When the Colts embarked on the 2018 season, they had much to prove - to themselves, to each other, to their fans, and to their community.
"After three mediocre seasons - we had to win the fans back, we had to win the city back," said Steve Campbell, Vice President of Communications for the Colts.
Getting off to a 1-5 start wasn't exactly what they envisioned.
"I think when you start off like that, you kind of get written off quickly and rightfully so," said kicker Adam Vinatieri.
Still, there was no panicking.
"The world saw 1-5, we didn't," said General Manager Chris Ballard.
That confidence showed - on the field and off.
"Even though it looked bleak at the time, still you saw that the product was there. It was just a matter of time before it was going to surface and create some wins down the road," said Brent Vogel with the Indy Blue Crew.
The president of largest and oldest Colts fan Club, Vogel met Ballard at the Colts Town Hall last spring.
"He shook my hand and I told him I was was the president of the Blue Crew and he took my book out of my hand and he wrote down his number and said, 'Hey if you need anything, you give me a call.' I was like, 'Wow. I just got the GM of the Colts' number.' And of course, I was grinning from ear to ear."
Vogel invited Ballard to stop by their tailgate at Colts training camp last summer - and he did.
"I'm sitting at my desk at work the next day and I get this text. I'm like, 'Who is this? I don't even know this number.' It says, 'Hey Brent. This is Chris Ballard. This is my personal cell phone number. If you need to get a hold of me for anything, feel free to reach out.' And I'm like, 'Holy cow!'"
So in October, with the Colts sitting at 1-5, Vogel knew just what to do.
"There were some guys kind of moping around and I reached out to him and said, 'Hey, we could use a little pep talk. Do you mind coming out and doing a social with us? Obviously you're not going to be drinking or anything, but come out and talk to the group and try to give us a little extra kick before we go into the stadium to root on our team?' And he said, 'Yeah, absolutely. No problem.'"
That was before the Bills game. The Colts won - and Vogel heard from Ballard again.
"He texted me after that game and said, 'I'll be out next week.' And then after we won that game, he said, 'I'll be out next week.' And it turned into an every week thing," he said. "When we were playing the Tennessee Titans, we have a lot of Titans friends that come into town for the game and he came out and did his thing and those guys came up to me and they were like, 'Dude, that's just incredible.'"
During his end of the season press conference, Ballard thanked the fans and talked about his visit with the Blue Crew.
"I will never forget, we were 1-5 and I get a text from the Blue Crew. They want me to come out. There was a little doubt," he said. "Well absolutely, I am going to show up. You all know me well enough. Even when it's not good, I'll be around and I'm not scared to answer the hard questions when they need to be answered."
And that's what he did - week after week.
"Coming from Kansas City - it's a midwestern town, it's a blue collar, work your butt off to get what you want and the rewards will come to you," said Scott Sylvester, Director of the Blue Crew. "Frank (Reich), he played in Buffalo, another blue collar city - not really Midwest, but it has a Midwest mentality up there. Frank was in Indy before, so I think they get it."
And together, they've made quite an impression.
"The last home game of the year, Ballard came out and did his normal thing and he had something tucked under his arm," Sylvester said. "At the end of his speech, he says, 'Well, we have a gift for you guys.' It's a game jersey - it's not like one that you get in the pro shop - it's a game jersey that has No. 18 and Blue Crew on the back. And this is coming from the GM. This guy is the head of football and he's connecting with the fans in this way. There were tears in the audience because we've never had that kind of connection before with the Colts."
After starting the season 1-5, the Colts won nine of their next 10 games, made the playoffs, beat the Texans in a wild card game in Houston, and ultimately lost to Ballard's former team, the Kansas City Chiefs, in the divisional round.
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"Doing the things we did, the way we came back and fought strong, I think the city really embraced that and loved it," said wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.
"We kind of showed them what we were all about and it's hard not to cheer and support a team that slowly but surely not only digs its way out, but just keeps going and going and going," Vinatieri said.
"We left our hearts on the field every game," said quarterback Andrew Luck.
On the way home from Kansas City, Coach Frank Reich was inspired to write a letter to Colts fans. Reflecting on their journey and calling it a special year, he thanked fans for their unwavering support and shared some of the lessons they learned.
"And although we didn't quite make it to the top of the mountain this year, you can rest assured there were many lessons learned from our 2018 expedition that will help us in our climb for next year's season," he said.
Just like it will for 31 teams - for the Colts, this season ended in disappointment. But it also ended with hope.
"Any time you can build off hope, it gives you some positive vibes," said tackle Anthony Castonzo.
The Colts will carry those vibes into next season.
"You could feel the excitement building through the city and that's what we want to continue to build upon," Ballard said.
For the fans, it's about winning. But it's also about connecting.
"The fans here, we are notorious for being very fickle and picky when it comes to our sports teams," Sylvester said. "I think this is one of those things where we can really connect with some of these players. I think the fact that we have some young rookies that are coming up that are playing out of their minds helps connect to some of the younger folks that may not have been around during the Peyton era."
"The type of people we brought in are really going to make it fun in the future," said Vogel. "I look forward to 2019 and beyond."
In the words of Frank Reich, "The Horseshoe is back, baby."
And so are the fans.
For information on joining the Indy Blue Crew, email: email@example.com.