INDIANAPOLIS -- As the IHSAA playoffs advance toward the championship games on Thanksgiving weekend, it stirs more than a few memories for Colts players who left their imprint in Indiana high school football.
Guard Joe Reitz, linebacker A.J. Edds, quarterback Curtis Painter, safety Stevie Brown and running back Darren Evans all grew up in Indiana and gained their early football fame at the state's prep level. They describe those years as some of the best of their lives. And they are proud that their professional team, the Colts, is a main sponsor of the IHSAA postseason.
Their message for players who advance to next weekend's title games at Lucas Oil Stadium is simple and straight forward.
"Cherish the moment," Reitz said. "Take it all in. Look around the stands, take it in and soak it all up. … It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. One of my big regrets is that I never got to play for a state championship."
Still, one of Reitz's fondest memories is a playoff game from his senior season at Hamilton Southeastern. It was the second round, and the Lafayette Jeff Bronchos came in undefeated. Few observers gave Southeastern a chance.
"We upset them," Reitz recalled. "Fans stormed the field, running around. Everybody's going crazy. It was a great feeling to pull off an upset like that. Pretty special."
Reitz's story is well known in Indy. He played tight end in high school but was more heavily recruited as a basketball player. He starred in basketball at Western Michigan but returned to football when he signed with the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad in 2008. He later landed with the Colts and made his NFL debut at Houston on Sept. 11.
Reitz's favorite Colts player was tight end Ken Dilger. After watching Dilger turn a delay play into a big gainer for the Colts one Sunday afternoon, Reitz immediately began pleading his case to his Southeastern coach.
"Hey, did you see (that) Dilger ran for 50 yards?" Reitz recalled what he told his coach. "We have to run that." And so they did.
Edds played at Greenwood High School in an Indianapolis suburb before moving on to college football at Iowa. The Miami Dolphins drafted him in the 2010 fourth round. The Dolphins waived him in September, and New England claimed him. After a stint on the Patriots' practice squad, he signed with the Colts on Sept. 28.
"Not many guys have a chance to play football at this level," Edds said. "To be able to do it in your hometown, it's a privilege. It's something I don't take lightly."
Nor did Edds take his high school experience lightly. He speaks with pride about being named a Greenwood captain as a junior. He also credits his former Greenwood coach, Rick Wimmer, who is now at Fishers, for instilling in him a sense of "how to carry yourself as a leader."
"High school football," Edds said, "is special for anybody who plays. It's a great chance to go out there and lay it on the line with some of your best friends. It's football, kind of, in its purest form."
Edds' team at Greenwood made it to the 2005 regional round and met Roncalli. Both are Indy south-side schools, one public and the other private. Both were ranked. The stands were packed.
"It was a great environment," Edds said. "That's what high school football is all about. It was getting late (in the fall), so it was cold. Two physical teams kind of duking it out. We came up short, but it was a great memory."
Edds is hopeful that players participating in the 2011 state tournament create memories for themselves.
"I would say, have fun with the moment," the Colts linebacker said. "Leave it all on the field and have fun with it. Cherish it and try to keep it close to your heart. It's OK to be emotional, whether it be on the winning or losing end."
Painter, who has started at quarterback in the Colts' last seven games, is a 2004 graduate of Vincennes Lincoln. He also was a basketball and baseball standout there. His football team captured a sectional title in 2003, one of only six in the school's history.
"That's probably my favorite memory," said Painter, who went on to play at Purdue before being drafted by the Colts in the 2009 sixth round. "It was a pretty special year for us."
Painter's advice for this year's state finalists: "Good luck and enjoy it. I think high school is some of the best times I had playing sports, and definitely playing football. There is no guarantee how long you'll play football, so just enjoy the moment and enjoy the game."
Brown, a seventh-round pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2010, signed with the Colts in mid-September. He played collegiately at Michigan after a standout career at Columbus East High School, about an hour south of Indianapolis. His former Olympians team remains in contention in Class 4A and meets Indianapolis Cathedral in a semi-state game.
Asked what he remembers most about his high school playing days, Brown cites his games against rival Columbus North. The 2006 graduate of East High School also has vivid and fond memories of playing for veteran Coach Bob Gaddis.
"I talked to Coach Gaddis last week," Brown said. "He definitely taught us a lot. He teaches more than just football (and) X's and O's. He teaches about character things off the field."
Brown is delighted to be playing for his home-state pro team. It's a chance to re-connect with family and friends. And it's an opportunity to get reacquainted with Indiana high school football.
"It's definitely moving up in the ranks," he said about Indiana's football reputation in the nation. "Friday nights during football season, you're seeing stadiums packed all the time, everywhere."
Coming Monday on Colts.com: Colts running back Darren Evans remembers his record-breaking seasons at Warren Central High School, which won four consecutive state championships during his years there.