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Originally published on March 29, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS — Looking back three decades, it all happened so fast.

Rick Russell was having lunch at the Indianapolis Athletic Club on March 28, 1984, when a phone was brought to his table. It was Johnny B. Smith, Mayflower CEO and chairman. Russell, president of Mayflower’s moving operations, had to return to the office immediately.

The Colts were coming.

Fourteen tractor-trailer trucks were dispatched to the Baltimore Colts facility in Owings Mills, Md. Drivers weren’t told their destination until the next day: The soon-to-be-famous 600-mile trek to Indianapolis.

“It’s probably the most famous sporting move ever,” said Russell, 68 and retired in Longboat Key, Fla. 

David Frick, then Indianapolis Deputy Mayor, waited with Mayor Bill Hudnut for word that the Mayflowers were on the move.

“It’s been a blur,” said Frick, 69, a semi-retired lawyer for Faegre Baker Daniels. “It’s hard to imagine it was 30 years ago because so many of the events, I can still re-live.”

Hudnut and Smith were next-door neighbors. They waited out much of the move together.

“You know, Bill, I feel just like Dwight D. Eisenhower on D-Day,” Smith said to Hudnut according to a 2009 story in The Indianapolis Star. “I know my troops are out there. I just don’t know where they are.”

“I was a nervous wreck,” Frick said.

“I always say Baltimore lost the Colts,” Hudnut said in a 2004 interview with The Star. “We didn’t steal them.”

Before Rick Hite became Indianapolis Police Chief in 2012, he was a Baltimore cop for 31½years, 12½of those on protection detail for Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who later became Maryland governor. It was Hite who phoned Schaefer in the wee hours of March 29 to deliver the bad news.

“I felt like I was the Grim Reaper on this one,” Hite said. 

Not all the men involved or affected by Indianapolis landing an NFL team can share their thoughts on the 30-year anniversary of the Mayflower move. Colts owner Bob Irsay, Smith and Schaefer have died. Current Colts owner Jim Irsay was unavailable after checking into an out-of-state health care facility for treatment following his arrest on preliminary charges of driving while impaired and four counts of possession of a controlled substance.

But there are enough people who experienced what happened — from the months leading up to the Mayflower trucks’ arrival at the Baltimore Colts complex on March 28, 1984 to when they were unloaded at Fall Creek Elementary School on the 4900 block of Kessler Boulevard East Drive two days later — to provide a detailed account.

Not much notice 

In the fall of 1983, Russell remembered Smith first broaching the subject of Indianapolis possibly landing the Colts.

Russell: Johnny B. told me he had gotten together with the guys that were putting together an offer for the Colts; Mayor Bill Hudnut, the Capital Improvement Board and all the leaders in town. They were going to offer all these things to the Colts in order to get them to move to Indy.

He said, “I just thought you ought to know, I threw in a free move of all their equipment, training center and offices and all.” At that time, the Colts were negotiating with other cities, including Phoenix. I asked, “Can you give me a contact so I can start to learn something about what needs to be done if we do get the team?” He gave me (Bob Irsay attorney Michael) Chernoff’s name. Chernoff said, “Oh, no, no, no. We can’t have any moving companies there.” I said, “Well, give me as much notice as you can if it’s going to happen. It’s a big move.” I talked a little to him about what would need to be done, so I had some expectation. Then I kind of forgot about it.”

Frick handled the city’s negotiations with Chernoff on finalizing the deal. But the lawyer recalls another date of importance, Feb. 23, 1984, when he brought Bob Irsay to the Hoosier Dome for the first time.

Frick: He wanted to see the stadium and obviously we wanted to show him the stadium, that we were pretty serious. I took him over to the Hoosier Dome. We were about three or four months from having the project completed. It was sufficient that he could see the place he was going to play.

We walked through the vomitory out on the field and he was silent. It struck me as a little bit of an odd situation because he was so talkative most of the time. I asked him, “Mr. Irsay, are you OK?” There was a long pause. He said, “You know, these are the Colts colors.” The silver in the seats, the white roof and the dark blue seats were all Colts colors. He said, “You know, this just might be meant to be.” It struck me. I then realized we had moved up in his thinking from just being a bargaining chip in his dealings with Baltimore to a true, viable alternative to locate his franchise.

Mark Herrmann (former Purdue quarterback who joined the Colts in 1983): That whole season, we had heard rumblings something was going to happen. Mr. Irsay was not happy. There was not a smooth relationship between he and the city of Baltimore. The fan support was not great by any means. It was not a fun season. I had just come from Denver, where everybody was just so rabid about the Broncos. It was such a shock to me to have to go into a half-empty stadium and not have that support from a tremendously traditional franchise that had been behind that team forever.As players, we put those distractions on the back burner, but it was always being brought up and talked about.

I think a lot of those fans were living back in those Johnny Unitas days, Artie Donovan, Tom Matte, the late-’50s and early-’60s. We were kind of underachievers and those guys still lived there, so it was always there, and there was always that comparison. That gave you an empty feeling. This is our team, but we’re not there to support you really. We’re kind of living in the past and you guys aren’t living up to our view of what the Colts are in our minds.”

Hite, who grew up in Baltimore: My first football was a Colts football. You have to remember, back in those days, this was before the multi-million dollar contract. It was not unheard of that the Colts players lived in the community where they played. They worked part-time in the off-season. They sold cars, some owned car dealerships. Some worked in the liquor business, they owned bars and restaurants. … People knew who these guys were.

Speculation was rampant about what Bob Irsay might do next. The owner was dissatisfied with outdated Memorial Stadium, where attendance had steadily declined. The Colts averaged 38,336 fans in the 52,860-seat venue. The last game drew 20,418.

Pete Ward (now the Colts chief operating officer, an administrative assistant in 1984): Bob Irsay had discussions with the governor of Arizona. We came really this close (holds fingers close together) to moving to Phoenix in late January of ’84. That fell through. There was talk about Memphis, and that kind of dissipated. In March, the talk turned toward Indianapolis. We had to plan for minicamps, the draft, certainly training camp … the schedule is about to come out. By late March, we never expected that we would actually move. We kind of thought it was a negotiating ploy to get a better deal with the city of Baltimore.

Irsay’s much-publicized visits to other cities to gauge interest in the franchise upset Baltimore city officials and fans. On March 27, Maryland’s State Legislature started the process to seize the Colts through eminent domain, a law that allows government to claim private property for public use. Hello, Indianapolis.

Frick: The Colts left Baltimore because they had a terrible stadium, they weren’t drawing crowds and, most importantly, the city of Baltimore and Maryland Legislature sought to take the Colts away from Bob Irsay by using eminent domain. That really called the question for Mr. Irsay. He had to get out of Maryland or they were going to take the franchise away from him.

The city of Baltimore had promised not to use eminent domain, then they broke that promise by trying to get a bill through the legislature in expedited form in a timetable so they could take it away from him.

Chernoff said to The Star in 2004: They had put a gun to our head and cocked it. We couldn’t wait to find out if it was loaded.

Chernoff, 78 and living in Glencoe, Ill., was asked about his memorable comment last year: That was absolutely accurate. I said it, and I meant it. We just didn’t give the mayor (Schaefer) a chance to pull the trigger.Schaefer, however, insisted in a 2004 interview with The Star that he wouldn’t have resorted to using eminent domain to keep the Colts in Baltimore.

Schaefer (in 2004): That’s a bunch of bull. There was some talk of that, but I never would have allowed it. That was never in the picture because I trusted (Irsay). Irsay just downright fooled me. He kept telling me he wasn’t leaving. He kept negotiating with us, and all the time he had already made the deal with Indianapolis.

Moving out 

Equipment manager Jon Scott, who is still with the Colts, received a call from general manager Jim Irsay in the early morning of March 28.

“Hey, I’ve just talked to my dad,” Scott recalled Jim saying. “We’re mo-o-o-ving.”

“Phoenix?” Scott asked.

After a long pause, Jim Irsay said, “No-o-o. Indy-y-y.”

Scott: I thought, “Oh my God. I’m going to a city that I’ve never been to before. It’s about to be our longest road trip ever.” It woke me up, for sure. Instructions were to get as many boxes as I could. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t tell anyone in the building. Don’t tell your parents. Don’t tell your friends. You had to be very secretive. Sure enough, I was able to get a whole bunch of boxes, as many as I could put in my van. We closed the doors (at the complex) early that morning and I started packing football equipment all day and all night.

Russell: I was having lunch at the Athletic Club and the maître d’ brought the telephone to my table. In those days, we didn’t have cell phones. It was Johnny B.

“Rick, you better get back to the office quick,” Russell recalled Smith saying.

“What’s the matter?” Russell asked.

“We’ve got to move the Colts,” Smith said.

“Good, good, that means we’re going to get ‘em,” Russell said.

“I think so, but we’ve got to move ‘em,” Smith said.

“Well, I’ve got time to work on that, don’t I?” Russell said.

“No, we’ve got to move them tonight,” Smith said.

So I jumped in the car and headed back to the office and spent a little bit of time with Johnny and then went to work pulling together all the people and the resources that we were going to need to get it done that night. It was some quick planning.

Chernoff used the Irsay jet to stop by Indianapolis and pick up a Mayflower contact to oversee the move in Baltimore. They flew to Washington, D.C.

Russell: They landed in Washington rather than Baltimore, thinking they didn’t want to be seen by the media when they landed. Everybody was on point on this thing, looking for the jet. The word got out that they had landed in Washington. Media guys were following them downtown from Dulles. They were going to cut through the city, but they couldn’t lose these media people. They pulled into the front lobby of the hotel, and the two people jumped out and went in like they were going to check in, then went out the back door and caught a cab and took that to Alexandria, Va., where our Washington office was located.

We had already talked to Washington and they were busy putting together a crew. I think they got 30-some men to help load and pack everything. We had a bus to run them out to the training center.

Ward: Jim called me down to his office (later that afternoon). He said, “Ten o’clock tonight, you need to be here. My dad says we’re moving to Indianapolis. There’s going to be a lot of Mayflower vans moving in. You need to be here to maintain some semblance of order.”

Colts assistant cinematographer Marty Heckscher: It was kind of a queasy feeling. It was kind of open-ended. I was a young man, my wife and I had a baby on Feb. 13th. There were a lot of changes going on in my life then and now the Colts are moving to Indianapolis? What’s Indianapolis? What am I getting myself into? Then you get yourself busy and you don’t think about it. You’re focused on moving everything. You’re a professional. The emotion, you set aside.

Russell: We had guys in our traffic department in Indianapolis searching for empty tractor-trailer units starting out within 100 miles of the Baltimore training facility. We probably had 3,000 trucks then (but) they had to get there quickly. We widened the circle to 200, 300 miles before we came up with 14 empty ones that were available to handle the job.

We didn’t tell the drivers what they were going to be doing. We just gave them a location to head towards. They went to our Alexandria office and then gradually were sent out one at a time to the Baltimore facility in Owings Mills. I think the first tractor trailer was there in the 7 p.m. range, not long after dark. Then we just kind of sent them in one at a time. There wasn’t room to have all 14 there. The media was onto it by 8 or 9 p.m. They started showing up, knew we were there and what we were doing. We had enough people on the scene to do the job fairly quickly.

Heckscher: The first thing they loaded when the trucks got to the complex were the business records. That first truck went north, the shortest distance to the state line. They wanted to get the records out of state as soon as possible. They took the long way to Indianapolis.

A bus also arrived at the complex.

Ward: I couldn’t figure out what the bus was for. So I went up and got the door open and I went into the bus and there were about 40 Hell’s Angels staring me in the face. They said, “Is this an embassy, man?” They thought it was an embassy moving, which happens in the middle of the night. They didn’t know where they were, which was part of the plan really. They were the packers.

Scott: I had heard a rumor that these guys came from Washington, D.C. I’m in the other room, then I come back in and I’m noticing a lot of these workers have underneath their jackets Baltimore Colts T-shirts on. I’m thinking, “Wait a minute. They’re from D.C. Aren’t they Redskins fans? We might be getting ripped off here a little bit.”

The packers were given 10 minutes to return anything taken while Scott and others left the room.

Scott: We went back in there and there was a pile of stuff. Hats. T-shirts. Sweatshirts.

Heckscher: The trucks were leaving as they were loaded. It was a snowy night. It was kind of yucky. It was kind of like seeing a UFO. Is this really happening? Am I dreaming?

Heckscher, 58, retired in St. Augustine, Fla., with his wife Stephanie, says many Colts employees lived in the adjacent Morningside Heights apartments.

Heckscher: We were all young and mobile. In that kind of realm, it made the nucleus of this organization very tight. We did a lot together. That made the move easier, to be with people you’re comfortable with. They’re like family.

Ward: I was young and I was single. I thought, “OK, I can’t believe it, but here we go.” There was a lot going through your head at the time. We’re uprooting on a very, very, very, very short notice. You’re moving and you don’t know what the situation is going to be like in Indy; where the offices are going to be, where your life is headed, but I went along with it and the rest is history.

Scott: I worked all night until about 4 a.m., went back to my apartment, which was fortunately right next to the complex. Got about an hour’s sleep. Then back to work the next day.

Russell: The last truck left at about 4 a.m. on March 29th. The drivers were instructed to scatter. We didn’t want them to be in a caravan. We didn’t want them hanging out together so as to draw attention to them. We told them to drive 100 miles or so and find a place to get some sleep, then call in the next morning and we would give them their next instructions.

Hite, who got the news of the move about the time the last truck departed and woke up Schaefer with a phone call: I remember it was a cold, blustery day, a little snow. There was some activity at the Colts complex. We had off-duty police working there at the time. … I’ve had to call the mayor on other occasions. We had the sinking of the clipper ship, Pride I (in 1986). I had to wake him to tell him the ship had sunk in the Caribbean.

Hite was amused when told how officials were wary of the trucks being stopped before they could leave the state, hence the secretive instructions.

Hite: The fear of the owner and the mayor of Indianapolis (was) that State Police may stop the vehicles and seize the Colts memorabilia. That was part of the discussion (afterward), the folklore.

Herrmann: I was actually back in Denver. It wasn’t a good season. Just like the rest of the country, we saw the trucks moving along (on TV) and headed for Indianapolis. Needless to say, we were thrilled; a chance to come back home where I grew up (in Carmel) and we left the city of Baltimore, where really I didn’t have any relationship or feeling for the city. I had played some, was hurt some. It was just a tough, tough year. Nothing against the city, it just didn’t feel right. The whole season was not what I expected.

This (move) is good. This is really good. You’ve got a willing city, an excited city. Granted, it was kind a novel approach and novel thing for this city to get pro football, but still, there was an excitement. We want you. We’re excited to have you. It was the total opposite of what we had just come from in Baltimore.

Adjusting on the fly 

Ward, who stayed at the complex after the final Mayflower left: I fell asleep on the floor in my empty office. When I woke up, there were employees arriving for work. They didn’t know what else to do, so they came in. It was 8:30 in the morning. I lifted my head off of the floor and here were my fellow employees staring at me. That was an emotional moment. They were all pretty broken up about it. They had no idea what was going on, what the future held for them. We had a company meeting and basically said who was going and who was not. I wasn’t in charge of that, but that’s how it went down.

Scott: As soon as we landed in Indianapolis, we got out of the Irsay jet and I couldn’t believe all the photographers and all of the cameras. And they followed us all day long. We went to the Hoosier Dome. We went to Fall Creek Elementary School; we were supposed to set up camp (there) and make it an NFL complex. They followed us right over to where we stayed that night. They followed us into the hotel lobby, all the cameras, always on us, right into the elevator. I thought the guys were actually going to get into the elevator with us, but they didn’t. Cameras on us. The doors shut. I had to look over at Jim and say, “I wonder if this is how The Beatles felt back in 1964, coming over from Liverpool (England).”

Russell: At about 11 p.m. (on March 28), I went home to get some sleep and then came back to the office at 8 the next morning. I came up the side door to my office on the second floor and my secretary met me at my door and said, “Have you been down to the lobby? There are two television crews from Baltimore down there who want to talk to you.” I said, “Oh, great. I can’t tell them anything, but I’ll be glad to go down and meet with them.” I went down and explained to them that we were just instructed to load everything up and they would let us know where it’s going. They didn’t like that answer, but they accepted it.

Later that day, the announcement was made (by Hudnut) that they were coming to Indianapolis. We had already told the drivers of the trucks to begin to head toward Indianapolis. We started giving that order to the drivers at about 9 in the morning. Most of them arrived later that day or that night. They were all there within 24 hours after we gave them that instruction. They parked out back at our Mayflower office on Michigan Avenue.

It was Friday when we moved them out to their temporary training center (at Fall Creek Elementary). The helicopters were flying over. We didn’t tell anybody where they were going until the day we delivered at the temporary training center. We had them all come to our facility first and park back near the garage. They went by caravan to their place. That’s when Hudnut was out there waving the trucks on, from in front of our facility, when they made the turn to go South on Michigan Avenue. All of our employees were out in front cheering on the drivers as they pulled out to take everything down to the training center.

Ward: When we got here, it was even more exhausting. It was like starting a franchise, really, from scratch, except that you already had your players and your coaches. We didn’t have a telephone. We didn’t know what our address was. We didn’t have stationery. We didn’t have a copier. We didn’t have anybody to answer telephones. Worst of all, we had a hundred boxes piled up on the floor with no labels on them. So before we could ever start to work on planning for the upcoming season, we had to unload boxes and figure out where everything went. That was a real nightmare. There was not enough time in each day for months. You could have worked 24 hours a day for five months straight and still not get everything done.

Scott: As the first trucks pulled up, we would actually take all the boxes and put them in the gymnasium in a large pile, eight boxes high, and literally open each box, try to figure out what it was and then whose department it belonged to and then put it in the corner of the gymnasium. That took us many, many days.

Ward: My first meal in Indianapolis, Jim called me and he actually had one of the first cell phones, he was going through a Burger King or McDonald’s (drivethru) and he called me and asked if I wanted something.

Historic legacy 

Frick and Chernoff struck a 20-year deal with two five-year options. The city guaranteed the Colts $7 million in annual revenue. Annual rent was $250,000. The Colts and city shared suite license revenue, the team receiving the initial $500,000 and the city getting the rest. Concessions as well as videoboard and signage revenue were shared. The city kept parking proceeds. Game-day operating expenses were the city’s responsibility. Chicago’s Merchant Bank loaned Bob Irsay $15 million to pay off a debt to a Baltimore bank. The city would help subsidize the interest payments. Frick estimates Indianapolis profited at least $2 million per year initially from the Colts coming to town.

Baltimore tried unsuccessfully to sue Smith, Hudnut and Frick in Baltimore City Court. The case got moved to Federal Court and a settlement was eventually reached on Dec. 10, 1985, that included returning Johnny Unitas memorabilia.

Hudnut, Indianapolis mayor from 1976 to 1992, now lives in Chevy Chase, Md. He has said the six-week period of attracting and landing the Colts was his favorite time as mayor. While considered the driving influence in the city’s sports boom and Downtown revitalization, Hudnut has downplayed his role and credited predecessor Richard Lugar for getting the proverbial ball rolling.

Hudnut in 2012: We, as a city, had begun to think bigger under Mayor Lugar. So when I came into office, we started talking about what more we could do to make a mark, to enhance our economy and, to use a phrase, become a major league city. I don’t care what the economists say about the inability of a team to enhance a city’s economic base. It sure seems to me that in this case it did. The city has so much more vitality and there has been so much revitalization Downtown. To me, it’s all paid off.

Frick: I’ve got to confess, every March I think about (the move). Not many people have an opportunity to make such an impact on their community. I was very fortunate to have that opportunity, so I can’t put it out of my mind.

The impact is so profound. It’s the visual image of going to a game on a Sunday afternoon and seeing solid blue throughout the stadium, or the streets filled and the bars filled or you look at the number of people working at the game. The economic impact has been incredible, but the impact on the national scene was even more. It communicated to the entire country that Indianapolis is a great place.

I had a unique experience (last) week. My wife had finally got me to do some touch-up painting at our house. I went in to buy a gallon of paint and the guy recognized me. It was only because the guy was 58 years old.

Russell: The day after the move out, I got calls from our agents in Baltimore. They were really mad at me for Mayflower handling the move of their team. “Do you know what’s going to happen to my business this year? It’s just going to go to hell. Nobody is going to call me.” I said, “Hold on, you know what they say about PR. There’s no such thing as bad PR. Let’s follow up and talk again as the year goes by.” And we did. That year, they had a 20 percent increase in his business. It didn’t affect him negatively at all. The agent apologized later for giving me such a hard time about it.

My boss, Johnny B., is the one that donated (the move). He gets the credit for that because it turned out to be a great PR vehicle for the company over the years. When the Colts and Baltimore play and they show that tape of the van pulling out in the snowy night, it’s just getting Mayflower back on TV. Thirty years, it’s been happening like that.

Last week, I had a policeman visit to verify the ID numbers on my vehicles so I could register them in Florida. About halfway through our conversation, I mentioned that I used to work for Mayflower. He said, “Oh really, I was a cop in Baltimore for 25 years.” So here we go through the story again. It happens all the time. People remember it.

Russell and his family are still diehard Colts fans.

Russell: That’s one thing we got out of the move. Bob let us go pick our season ticket seats and I’ve still got them. We’ve been to almost every game since. My four kids are Colts fans, they use the tickets more than I do, but yeah, I’m still a Colts fan.

So, too, is Hite.

Hite: As long as I don’t say that in Baltimore, I’m fine.

The move’s 30-year anniversary opens an old wound for Baltimore Colts fans, many of whom will never forgive nor forget. They blame Bob Irsay for everything. It doesn’t matter that the city eventually landed another team, the Ravens, and that franchise has since won two Super Bowls.

Ward: I think it’s worked out for both cities. They’ve won some Super Bowls. You still have people who are bitter about the Dodgers’ move from Brooklyn and the (Oakland) Raiders’ move. It’s not unprecedented. There’s always going to be some sensitive feelings.

You can’t put the cause or the blame on any one person. It was a perfect storm, it came together, a lot of different factors. For me, it was kind of a surreal night. You certainly don’t want to go through something like that twice in your life. It certainly was a stressful time. We’ve been in Indy for 30 years, we’ll be here forever and we’re so happy to be here.

Herrmann, 55, eventually retired in his hometown. He works at St. Vincent Sports Performance Center and is a Colts radio analyst.

Herrmann on heartbroken Baltimore fans: There’s part of me that thinks, “Yeah, move on, get over it.” But then, families have grown up cheering for the horseshoe. To see that horseshoe move to Indianapolis, it probably would have been easier for the fans if they would have changed the (Colts) mascot and left that there. That would have eased the pain a little bit. Generations grew up with the Colts. There was that relationship, that feeling that this is our team and you took our team away. As pathetic as it is for those folks to hold this venom against the city of Indianapolis, there’s a part down deep that appreciates the loyalty.

Let’s face it, this was a basketball city, a basketball state. To think of pro football in Indianapolis, yeah, that was kind of outside the realm of your thinking. Everything was so new and kind of exciting but people didn’t know how to react to that team. And to think what it is 30 years later: Super Bowl championship, Super Bowl appearance, Peyton Manning has been through here, now you’ve got Andrew Luck, the fan base is as good as there is in the country. To think we would morph into that back then, I would have thought, “No chance.” But now I think it’s a big league city. It’s fun to think back 30 years ago to what it was and to think about what it is now. Amazing.