Colts' Luster Fades In Indiana

October 26, 1994|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sean Ferbrache buys two Indianapolis Colts caps every year, one as a souvenir, the other to throw away in frustration.

As he walked out of the RCA Dome Sunday, midway in the fourth period of the Washington Redskins' 41-27 win over the Colts, Mr. Ferbrache ripped his hat to shreds and then stomped on it.

Another game, another loss.

Another cap.

"Each season, I have this optimism, and then the Colts take it away," said Mr. Ferbrache, 29, an Indianapolis firefighter. "How could they lose to the Redskins? The 1-6 Redskins with a rookie quarterback? But I'll be back next week to watch again. Our motto is: Bad NFL football is better than no NFL football."

In 10 years since moving from Baltimore under the cover of darkness, the Colts have had three winning records and one playoff appearance, that during the 1987 strike season. It has been an organization of faceless coaches and nameless players.

Even in a city desperate for the money and prestige that enhances its reputation as a major-league sports town, season-ticket sales have fallen from a base of 60,000 to about 40,000.

David Fair has been a season-ticket holder for 10 years. This may be his last season.

"One can only take so much of losing," said Mr. Fair, 32, a laundry mechanic. "The Colts' honeymoon is finally over."

"Bad trades, bad draft choices, bad free agents," said Jade Gruner, 23, who runs an Indianapolis liquor store. "We'll keep the football team, but Baltimore can take the Irsays back.

"I have no problem with the old man, even though he occasionally pats a player on the back, then calls him by the wrong name," said Mr. Gruner. "But that Jim Irsay is a little spoiled brat who was unqualified and hired by his old man to run the team."

But many who live in Hoosierville are just happy to have a team.

"We've got our cake, but we'd like a chance to eat it, too, especially before it goes stale," said Joe Shipman, 32, a city construction worker, about the lack of wins.

Indianapolis fans want no part of the Baltimore Colts tradition, no visits from the old-timers. They really don't want the name Colts.

"I don't care about John Unitas one bit," said Derick Kendal. "No disrespect to the man, but what he accomplished was in Baltimore. Guys like John Mackey and Raymond Berry, the NFL championships, The Greatest Game Ever Played, that's a Baltimore thing.

"I wished we could have given the team our own name, our own identity," said Mr. Kendal. "I think people could relate to them much better."

Mr. Kendal, Chris Sanders and Bill Steadman are eating pizza and drinking beer at an Indianapolis restaurant. Mr. Sanders, 23, is a Chicago Bears fanatic. Mr. Steadman, 24, roots for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mr. Kendal, 24, prefers the Redskins.

All three live in Indianapolis.

"If you live here and you're over 15, then you either root for the Bears, Bengals or Browns because they're traditional favorites. That's why some folks have been slow to root for the Colts," said Mr. Kendal. "No tradition."

Losing seasons

The lack of tradition has been a blessing, in some ways, for the Colts.

These Colts never have won a Super Bowl or any conference championships. They don't have any of the team's nine Hall of Famers come back for an old-timers' day.

Losing has become the norm.

"If we ever tasted success, if we ever won a Super Bowl, I think people here would be upset about the Colts' record," said Mr. Sanders. "Right now, it's either 'They stink' or 'Who cares?' Look how long we had to put up with the [NBA's] Pacers before they started winning. Our fans are still tickled about this football thing."

They lack the passion of fans from Buffalo, Denver or Dallas. Indianapolis fans don't tailgate; they congregate. Denver fans wear jeans and sweat shirts. Colts fans wear polyester suits and ties. Dallas fans barbecue sides of beef. Indy fans buy cooked beef hot dogs. Buffalo fans chant, "Dee-fense! Dee-fense! Dee-fense!" Colts fans treat a sack as if it's part of a day at the opera.

"We're still learning how to be fans," said Perry Rossetter, 32, a Colts season-ticket holder for eight years. "It's a wine-and-cheese crowd, a place to be seen. It took us three quarters to finally learn the wave."

Son under fire

Ten years ago, it was Colts owner Bob Irsay who drew criticism for the demise of one of the league's greatest franchises. Now, it's his son, Jim Irsay, who is under fire for keeping it that way.

The elder Mr. Irsay, who acquired the Colts on July 26, 1972,

when he traded the Los Angeles Rams franchise to Carroll Rosenbloom for the Colts, has been relatively quiet the past couple of years.

He interfered with negotiations, causing the team not to sign 1987 top draft pick Cornelius Bennett.

But other than saying new director of football operations Bill Tobin was the only person with the authority to fire coach Ted Marchibroda, and in the same breath saying, "I'll fire him if I want to" two weeks ago, Bob Irsay has been a model owner.

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