Revenge of the Hoosiers

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Jeff Haynes / AFP/ Getty

Quarterback Peyton Manning holds the Vince Lombardi trophy after defeating the Chicago Bears, February 4, 2007, at Dolphin Stadium in Miami, Florida.

After the Indianapolis Colts' Super Bowl victory over the Chicago Bears last night, all the talk today is about Peyton Manning finally slapping the can't-win-the-big-one monkey off his back. But in their revelry, Indianapolis residents — Hoosiers, as everyone in Indiana is called — seem to be throwing off their own ape: their city's image as a small, sleepy backyard cabin to Chicago's cosmopolitan, big-shouldered big house just three hours away.

I'm not fond of the idea of cities using pro sports franchises to validate their self-worth; there are too many Super Bowl champion towns out there whose schools, economies and infrastructures remain mired in the cellar. But in this instance, Indianapolis can probably be excused for seeking affirmation on the NFL stage — if only because the shadow to the north that it's lived under for so long has been such a, well, a bear.

I should know. I watched this particular Super Bowl drama from a unique perspective: I grew up in Indianapolis, spent some of my favorite career years in Chicago and now live in Miami, where this past week I could watch the Interstate 65 complexes of superiority and inferiority play out on South Beach. Bears fans were the in-your-face, we're-a-real-city crowd whenever they spotted the softer, royal blue clusters of Colts backers. I even heard one Chicagoan hurl the "redneck" epithet. (Miamians, meanwhile, just got a good laugh watching pale, overweight Midwesterners trying to swagger on Ocean Drive.)

Some of the heckling was just good-natured football fun. But the mean-spirited stuff was downright unseemly for a city with Chicago's supposed reputation for Heartland amiability — perhaps a frustrated sign that Chicagoans knew deep down their football team wasn't as good as the Colts? — and it sounded even hypocritical coming from folks whose town carries its own Second City angst.

Super Bowl revenge, as a result, was all that much sweeter for my fellow Hoosiers. Even when cultural arbiters like Hollywood pay tribute to Indiana, it's usually couched in quaintness. Sports movies like Hoosiers and Breaking Away tend to emphasize a parochial amateurness that keeps the state from being taken seriously as a pro player setting — although Indianapolis, in fact, bills itself as the world's amateur sports capital — while films like Brian's Song and The Natural showcase Chicago as an Elysian field of major-league legends.

And don't even mention how other genres have glorified Chicago at Indiana's expense — like Alfred Hitchcock's thriller North By Northwest, in which Cary Grant gets chased between Chicago and Indianapolis. In Chicago, Cary does suave, urbane things like thwart the bad guys at a high-rent art auction; in Indiana he gets attacked by a crop duster in a scene that makes the rural fields I used to run in look like a benighted dust bowl. Frank Sinatra sang about Chicago's Union Stockyards — but never about the Indianapolis stockyards I worked at in the summers with my grandfather.

Indiana, in short, has always played a Midwestern version of New Jersey to Chicago's New York (with Gary thrown in as Newark). Even when Indianapolis acquired the Colts in 1984, it was done in an underhanded way, the team stealing out of Baltimore in the middle of the night in trailer trucks, something the Hoosier capital has never really been able to live down.

Until last night. Having grown up as a Bears fan in pre-Colts Indianapolis — the first NFL game my father ever took me to see was at Soldier Field — I've never been as ardent a fan of Peyton Manning's crew as my younger brother is (or my son, whom I've gladly let my Hoosier relatives turn into a Colts enthusiast). But today I can't help feeling that the balance of urban cachet back home along I-65 has changed to a certain, positive extent. Indianapolis may never be Chicago, but it's certainly no longer the underachieving city I once left for Chicago, as its surprisingly vibrant downtown shows today. Indianapolis is, in fact, a showcase of its own — one that displays how robustly American cities can still reinvent themselves. If it takes a football game to make the world realize that my hometown deserves to be something more than second fiddle to the Second City, so be it.