- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2007

MIAMI - Peyton Manning no longer has to face critics who don’t think he could win a big-time football game.

Stymied on the big stage at the University of Tennessee and throughout his professional career, Manning wasn’t great in his first Super Bowl appearance, but he didn’t have to be as the Indianapolis Colts outlasted the Chicago Bears 29-17 at a drenched Dolphin Stadium last night for their first NFL championship in 36 seasons.

Manning, who had experienced postseason setbacks six times in his first eight seasons, was named the game’s Most Valuable Player with a solid-but-not-spectacular performance, completing 25 of 38 passes for 247 yards and one touchdown.

The highest-paid player in the NFL this season at about $10 million and the most visible athlete in the nation this side of Tiger Woods with his numerous endorsement deals, Manning now has a ring to go with his commercials.

“To come up short before has been disappointing, but somehow, some way we were able to learn from those defeats and be a stronger and better team,” Manning said. “It sure is nice to be on this championship team. I put a lot of hard work into this, but our whole team put a lot of work into this. We truly got here as a team.”

In addition to Manning’s first title, Tony Dungy won his first championship and became the first black coach to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

“I need to dedicate this to the guys who came before me, good coaches who could have done this had they gotten the opportunity,” Dungy said. “It feels good to be the first and to represent the guys that paved the way.”

Reaching the Super Bowl with an 18-point comeback against New England two weeks ago, the Colts found themselves down instantly when Chicago rookie Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown.

But Indianapolis proved to be too strong for the Bears, making their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1985 season title team.

Manning, whose myriad endorsement deals have him wearing a fake moustache, telling a deli worker to “cut that meat” and cheering on moving men, coffee servers and paper boys, did not appear in any new commercials last night that filled CBS’ coffers to the tune of $2.6 million per 30-second advertisement.

While the gigantic home audience watched the commercials, the entertainment and the game in comfort, the 75,000-plus in attendance experienced two kinds of history: Hester’s opening-kickoff touchdown was a first and a steady rain that had fans pulling out their ponchos for the first time in Super Bowl history.

Chicago, the seven-point underdog, had a majority of the crowd on its side but not enough big plays in its favor.

Before the game, Cirque du Soleil performed and was met with a courtesy applause. The Marine Corps Band from Quantico, Va., followed, and the pregame festivities ended with Billy Joel playing piano and singing the national anthem at his second Super Bowl. Five fighter jets got the crowd going by screaming over the stadium.

Much like the Rolling Stones did last year in Detroit, the Prince-featured halftime show was worth skipping a trip to the bathroom or concession stand. Playing on an elaborate stage shaped like the symbol he used to be referred to as, using four different guitars and being accompanied by the Florida A&M; marching band, Prince performed for about 12 minutes, including hits “Let’s Go Crazy” and finishing appropriately enough, as the rain intensified with “Purple Rain.”

With 11 minutes, 44 seconds remaining, unknown cornerback Kelvin Hayden sealed Indianapolis’ title with a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown.

A championship for the Colts was a long time coming. The Super Bowl appearance was their first since moving to Indianapolis in 1984 and first since rookie Jim O’Brien made the game-winning field goal as time expired in Super Bowl V.

The Colts were a Baltimore fixture for nearly 40 years, winning two NFL championships and a Super Bowl. Owner Robert Irsay moved the team to Indianapolis on March 29, 1984, when the famous Mayflower moving trucks packed up the Colts and hit the road. They set up shop at Fall Creek Elementary School in Indiana.

“It was a lot of high anxiety and high energy, a lot of bedlam and confusion,” said Jim Irsay, Robert’s son and the Colts’ owner. “I can remember the truck in first gear, pulling up the hill to come into the complex. We relocated to an elementary school, and it was quite an adventure. We had to begin again in terms of finding employees.”

From 1998 to 2002, the Colts made three franchise-defining decisions.

Enter Manning in 1998, chosen No. 1 overall ahead of Ryan Leaf. Manning is this decade’s most prolific quarterback and Leaf is the quarterbacks coach/head golf coach at West Texas A&M.;

Enter Bill Polian in 1999 as president, leaving Jim Irsay to concentrate on ownership. Polian built four Buffalo Super Bowl participants and engineered the drafting of Edgerrin James in his first season.

And enter Dungy in 2002. A successful coach in Tampa Bay, Dungy became available after another disappointing playoff season with the Bucs. The Colts haven’t missed the playoffs since Dungy arrived.

Robert Irsay died in January 1997, but thanks to his son’s hires, the decision-making of Polian, the play of Manning and the leadership of Dungy, the Colts are a franchise in fine shape. Their new stadium, Lucas Oil Stadium, opens in 2008 and the city is a candidate to play host to the Super Bowl in 2011.

Most importantly for Indianapolis, it has the best team in the NFL.

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