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Colts Invading Bears Country

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Colts Invading Bears Country

Shawnah Middlebrook of Hobart, Indiana, roots on her beloved Colts at a sports bar in Portage last Saturday. (Mike Puente/WBEZ)

Football season maybe over with in Chicago but not so three hours south of the city in Indianapolis. The Colts will be playing for the AFC Championship this Sunday against the New York Jets. There used to be a time when you had to drive almost two hours south of Chicago before running into Colts fans. But not anymore. The Colts are making a play not only for another Super Bowl but for fans in Northwest Indiana, usually the Bears den.

Todd and Teresa Wilson own Devon’s Family Restaurant in Rensselaer, Indiana. Todd’s cooking while Teresa is taking orders.

TERESA: Todd come here. Quit peaking around the corner.

The Wilsons’ hometown of Rensselaer is near the mid-point between Chicago and Indianapolis off I-65 in Jasper County, Indiana. Just three years ago during the Colts-Bears Super Bowl matchup, the Bears back then still held a slight edge over the men in blue. Not any more, says Teresa and Todd, both of whom grew up Bears fans while living just north of here in Lake County, Indiana.

TERESA: It’s kind of divided here in town but being as southern as we are, I think it’s three-fourths Colts, quarter Bears.

TODD: Oh yeah. You’re talking a lot more Colts fans around here than Bears fans now.

Rensselaer is a place where, geographically, football fans could go either way. But historically, since Indiana didn’t have an NFL team until the early 80s, people built up loyalties to the Bears. The Bears held its training camp here on the campus of St. Joseph’s College.

WILSON: When we grew up, that was the thing was the Bears. It used to be big-time Bears when they were training here. I came and seen them when they were training here. Good.

The Bears left that training camp in Rensselaer long ago, but loyalties to the Bears stuck. Even when the Colts moved their team to Indianapolis in 1984, most people here stayed with the Bears.

But Todd Wilson says three more winnings season since the Super Bowl for Peyton Manning and the Colts, and three straight seasons of not making the playoffs for the Bears, is taking its toll.

WILSON: You’re talking a lot more Colts fans around here than Bears now. Being that the Colts have done so well over the last few years it’s grown more and more.

Todd Wilson says the Colts fan base has now migrated north past Rensselaer and is now situated squarely in Lake and Porter counties, considered a Bears stronghold.

WILSON: You can even get Colts stuff in the stores in the Merrillville area now. Back three years ago, when we went looking for Bears stuff and Colts stuff to put in the restaurant you couldn’t hardly find it. I see when we go up there north, you see people with Colts hates and jackets on now that you didn’t see very much of.

That’s no surprise to sports marketer Pat Coyle, who used to work in the Colts marketing department.

COYLE: They send players, they send cheerleaders, they send marketing representatives to do all kinds off stuff throughout the state--reaching out to the fans to win over the hearts and minds of folks who’ve grown up Bears fans in Northwest Indiana.

Coyle says over the past few summers, the Colts have brought its Fan Fest to the Valparaiso area, and even displayed its Super Bowl trophy in Merrillville.

COYLE: It’s important to the team that the state of Indiana consider the Colts their team.

At the Buffalo Wild Wings grill and bar in Portage, dozens of Colts fans came out to cheer their team. Despite growing up in Portage, about 45 minutes east of Chicago, Kyle Jenkins never took to the Bears.

JENKINS: I’ve been a Colts fans since 2000. I’ve been through them when they were bad and now they’re great. We’ve all been accused of being bandwagoners, but I’m okay with that. We have a more winning record than the Bears and we beat them in the Super Bowl. I’m cool with that.

Of course, many Bear fans, like Andrew Oest came out as well. Oest says the Bears popularity is still strong in these parts.

OEST: I don’t hate the Colts, but everybody knows this is a predominately Bears country. You go about an hour east of here, it’s all Colts. It doesn’t bother me. They play well every year, so what do you expect?

Shawnah Middlebrook says her loyalty to the Colts is simple.

MIDDLEBROOK: I’m an Indiana girl. The Colts are Indiana. It just makes sense that way.

That being said, Bears fans can find solace in that Northwest Indiana residents declined having their money help pay for the Colts new digs, Lucas Oil Stadium.

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