Most NFL fans and Indiana residents are familiar with the story of the Indianapolis Colts. After months (years?) of a deteriorating relationship with the city of Baltimore, Colts owner Bob Irsay worked out a deal with Indianapolis city leaders to bring the team to the Hoosier capital. When the Colts loaded up their moving vans in the middle of the night and pulled away from the bay forever, Irsay instantly became a polarizing cult figure, despised in Baltimore and beloved in Indianapolis. Hoosiers everywhere rejoiced because we had landed an NFL team at long last. But did you know that the Colts were not the first professional football team to call Indianapolijs home? Two decades before the Horseshoes galloped into town, the Indianapolis Capitols ruled the gridiron in the Circle City.
Beginning life as the Warriors in 1961, Indianapolis’ first professional football team was a founding member of the United Football League (UFL). The UFL was established as a minor league to the NFL and drew many of its best players from the Big Ten, owing undoubtedly to the fact that most UFL franchises were located in the Midwest. When the UFL folded after the 1964 season, the Warriors headed up the road to Fort Wayne, where they joined the Continental Football League (CFL). Although inspired to visions of becoming a “major” league on the pro football landscape by the success of the upstart American Football League (AFL), the CFL, in reality, lived its life as a minor league system until disbanding in 1969.
Adding a bit of international intrigue to this story, the Warriors left Fort Wayne before the 1966 season for the exotic climes of Montreal, where they became the Beavers. Abandoning Canada before the end of the following season, the prodigal Beavers made their way back to Indy, where they were re-christened the more stately “Capitols” for the 1968 season. The Capitols rode the CFL to its death after the 1969 season before catching on with the Atlantic Coast Football League (ACFL) for 1970 and 1971. The ACFL was yet another minor league, but one with a longer tradition than either the UFL or the CFL. In fact, the ACFL had a true player development agreement with the NFL through 1969. Alas, Indy would be bereft of professional football for another 13 years after the Capitols disbanded for good.
(As a side note, the Capitols also won Indianapolis’ first professional football championship, defeating the San Antonio Toros in the CFL championship game in 1969. This fact undoubtedly served as inspiration to Tony Dungy’s crew when they took Super Bowl XLI.)
So the next time you see Peyton Manning dismantling an opposing defense or Dwight Freeney terrorizing a scrambling quarterback, keep in mind that, while they may be the best that Indianapolis has ever seen, they aren’t the first professional football players to grace our local fields. The Capitols once stomped our sidelines and carried Indianapolis’ NFL dreams on their backs.