the New Orleans Saints during the team’s worst years in the 1970s and ’80s, when fans wore paper sacks over their heads in shame due to the Saints’ dismal performances. (Archie is the father of not only Peyton Manning but also current New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and former Ole Miss receiver Cooper Manning.)
My fondness for the family grew to towering heights in 1996. Archie Manning was a commentator on Saints broadcasts following his retirement from pro ball (he’s now a commentator on CBS college football telecasts). Hoping to score a story for another publication I worked for at the time, I found Manning’s home phone number in the New Orleans directory and rang him up out of the blue one October night during Peyton’s junior season at Tennessee. I didn’t expect Manning to be so accessible, and was amazed when he gladly agreed to an interview.
When the Indianapolis Colts drafted Peyton in 1998, I finally forgave the team for abandoning Baltimore. What the hell, Robert Irsay was dead. Autumn Sunday afternoons once again found me riveted to the TV as the Second Coming of Johnny Unitas soon began displaying dazzling feats of football prowess. Peyton finally won his first Super Bowl in 2007. Younger brother Eli won his first Super Bowl a year later. Both Manning kids grew up playing high school football in New Orleans.
This year marks the first appearance by the New Orleans Saints in a Super Bowl. The early line has the Colts as a 3- to 5.5-point favorite. I’ll take the Colts minus 10 points because Indianapolis has Peyton Manning playing quarterback. It has been reported that the Saints count among their fans a group of New Orleans nuns known to “pray for the Manning brothers” to win on Sundays. Though many Sisters will no doubt be praying for the hometown team on Super Bowl Sunday, I’ll wager that others will wisely place their money on the Colts. They know a Holy Quarterback when they see one. &