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Monday, January 22, 2007
A moment to wash away the past

By Graham Hays
Page 2

I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with the knowledge that Jim Nantz's voice will be in my head for eternity.

"Interception … and the Colts are going to the Super Bowl!"

So exclaimed Nantz as Marlin Jackson picked off Tom Brady in the closing seconds of Sunday's AFC Championship Game, sealing the Colts' 38-34 win. And yes, that might be a dangling participle. Jackson may have picked off the pass and then slid safely to a stop on the turf at the RCA Dome, but only audible confirmation from an impartial observer really convinced me this wasn't all some elaborate ruse.

That Jackson wouldn't mistakenly launch the ball skyward in celebration before the whistle and allow Troy Brown to race for the unlikeliest of game-winning touchdowns. Or that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wouldn't announce after the game that the league had retroactively adopted a "plus-one" model for the conference playoffs, replacing the Super Bowl bye week with a rematch at Gillette Stadium.

But no, there was the confetti saturating the recycled air in Indianapolis, Bill Belichick blowing off reporters and opposing quarterbacks and Jim Irsay essentially suggesting God wanted the Colts to win (which kind of makes you wonder about the whole omnipotency thing, when you think of three of the last five seasons).

In other words, all the signs that usually point to the end of an NFL game.

So there they sat to this Colts fan: the words that confirmed a reality too foreign to comprehend.

And if I ever suffer the misfortune of a few brief seconds of terrified introspection while tumbling out of the sky in a plane or hearing the roar of an avalanche as it overtakes me, I'm pretty sure I'll hear Nantz's voice running through my brain, along with, hopefully, the comforting words of loved ones (no offense, Jim).

That's not a realization that inspires a sense of pride. Quite the opposite. The words will reside there not because the win in some way validated Peyton Manning's legacy, Tony Dungy's career, the Colts' place among NFL teams or Indianapolis' place among American cities (or even Jeff Saturday's place among short-yardage, ball-carrying offensive linemen). That stuff all fades away eventually.

Those words will always be in my head because of everything that happened while I was waiting to hear them.

It's sort of mortifying to realize just how much of my life can be measured against the unchanging standard of on-field futility for the Colts.

I remember Tate Randle blocking a punt to give the Colts and interim coach Ron Meyer a win in Atlanta that broke an 0-13 start in 1986. And I remember badgering my parents into taking me to the zoo days later to get an autograph from Randle at some sort of team function. Thinking that no matter how much of a challenge adjusting to a new school and a new city were, having guys like Randle and a team like the Colts made Indianapolis (which at that time, still very much lived up to the "Nap Town" moniker) much, much cooler than soccer-mad London, where we had lived.

I remember my dad, a casual football fan at best, sacrificing not only a sizable chunk of change for a pair of season tickets but his Sunday afternoons to go hunt out parking spaces and hike up seemingly endless stairs so that his son could worship guys like Albert Bentley and Bill Brooks (not so much Jeff George). To go spend three or four hours discovering that Meyer wasn't the team's savior on the sideline. And then discovering it all over again with Rick Venturi and Lindy Infante.

I remember a 6-0 game between the Colts and Jets played with replacement players, no matter how many nights I've spent trying to specifically target those brain cells for destruction (damn you, Dean Biasucci).

And I remember delaying my return to college after winter break as a freshman, thereby sealing my own fate during rush on a Greek-mad campus, in order to be in Indianapolis when the Colts played the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game after the 1995 season. As a result, I remember Quentin Coryatt's dropped interception and Willie Williams' ad-libbed blitz to stop Lamont Warren. And I still wince at the sight of Jim Harbaugh's Hail Mary rolling off Aaron Bailey's stomach.

Every year, some fan of one of the teams in the Super Bowl takes to his or her soapbox, either on a site like this or any number of blogs, and waxes about how great it is to finally reach the big game after years of waiting. And then we are regaled with stories of long-forgotten moments and forgettable names like Tate Randle or Lamont Warren.

And ultimately it all sounds just a little condescending, as if they're speaking through their nose and gushing about how, if you have the means, they highly recommend it for your own favorite team. But if you don't -- if you're stuck slumming as a Lions fan or a Cardinals fan, it's all right, because you can live vicariously through their experience.

Sometimes that team turns out to having some staying power, but more often than not, those teams simply fade back into Mike Tyson's "bolivion."

And those fans are then left with the same sheepish grin that you have the morning after you tried to explain Einstein's Theory of Relativity to a bar full of people based strictly on your understanding of Doc Brown in "Back to the Future."

They slouch back in amongst the rest of us and wait for the next person drunk on victory to tell the unwashed masses what it really means to see a team reach the Super Bowl.

Truth be told, there are people far better equipped to write one of those about the Colts than me. They are still my team the way Indianapolis is still my city. I don't know them very well anymore. I'd have a hard time naming all of their backups, just like I'd have a hard time telling you what restaurants now reside downtown. If they beat the Bears, there will be people who derive far more joy from the win than me. And if they lose, there will be people far more disconsolate.

What remains, I hope, is a feeling familiar to fans who occupy the silent majority, those of us who find ourselves living life not through our favorite team but unfailingly alongside it.

When I heard Nantz say those words, I didn't think about Peyton Manning or the Super Bowl itself. I thought about Jack Trudeau's uncompromising mediocrity, Steve Emtman's injury-ravaged potential and countless Sunday afternoons spent wondering if Bob Lamey, radio voice of the Colts, was as close to hanging himself as it sounded.

Because if the Indianapolis Colts can reach the Super Bowl, there really is no reclaiming the past. And that makes me kind of sad. Jeff George and all.

Graham Hays covers college sports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at graham.hays@espn3.com.