There have been plenty of franchise moves in NFL history – and 10 since the AFL-NFL merger – but the Colts’ move to Indianapolis still retains a sting, even 35 years later. Part of that is because of the nature of the move, with the Colts fleeing Baltimore in the middle of the night, but much of it is because of what the Baltimore Colts had come to represent.
The 1958 NFL Championship game, in which the Colts defeated the New York Giants was a hugely significant game. It’s showed that football was a perfect fit for the medium of TV and it kickstarted an era of growth for the game. It inspired a handful of wealthy viewers to crave their own franchises and, when the NFL turned them away, they sowed the seeds of the AFL. The game established the Baltimore Colts as a force throughout the 1960s, led by stars such as Raymond Berry, Art Donovan, Lenny moore and, most importantly, Johnny Unitas.
The Baltimore Colts helped establish the mythology of the NFL, so it was an understandable wrench when they headed to Indiana.
It took time for them to find their feet in their new city. Having endured a playoff drought through their last six seasons in Baltimore, their first 11 seasons in Indianapolis brought just one playoff appearance, a 1987 loss to the Browns. Their run to the AFC Championship game in 1995 began with a win that ended almost a quarter of a century without a Colts’ playoff win but it wasn’t until the arrival of Peyton Manning in 1998 that the team became a force once again.
Manning led the Colts to a win in Super Bowl XLI and a Super Bowl loss to the New Orleans Saints three seasons later. His career was dominated by his rivalry with Tom Brady’s New England Patriots. Four times the Colts lost to the Patriots in the playoffs, beating them only once. When Manning struggled with a neck injury, the Colts moved on, drafting Andrew Luck in 2012. Luck retired in 2018, however, after an injury-hit career and without fulfilling his potential as Manning’s successor. At the time of writing, the Colts, led by head coach Frank Reich, still look capable of big things.
1William Gildea, When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore (1994)
A memoir, not only about the Baltimore Colts but also about America in the 1950s and of a father and son sharing a love of football. Journalist William Gildea brings to life a time of change in America and in sports – as the Colts led the charge that brought football to the centre of the country’s consciousness. Alongside that he considers his relationship with his father and how the bonds between fan and team are created.
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2Mark Bowden, The Best Game Ever (2008)
The 1958 NFL Championship game was pivotal for the Colts, bringing them their first Championship, but, as described above, it was a turning point for the league as a whole. The thrilling game, the first to feature sudden-death overtime, was dubbed “the greatest game every played” almost immediately but its significance took years to unfold. Bowden’s book, written to mark the game’s 50th anniversary, is excellent on the game’s impact, both on and off the field.
Out of print, available secondhand
3Tom Callahan, Johnny U (2006)
Johnny Unitas is one of the NFL’s legendary players and was the model for a quarterback, at least before the gunslinging, hellraising likes of Joe Namath and Ken Stabler arrived. Unitas was calm, confident and dominant in an era when quarterbacks called their own plays. Callahan’s biography is a definitive look at his career.
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4Gary Myers, Brady vs Manning (2015)
The 2000s were dominated by Brady and Manning, two of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. Though Brady has since eclipsed Manning through sheer longevity, he’s also had the benefit of working with perhaps the greatest head coach of all time through his entire career. Manning flourished under Tony Dungy – a Hall of Fame coach – but began and ended his Colts career under the less-than-stellar stewardship of Jim Mora and Jim Caldwell, respectively. Anyway, the battle between the two was the debate of the decade and Gary Myers’ book looks at their rivalry and mutual respect.
Gary Myers interview
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5Bill Polian with Vic Carucci, The Game Plan (2014)
Bill Polian started his career in scouting in the late 1970s before making his reputation as the general manager who built the dominant Bills teams of the late 80s and early 90s. After a short stint as GM of the expansion Carolina Panthers, he took over the GM job for the Colts, drafting Peyton Manning and setting the team on the road to a Super Bowl win. This book covers his whole career and offers Indianapolis fans a view from the top during their era of dominance.
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Photo: Keith Allison