Home > General Messages > NY Times: Indianapolis Mayor Reflects His City and His Team

NY Times: Indianapolis Mayor Reflects His City and His Team

February 5, 2010


Mayor Greg Ballard of Indianapolis was expected to arrive in Miami on Thursday evening. His arrival may come as a shock to some here who thought Indianapolis didn’t have a mayor.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, C. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, became the national face of the city and its recovery efforts. Ballard, who was elected in 2007, said his mission in South Florida was to spread the good news of Indianapolis and to wrestle away some of the attention from Nagin.

“I know that people, because of Katrina, know Mayor Nagin a little bit more,” he said. “That’s fine. I absolutely understand the sympathy angle, and I do wish them well.”

We know why we should care about the Saints. We’ve been beaten over the head with it. The Saints are an underdog lover’s dream, too great a story to pass up. Players talk on automatic pilot about the post-Katrina devastation. A city practically under water, making its way back. An N.F.L. team that had been an N.F.L. disaster, reaching the Super Bowl for the first time.

O.K. We get it.

But beyond rooting interests, why should we care about Indianapolis? Why care about the Colts? There is no devastation, no disaster. In fact, Ballard said the city’s economy was “holding its own.”

“Because of the diversity of the economy, Indiana is doing a little better than most,” he said. As a franchise, the Colts have been one of the most successful teams of the decade. So why should we care?

Because in an era of bells and whistles, there is something to be said for simplicity and efficiency. Indianapolis is a big city with a small-town feel, a family-oriented city. One or two cities may be more exciting hosts, but none do it better. There are more combustible football teams, but none in the last 11 years have been as consistently excellent as the Colts.

Indianapolis is hosting the men’s Final Four this spring. The N.F.L. combine makes Indianapolis its home, and the city will host the Super Bowl in 2012. This is no Mardi Gras city, and the Colts are not a Mardi Gras team.

“We do the big things right,” Ballard said.

While Nagin became a national celebrity because of Katrina, Ballard has remained anonymous. That is beginning to change.

If Nagin is the face of New Orleans, Ballard, 55, is the spirit of Indianapolis.

He was raised in the city, where he attended an all-boys Catholic school. He also grew up without the N.F.L. The city did not have a team until the Colts relocated from Baltimore in 1984.

“Everybody was a Chicago Bears fan,” he said. Not Ballard.

“As hard as this is to believe,” he said, “I was a Colts fan. My favorite player was Raymond Berry. I loved him because he was so precise in how he did his work.”

Berry was a self-made player, much like his quarterback, Johnny Unitas, who played semipro football before working his way up. “I like those kinds of stories,” he said. “Not only Indianapolis, but all of Indiana appreciates somebody who just does the work, does it for the right reasons.

“You can’t just win in Indiana. You’re going to have to win the right way to get full support. They do things the right way. Hard work, they do things smartly, they give back to the community. They bring the city together. In any city there are differences, but when the Colts play, all the differences seem to be cast aside and everybody is just cheering for the Colts pretty strongly.”

Ballard attended Indiana University, where he earned a degree in economics. Instead of going into the workaday world, he joined the Marines. His parents were speechless.

“They were shocked,” Ballard said. “I came from a nonmilitary family; they never saw it coming.”

Ballard joined because he didn’t want to fall into a daily grind. “At that time, I saw everybody graduating,” he said. “They looked like they went to work for a company for 40 years. They’d take two weeks off a year, spend two weeks of vacation in Florida. I didn’t see myself doing that for the next 40 years. I just wanted something different. You can’t get much different than the Marines.”

Ballard retired from the Marines in 2001 as a lieutenant colonel after a 23-year career that included a tour in the first Gulf War and several commendations. He said he wanted to be with his two children, who were beginning their first and second years of high school. In 2007, after working in the private sector, he decided to run for mayor. No established Republican wanted to take on the two-term incumbent Bart Peterson.

Despite being an overwhelming underdog, Ballard won. His victory was called the most stunning upset in the history of Indiana politics.

The lesson learned — one he has applied to this Super Bowl — is that you cut through all the hype, ignore the press clippings. You run the race and play the game.

The New Orleans Saints have become America’s team, a team of destiny.

“There is some of that, and frankly, I understand that fully,” Ballard said. “But at the end of the day, when they get on the field, all of that stops. I think the Colts are a team on a mission this year. I think they’re going to be very difficult to stop.”

No flash. No dash. The Colts are just good.

Sunday may very well be a reality check for “Who Dat” nation.

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