"It's all about seeing our boys."
That was the sentiment held by Nanette Williams at Day 1 of the Indianapolis Colts' training camp at Anderson University on Sunday. It's safe to say it's the same for the few thousand fans who lined up along University Boulevard, walked through a chute of NFL merchandise and kiosks and sat on bleachers or even in practice field grass just to get a glimpse of their favorite gridiron stars.
Many made the short drive from Indianapolis, but fans came from all over the state to catch the retooled team in action for the first time in 2013. Some spent time picking up gear from a gift shop tent, others watched their children play games at Colts City, but everyone eventually made their way to the practice field. The message was clear: football is back. And the fans can't wait.
"At events like this, I'm like a 12-year-old boy," said Williams, who came from Rising Sun with her husband Dennis. "And I think they do a good job. A lot of training camps don't let you get so close."
The Williamses are die-hard. They've been to every Colts training camp since the team moved in 1984 and they're season-ticket holders. They even travel to a few road games every year. What they've seen is a surge in popularity with the team in recent years, partly because of the rise in football popularity throughout the country.
The sport has supplanted baseball as the de facto national pastime, and even in a state known for its basketball tradition, football is quickly becoming king. Fans are starved to watch even exhibition action at events like training camps, and NFL teams are the beneficiaries.
But the city is also benefiting. The Colts traveled to Anderson for training camp every year from 1984 to 1998, then spent a decade-long stint at Rose-Hulman Institute in Terre Haute. Since 2010, the camp has come back to Anderson, and the fans are generally appreciative. Dennis Williams said the area improved considerably during the 10-year hiatus.
"It used to be a little shady, and there weren't many places to go if you wanted a hotel or something to eat. It's gotten a lot better," he said. "Compare that to Terre Haute, which is kind of out of the way and there's really nothing to do there."
Those feelings were echoed by Indianapolis residents, representing a good portion of the fans attending the camp Sunday. Todd Mattern of Indianapolis traveled to camp last year and this year brought his wife and 9-year-old son. For families like his, the accessibility of Anderson is very convenient. He said he plans to spend some time in the city and visit some favorite food spots.
"Terre Haute is kind of a jaunt for people from Indy. You can just shoot right up I-69 to get here," Mattern said.
Brenda Dagan and Kate Risch of Indianapolis agreed. Sunday was their first taste of training camp after years of being Colts fans. They came hoping to get in, get some autographs and get out, and the central location of Anderson made it easy.
"This is a beautiful campus. Plus the weather is amazing so that should make it more enjoyable," Dagan said.
Still, the fans came to see the team more than anything else. It was also the first training camp for Kokomo natives Joe Martino and Cally Ayers. Martino's family has attended in years past, but the anticipation of football was an impetus for the couple to come this year. The two said they enjoy Anderson, but for real fans, it doesn't really matter where training camp is.
"I don't think it matters. It's a statewide fan base, and no matter where it is, people will show up and have fun," Martino said.
Another common theme for the spectators was expectations for the team. Despite near-wholesale changes in personnel and front office and the exodus of longtime franchise face Peyton Manning in the past two seasons, fans said they like the direction the team is going. Fueling those expectations is last year's performance. After posting a 2-14 mark in 2011, the team rebounded with the help of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck to go 11-5 and return to the playoffs.
"There are a few exceptions, but I think for most of us, the name on the back of the jersey doesn't matter too much. We just want to see our team win," Ayers said.
— Story by Jack Molitor of The Herald Bulletin. Photo credit: Don Knight. Reposted with permission.
Anderson University is a private Christian university of about 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson University continues to be recognized as one of America's top colleges by U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, and Forbes. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, music, nursing, and theology.