At the University of Alabama, football isn’t so much a sport as it is a religion. The program claims 17 National Championships dating back to 1925.
But it wasn’t the team’s success or the tradition around it that attracted Colts center Ryan Kelly - it was their leader.
“Out of the five schools I was evaluating, it was the one school that never promised me anything,” he said. “Everybody else, they’d promise you to start right away or a bunch of other empty promises. I just never felt comfortable with any coach the way I did with Coach Saban.”
The University of Alabama has more current players in the NFL than any other school.
“There are just so many guys in the league from Bama,” Kelly said. “Every game, I play against somebody that went there.”
But for his first three seasons, he was the lone representative of the Crimson Tide in the Colts locker room.
That changed in May, when the Colts signed Alabama tight end Hale Hentges as an undrafted free agent. He impressed during offseason training, created a buzz during camp, and made the 53-man roster.
“At the end of the day, you need rookies to win in this league. You need guys who consistently play and guys who give effort,” Kelly said. “He’s a great guy and we’re lucky to have him.”
Coming from a school like Alabama prepared them both for the next level.
“It’s such a blessing to come from a place like that because of the competition that we went against every day in practice,” said Hentges. “Every day, I was going up against future NFL players. It helped get you in the mindset and develop your skills.”
Some would say playing for Alabama is like playing for an NFL team.
But Kelly puts the age old question to rest.
“People used to ask me all the time, would Alabama beat an NFL team. I’m like, ‘Absolutely not.’ They would get demolished every single day. Just the level of talent - you’re talking about a handful, maybe two handfuls of elite players on one team and then you have 53 elite players on one team. It’s never going to happen.”
For Hentges, it was comforting to arrive in Indianapolis knowing he had a former teammate in the locker room.
“Ryan was a redshirt senior my freshman year - a captain for us on our National Championship team that beat Clemson. I just remember him being a great leader, that’s the biggest thing - someone who always came in and did what he was supposed to do, someone who worked extremely hard, and someone that I looked to as a freshman to understand how to play college football and live the life of a college athlete.”
He has one memory of Kelly in particular that stands out. It happened during the National Championship game.
“We were playing a really good Clemson defense and as all freshman do, I’ve got wide eyes. We’re in the huddle and he just looks at me and he basically says, ‘Don’t poop your pants.’ That’s great advice,” he laughed. “It transcends all levels.”
Kelly doesn’t remember it, but he does remember the hardworking young tight end he played with.
“He was the same guy that he is now - a guy who wanted to do his job and made sure he wasn’t going to let the team down. I think that’s the guy he still is today - just a lot more polished and developed as a tight end.”
Hentges said he took Kelly’s advice to heart in college and he’ll continue to do so as he adjusts to life in the NFL.
“It’s kind of the same thing as when I was a freshman in college,” he said, “only now, I’m a rookie. I still need to figure out how I prepare as a professional athlete, how do I conduct myself in an interview - those are all things that I’ll look to guys like Ryan, guys like Jack Doyle - to show me the ropes.”
Like Kelly, Hentges said it was Nick Saban who ultimately sold him on Alabama.
“Coach Saban looked me in the eye and he was like, ‘You are not guaranteed to play - now or ever. But I can guarantee you we’re going to win games, we’re going to compete on a national level, you’re going to get a great degree, and you’re going to become a better man and develop your character on and off the field,’” he said. “All those things just struck a chord in my heart. I felt like, here’s someone that I just respect so much already and after that conversation, I just wanted to play for that guy. I wanted to show him that I belong. I wanted to show him that I could be a contributor on this team. I think it just sparked a competitive fire."
As both men look back on their college careers, their most special memories are of game day and the traditions around it.
“By far, my favorite is the Walk of Champions,” Hentges said. “The whole team gets off the bus and all the fans line up outside the stadium and we walk down what’s called the Walk of Champions. It’s got all the different plaques and National Championships we’ve won. You see the names of people from the early 1900s on. It’s really cool to walk down the storied past with fans cheering your name. That’s when it really sets in, ‘Ok. We’re ready to play a game.’”
For Kelly, the walk is up there, but his favorite game day tradition is no longer.
“Dixieland Delight was my favorite,” he said. “It was always during a home game - if you were beating them in the fourth quarter with five minutes to go, they would play ‘Dixieland Delight’ by the band Alabama and the whole stadium would be singing and in between choruses, they would say everything they wanted to say,” he said.
The team known as the Crimson Tide has an elephant as its mascot. For outsiders, it can be a little confusing.
It can even be confusing for insiders.
“I’m sure if you asked Alabama students, they wouldn’t know either,” said Hentges. “The place where you have to go to find out is the Paul Bryant Museum. In the early 1900s, there was a radio announcer who likened the Alabama offense running the ball to a crimson tide because we wore red and we were rolling over the defense. From that birthed the Crimson Tide. And that’s where ‘roll tide’ came from.”
“Roll Tide!” is the rally cry of the Alabama fans.
But what it actually means is up to the user.
“It’s just what it is,” said Kelly. “It could be agreeing. It could be saying goodbye…”
“It can mean anything,” Hentges said. “If the professor said we don’t have homework or no test, it would be, ‘Roll tide!’ But let’s say you did really bad on a test, it’s like, ‘Roll tide. Maybe next time.’”
For Kelly, having an Alabama teammate is a way to reconnect with his alma mater.
“The more years I get removed from the university, I feel like I have less connection with it,” he said. “But then, it comes back. Whenever he makes a catch in practice, I’m like, ‘Bama!’ I was never able to do that before.”
From Alabama to Indiana.
From crimson to blue.
There’s one thing these teammates hope they get another opportunity to do...
Walk onto the field together before a big game - and walk off champions.