I had the privilege of attending the AFC Championship game Sunday watching the Indianapolis Colts advance to the Super Bowl for the second time in four years.
I had seen Peyton Manning play in person before and expected to see him again make the extraordinary look mundane. He didn’t disappoint, but of equal significance was the Colts approach to reaching the pinnacle of the football universe.
Following the game – at which the decibel level was unparalleled for any of the hundreds of sporting events I’ve been to save the Indy 500 – blue and white confetti rained down among crews rapidly setting up the midfield stage for the postgame awarding of the conference championship trophy.
During the presentation, Colts CEO Jim Irsay accepted the trophy acknowledging his and the organization’s faith in God as being woven into the fabric of the team. Irsay is not your ordinary owner, as a nice piece in last week’s Sports Illustrated indicated, blending his love of classic rock with style which has earned him the players’ respect through steadiness rather than micromanagement.
Manning, often the king of the understatement, did permit himself to talk about the Colts “keeping our mouths shut” in preparation for the game, an obvious reference to the tough-talking Jets loquacious ways.
That, for all the athletic talent at their disposal, is what sets the Colts apart even further from many NFL squads or pro sports teams in general. It’s hard to remember a Colts player doing a throat-slashing gesture or pretending to bribe an official with a dollar bill. The reason is simple – the culture of the organization from the top down doesn’t condone it, or as is more often the case, simply turns a convenient blind eye.
Carrying on the legacy of leadership fostered by Tony Dungy (who I was fortunate enough to see while walking in to the stadium), rookie head coach Jim Caldwell has maintained the calm professional demeanor carried out by Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, and so on. It’s just not a place where a whole lot of junk that is tolerated elsewhere flies, and when it inevitably does to some degree, it’s handled internally away from the rumor mill, a serious challenge to be sure.
And this is not a slight against the Saints either. As a Purdue grad I love watching Drew Brees pick apart defenses and it’s been a great story to see the Saints represent New Orleans in a positive light as it still picks up the pieces from Hurricane Katrina.
But watching the Colts smiling and laughing as they left the field Sunday was a reminder that sports can still be won with high standards at an elite level.